The Rundown: With display ads floundering, publishers embrace events

The scramble is on to diversify revenue away from advertising, in particular display advertising. This has already led to a mad scramble to build up content studios, pivot to subscriptions and put up affiliate links in the guise of commerce. The latest scramble: events.

Some publishers call it experiential, but more big-name consumer publishers are seeing events as a critical piece of how they can use their brands and audiences to develop a high-margin revenue stream. At a Moguls gathering we held in Key Biscayne, Florida, last month, many publishing executives quizzed Complex CEO Rich Antoniello on the success of ComplexCon. The yearly event, being held in Long Beach, California, drives millions of dollars in sales as companies vie to drop the latest cool sneaker and more. Such massive events also amplify publishing brands by showing the connection they have with their audience.

It’s no surprise then that Hypebeast held the Hypefest this past weekend in New York City, drawing thousands of Supreme-obsessed. Refinery29 has its 29rooms, PopSugar has PopSugar Playground and Glamour has the Glamour Beauty Festival, New York Media has the Cut Festival. But beyond lifestyle, events are catching on. Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith was a guest this week on the Digiday Podcast and identified Bloomberg’s upcoming New Economy Forum, held in Singapore in early November. The idea: build a Davos competitor that isn’t focused as much on the Old World of America and Europe, but more on the emerging powers in China, Southeast Asia and Africa.

The knock on events has long been that they don’t scale. (We have heard this a lot at Digiday.) That’s, of course, true to an extent. But events are also high-margin businesses that, done right, make money in many ways. People pay to come, sponsors pay — and there’s even an opportunity to make money after the event. Girl Boss, for instance, held its “rally” event in Queens last month, attracting 2,000 attendees. The upshot: The company is using its events to sell digital subscriptions for access to a trove of rally videos and a network of attendees.

The question, of course, is how many events are too many. There can only be so many festivals. And markets tend to get saturated quickly, then winnow out. Events are also often a different muscle for a media company whose core competency is not in that area. Trust me when I say that events have 1,000 little things that need to go right. That means outsourcing key parts — Complex has a deal with Reed, which has deep experience in sprawling events — but the risk comes in not controlling a key part of the product. As the market has seen with content studios, which are coming under margin pressure thanks to the proliferation of them, the same will inevitably happen with events.

But for publishers, the display ad market isn’t coming back. The time for complaining about the duopoly is over, and now it’s about pockets of opportunity that still exist — and executing on them.

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