Note: This is the first installment of “Brass Tacks,” an occasional series focusing on pragmatic advice for selected best practices in the business of digital news.
By Jake Batsell
From Dallas to Chattanooga to Washington, D.C., news outlets are hosting live events to connect with their audiences and generate revenue. Perhaps your news organization is looking to get into the events game. Where do you start?
The Texas Tribune has drawn national attention for its increasingly lucrative lineup of events, and the crown jewel — the Texas Tribune Festival — happens this weekend at the University of Texas at Austin. I asked the Tribune’s top two event gurus, festival director Tanya Erlach and events director Agnes Varnum, to share a few fundamental steps in putting on that first news event.
- Pick a buzzworthy speaker or topic. “Think about who your audience is,” Varnum said. “What’s the subject that’s going to get them out of the house?” Scour your organization for personal connections to big names, or assemble a hot-button panel with opposing viewpoints that likely will create sparks (one example: this summer, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s NSA disclosures, The Atlantic hosted an event called “All Eyes on Privacy: Transparency in the New Economy”). It’s also critical to have a capable moderator who can keep things moving — and no, not every news outlet has an editor-in-chief with his own TV show, but newsrooms are full of reporters and editors who have a knack for asking questions.
- Find the right venue. Before you book a pricey hotel ballroom, explore a partnership with a local university, museum or nonprofit organization that might be willing to co-host the event. “The choice of venue matters on a cost front, but it can contribute to the programming as well,” Varnum said, adding that such organizations often have staff event specialists who can help with logistics and promotion.
- Seek out corporate sponsors. You don’t have to sell tickets to make money from events (all Tribune events are free, other than the festival). Pitch the event to corporate sponsors as a way to get their name in front of an influential audience. Keep in mind, however, that sponsors may be more interested in sponsoring a series than a single event. “It’s much harder to go to someone and say, ‘This is a one-off,’” Erlach said. “Their brand lives on if it’s over and over again.” NewsBiz will take a closer, more tactical look at event sponsorship strategies in a future post.
- Treat the event as news. Make sure sponsors understand that the event will not be a marketing exercise. And make sure speakers and panelists understand everything is on the record. With those ground rules, the fishbowl factor becomes part of the event’s draw. “It’s like a live interview — you’re experiencing the news and journalism, just in a different format,” Erlach said. Recording the event provides ready-made multimedia news content, and potential sponsors may be more interested if they know that the event also will be published online.
- Think ahead. Take care to ensure a glitch-free experience for all who attend, from the initial sign-up to parking directions to checking in on site. “The fact that everybody shows up happy makes a big difference,” Varnum said. Also, make every effort to gather attendees’ contact information, whether through RSVPs or a simple box at the check-in table to drop off business cards. “If you can get an email address from somebody that’s already showed up, that’s your repeat customer,” Erlach said.