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By Thomas Baekdal - August 2020

2021 and forward: What is the future of events for publishers?

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome to the second part of 2020. For some, this sentence fills people with dread, for others, it's a reminder to get to work and to focus the rest of this year on building the future.

For me, I am in the camp of the latter. I see the crisis as a wake-up call and the start of something new, which means I see this time as the best time to build.

So this is my focus in this newsletter and in the months to come.

What is the future of events for publishers?

Let's start by talking about events. Obviously, 2020 has been a total mess because of the virus, but we have also learned so much.

Essentially, over the past three months, we have seen so much innovation and new thinking that it's like we have jumped five years into the future.

But, at the same time, most digital events we have seen have been a mirror image of their physical events, just without all the networking and social contact. This was great right now, but in the future we need much more.

This is the topic in my latest plus article. So take a look at: 2021 and forward: What is the future of events for publishers?

Virtual = entertainment and story; Physical = conference

Speaking of events, I came across this tweet from Nate Nichols:

What people don't realize about #virtualevents is they're an experience that must be entertaining and story-filled. We're producing a "show," not just a virtual conference.

I love this because it perfectly captures one of the main differences between a physical event and a virtual one. With physical events, the journey and social interactions that take place create the event and so you can focus on the conference.

But with a digital event, we have no journey, no travel, and no social gatherings. And so, when we are doing virtual events, we need to massively increase the experience people get just from the event.

Now to something slightly different.

We need to be where people are not

Let me say something slightly controversial. I believe that one of the key elements of success for publishers in the future is to be where people are not.

This sounds utterly insane since, for years, we have been saying the exact opposite. What you have heard people say was that it's vital for publishers to be where people are. For instance, if people are spending their time on Facebook, Snapchat or TikTok, then we need to be there too.

This is still true in terms of marketing. If you are a brand that sells mountain bikes, it's absolutely vital that you place your ads where people spend most of their time. You need to be where they are to get them to see what it is that you want to sell.

But this model doesn't work for publishing. Instead, the new forms of media successes all have one thing in common. They are all based on being where people are not, meaning that they are based on creating a media 'product' that is so good that people choose to come directly to you instead.

Take the New York Times as an example. Recently, they announced that they were pulling out of Apple News. Or look at many of their other focus areas. Like NYT Cooking. They are not trying to put their recipes on someone else's site. They are trying to create a service that people will choose to use as a stand-alone thing.

We also see this in many other areas. Here in Denmark, we have Zetland, (which I wrote much more about here), which again is based on creating a specific news moment instead of just being random news you come across by accident.

When we look outside of the news media landscape, we see the same with magazines. While many magazines are just optimizing for random traffic, all the new success stories are based on creating more specific services.

A fitness site that just posts random articles optimized for Facebook is pretty much useless compared to a fitness site that helps you train.

Look at events. They are not 'optimized for Facebook'. They are optimized to get people to come to you (physically or virtually).

But we also see this with all the tech companies. Netflix and Disney+ are both super-focused on creating services that you choose to have with them. And they are very focused on not making their primary features available anywhere else. You can only watch Hamilton on Disney+.

Or take a look at Spotify as the ultimate for how we are doing things wrong. While every podcast creator is currently putting their podcasts on Spotify for free, Spotify itself is buying up podcasts that are then only available with them.

Spotify is deliberately removing their premium podcasts from all the other platforms because they know how important it is to get people to come to them instead.

This is what I mean when I say that the future strategy is "to be where people are not". It doesn't matter how many people there are on Facebook or TikTok, our monetization model comes from within. It comes from building something that people want to dedicate time for.

Mind you, this doesn't mean publishers shouldn't be on Facebook or TikTok (or any other platform), you would still do that for the sake of marketing. But this is a very different thing from your editorial strategy.

I want you to build a media product that is so good that people choose to take time out of their day to use it. Not because they are bored, and not because they are distracted and just scrolling through their news feed. I want you to create something that people use when they are focused and interested in you.

That's the winning strategy for the future.

Let's build!

Back on January 1st, 2020, I wrote a tweet that several people have since retweeted back to me, telling me 'how wrong I was'.

I was commenting on how we in the media often portray the future as something extremely negative and depressing, and I was talking about how the future was looking bright.

And so I wrote:

And when you think about it like this, you realize that 2020 is not going to be worse, and it will not be more depressing.
Both you, journalists, and editors have a choice of how you use your attention. So focus it on what is actually happening in the world.

You can probably tell why people today are having a bit of a laugh at my expense over this. We got a pandemic, which has a massive impact on the world. On top of that, because countries have handled the pandemic in very different ways, it has caused much more damage than it should ... and now we are starting to see the beginnings of a second wave, and several countries are re-introducing lockdown.

How depressing is that?

But, I still believe 2020 is going to be a good year, and let me explain why.

I want you to think back to December 1st, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, USA. On that day, something very dramatic happened, which explains better than me:

On December 1, 1955, a 42-year-old woman named Rosa Parks found a seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus after work. Segregation laws at the time stated Black passengers must sit in designated seats at the back of the bus, and Parks had complied.
When a white man got on the bus and couldn't find a seat in the white section at the front of the bus, the bus driver instructed Parks and three other Black passengers to give up their seats. Parks refused and was arrested.
As word of her arrest ignited outrage and support, Parks unwittingly became the "mother of the modern day civil rights movement." Black community leaders formed the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) led by Baptist minister Martin Luther King, Jr., a role which would place him front and center in the fight for civil rights.
Parks' courage incited the MIA to stage a boycott of the Montgomery bus system. The Montgomery Bus Boycott lasted 381 days. On November 14, 1956 the Supreme Court ruled segregated seating was unconstitutional.

Wow... so, let me ask you a question. Was 1955 a bad year? Was 1955 a depressing year?

No. It was an amazing year. It was the year that started a movement to change things.

I look at 2020 in the same way. 2020 is the year that has started a lot of new and very important changes in our society.

It looks bad right now, and having a pandemic is awful, but that was going to happen anyway. But now we are learning, we are changing, we are moving into a new future .

And so, over the past months, I have commented on this quite frequently. For instance, a couple of weeks ago, Mitch Weiss,

Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative journalist at the Associated Press tweeted:

If you were writing a book about 2020, what would your first sentence be?

I replied:

It was the year that made us build a better world.

A couple of weeks later, Julia Ioffe from GQ Magazine tweeted:

What if 2021 is even worse?

I replied:

What if we make it better?

This is the message I'm trying to tell. 2020 might seem bad right now, but it's really just the year of change.

But this leads me to the problem within the media industry. We have seen many patterns play out over the past several months.

First, we saw many really good things. We have seen how the public's appetite for quality and trustworthy publishing has increased and many publishers have had a huge growth in subscriptions.

We have also seen that the consumption of media has gone up, and that it has been directed towards more specific sources rather than just people randomly clicking on links.

These two things combined tell us a very interesting story. They tell us that the market for publishers is really good. People want more from us, and they want it better.

Think about that. If you were a brand, this would be the perfect market conditions for growth.

But we have also seen some bad things. We have an increasing problem around news fatigue, which actually relates to what I just said above. The problem with news fatigue isn't that people don't want quality news. Instead they are telling us that what we do isn't good enough. We are producing too much noise. This, again, is an opportunity to change things.

And then, of course, we have many examples of publishers who have failed. Almost all of them because of pre-existing trends that started a decade ago, or because COVID-19 happened so quickly that it removed their available cash-reserves.

This is really sad, and it has created problems around the world with what we call 'news deserts' (local communities with no news publisher). That's a problem, but this is what change does. Change forces old models to fall apart so that new models can take their place.

Look at, for instance, how many journalists are now starting their own newsletters. Look at how local communities are starting their own news support groups. These are not always good (in fact, some are really bad), but they indicate that the market is still there.

People's appetite for news has not gone away. We just need to find a way to do it better, monetize it differently, build new things, recreate communities, and focus on creating a level of value, usefulness and service that sets us apart from the noise of the old.

So 2020 is a difficult year, and for those who have been (needlessly) infected by the virus, it's a terrible year. But from a media perspective, it's a year of change.

So make it better.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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