Tracking best practices in the business of digital news

Note: “Brass Tacks” is an occasional series focusing on pragmatic advice for selected best practices in the business of digital news.

By Jake Batsell

The 2013 Texas Tribune Festival was the buzz of Austin last weekend, drawing overflow crowds of political movers and shakers to a three-day program of interviews and panels. And from a corporate sponsor’s perspective, that’s an influential audience.

“It’s a very specific kind of audience, definite intellectuals,” said Hilarie Houghton, executive communications consultant for BlueCross BlueShield of Texas, one of more than four dozen sponsors at this year’s festival. “That’s a whole different audience than if you’re marketing to people running a 5K, or at a museum.”

News organizations are uniquely positioned to convene events that connect sponsors with an educated and engaged audience. But translating those events into revenue requires a disciplined business approach.

Last week, NewsBiz outlined some of the key logistical steps in putting on your first news event (and our friends at Nieman Journalism Lab weighed in with an excellent overview of the Tribune’s event strategy). This time around, on the heels of the Tribune Festival, here’s a closer look at some of the fundamental questions a news organization should explore when seeking event sponsorships:

  • What do the numbers look like? April Hinkle, the Tribune’s chief revenue officer, recommends first sketching out a tentative P&L (profit and loss) report that factors in the event’s costs, likely attendance and potential revenue. If, like the Tribune, you promote the event in advance and publish video or audio afterward, be sure to factor that into the calculations.
  • What sponsorship rates can you command? Hinkle said the Tribune’s event sponsorships can range from $3,000 for a single event to nearly $200,000 for a series of events that include custom topics. And events often are bundled with other sponsorship buys, such as on-site display and e-mail distribution. “Everybody’s a little bit different,” Hinkle said. “It’s not really cookie-cutter.”
  • Who are some potential event sponsors? Existing sponsors, advertisers or donors are a logical place to start, because your organizations already have a relationship. And think early, because corporate budgets tend to be planned months in advance. “For us, we need a lot of lead time,” Houghton said. “I would say six months in advance is not too much time to allow the process to go smoothly, and for them to be as detailed about it as they can to make it successful.”
  • What’s in it for the sponsor? Some of the Tribune’s standard event perks include a corporate logo on advance promotions and invitations, signs at the venue, recognition from the stage and a pre-roll presence on the video. But customizing the sponsor’s presence can enhance the event’s appeal. “People invest in what they need, and not what we want them to buy,” Hinkle said.  “Where the fun begins is in the custom elements.” At the Tribune Festival, for example, attendees encountered Texas Natural Gas Now sidewalk stickers, a Lockheed Martin flight simulator, walking maps from BlueCross BlueShield of Texas and even a festival-capping appearance by the University of Texas at Austin’s marching band and cheerleaders.
  • What’s in it for the audience? Any successful event needs compelling speakers and panels, of course. But networking might be an even bigger draw. At last year’s Tribune Festival, Romeo Arrieta, the government affairs director for a Dallas real-estate association, told me he drove 200 miles to attend because “this event, in general, has people that work policy in every respect – they promote it, they pass it, they write it.” And for sponsors, Hinkle said, having the opportunity to invite clients and VIPs is an added plus. “You just have to make it so they have to be there — this is a can’t-miss, it’s a must-attend on their calendar,” she said.

Jake Batsell (@jbatsell), an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University, is spending the 2013-14 academic year as a Texas Tribune Fellow based in Austin.

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