Above right: Razlan Manjaji, Events Director, Audience Growth at South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd, speaks during the Asian Media Leaders eSummit.
By Lee Kah Whye
Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) has ramped up its event offerings as a result of going virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said Razlan Manjaji, Events Director, Audience Growth at SCMP.
This year the SCMP team has scheduled more than 45 virtual events, up from 12 live, in-person events a year in the past.
The preparation cycle for virtual events is half that for in-person events, he said, but their team faced a steep learning curve to gain the technical knowledge to run virtual events effectively.
SCMP has three main event offerings. Impact events bring its journalism to live audiences, with the most recognisable being the China Conferences initially hosted in Hong Kong and expanded to Southeast Asia and the United States. The largest of two impact events this year was a two-day virtual offering with more than 2,500 registrants.
The second category, marketplace events, bring together buyers and sellers with the most popular being a series on education. The international school festival typically attracts about 100 international schools and 3,000 parents seeking to enroll their children. This year, SCMP will run a virtual Singapore property festival in August.
Special project events are more experimental in topics, format and audience, and began to take hold during COVID-19. These include The SCMP Conversation, a series of webinars to discuss important matters pertaining to Hong Kong society, and sponsored webinars on topics such as COVID-19 and the economy, and Hong Kong’s national security law.
Virtual events are gaining traction and people are becoming more willing to pay, Manjaji said. Although the price point compared with live events is slightly different, virtual events have higher profit margins, he added.
SCMP’s future plan is to do fewer in-person events – Manjaji noted that some speakers are likely to avoid travel to conferences – but position them as a premium offering for sponsors and attendees.
Virtual events will become a regular staple product, he said. On the horizon are hybrid events, which combine the best of live and virtual events and offer maximum impact, reach and results for sponsors, speakers and attendees.
Caixin Media embraces virtual events
Caixin Media, China’s leading independent and professional news provider, has worked on branded events for two decades and believes COVID-19 will fundamentally impact the future of the business.
In a crisis like this, nothing is more important than trust in information, independent investigation and neutrality, said Caixin Media President Lihui Zhang.
Caixin hosts about 15 events a year, mostly related to finance and economics. Two-thirds are sponsored and the rest slated for marketing.
Caixin Media has made three key changes for the post-COVID world.
One, COVID offered opportunities to scale. Caixin doubled the number of online events in the first half of 2020 to 33 from 15, she said.
Two, coronavirus travel restrictions have allowed Caixin to invite more high-profile guests to virtual events.
Three, exposure for event sponsors has surged because virtual means more public engagement and higher impact both domestically and internationally.
Caixin’s summer summit – which has drawn 2,000 participants in previous years – was watched by five million people via live stream this year.
Virtual events are perceived to have low added value and a lack of networking and interaction, but Zhang said this can be offset by a focus on production value.
“An offline event is all about what happened that day, on that spot, among those people. In virtual, we can stretch that period into several days or even weeks. The game changer is good design to increase interaction,” – Lihui Zhang, Caixin Media
Virtual events done well can offer lower costs and high profit margins, increasing the value for clients and publishers. Caixin’s profit margin for events rose by 32 percent, Zhang said.
Looking ahead, she she said there are three trends to watch.
Firstly, given global travel restrictions and the vastly different virus containment strategies between countries, future large-scale events will likely be a hybrid combination of online and offline activities. As technology catches up, the online experience for participants will improve, she said.
Secondly, the emphasis on closed-door events will increase to replicate the networking effect.
Thirdly, speakers and audiences trust you because of what your brand stands for. It’s important to remember the media’s mission is to provide information for the public good, Zhang said.
Wall Street Journal hosts 100 events
The Wall Street Journal is on track to hold about 100 WSJ events this year, roughly the same number as before COVID-19, as the company shifted its offerings to virtual platforms, said Angus Peckham-Cooper, Vice President of International Events at Dow Jones.
WSJ events are organised in three categories.
⦁ C-Suite is a top-tier product that includes editors’ dinners, annual meetings and other events. Industry forums dive into a particular sector or conversation. Flagship events include bigger broadcast level events, while WSJ Tech Live is based on the U.S. West Coast.
⦁ Future of Everything Festival is their largest consumer facing event, with 3,000 people attending the festival last May in New York.
⦁ Journal House is their newest and latest concept, a destination where you can attend events with senior Journal editors, connect with peers, host client meetings.
Asked about the impact of COVID-19, Peckham-Cooper said the past four months had been a rollercoaster. Their first virtual event in March, a health forum in the United States, took place with a 10-day turnaround using Hopin, a new platform that their tech team needed to master quickly.
Since then, the team has taken inspiration on audience engagement and interactivity from gaming sites and social media.
After a lot of experimenting, the WSJ team streamlined their processes and delivered 40 events in the last quarter. They now look forward to hosting hybrid events.
Technology platforms are getting more robust and improvements come quickly as companies super-charge their development. The WSJ Live team has tested more than 70 platforms to find the right venue or platform for different events.
“It would be really interesting to understand what’s going to happen in the next 4 months, if we think about what has happened in the previous 4 months,” Peckham-Cooper said.
“It has been an amazing transformation of the industry. I’m kind of excited to see what they can develop moving forward,” he added.
Advantages of going virtual
During the Q&A session, Manjaji said virtual events enabled the SCMP to tap into sponsors who have not really experienced virtual offerings before. Initially, sponsors were reluctant to try the new format but eventually they did after the events proved their value.
“We realised there’s an education process and opportunity to convert these people who have not been believers of virtual events to believers in the virtues of virtual events,” – Razlan Manjaji, SCMP
Value proposition in virtual events for speakers and sponsors
Peckham-Cooper said the bigger virtual audiences meant the reach provided to sponsors via virtual events is larger. A recent WSJ event attracted a few thousand delegates from 88 countries, he said, adding it was easier to get A-star speakers due to fewer scheduling and travel barriers.
Manjaji said getting sponsors to bite on virtual events had been a very steep learning journey.
“Now we are at a stage where the sponsors are more open minded about the virtual format, but actually they do not have another choice,” he said. “They realise that events are still a good platform that offers brand association benefits, thought leadership opportunity as well as networking and lead generation opportunities.”
How to get people to pay for virtual events
Zhang said people attend Caixin conferences for the content, but also want networking opportunities in spite of the online format. While revenue from events has declined, Caixin has seen a spike in subscriptions to the publication.
Subscriptions, which usually generate 20 percent of annual revenue, are running at 54 percent in the first half of this year, she said.
SCMP’s Manjaji said whether people are willing to pay for an event depends on the content. For example, a paid webinar series related to Chinese government leaders in Beijing sold many tickets in Singapore and the United States because it’s not a widely understood topic outside of China.
SCMP is now organising a paid webinar series on Hong Kong’s national security law.
“It’s all an experiment. Are we going to earn big money from this? Probably not. But it’s a good revenue stream nonetheless and a good complement to our newsroom journalism and it’s bringing journalism to live where they can interact with people. Hopefully that will continue to grow as a revenue stream for us as paid virtual events,” he said.
How to replicate the in-person networking experience in an online format
Dow Jones has a task force looking at how to create networking opportunities in a virtual conference. Peckham-Cooper said people will have the desire to connect online because currently with travel restrictions, they cannot travel. Secondly, as an organizer, Dow Jones is looking at ways to curate meetings for delegates so there is a natural fit, taking in the experience of dating and gaming websites.
Manjaji said due to the maturity of platforms, connecting people in a virtual conference will be clumsy at best. SCMP is experimenting with a networking lounge using the Zoom chat function, and also attempting to connect people who have registered for their events.
Caixin has created networking opportunities for their sponsors, Lihui said, such as allowing people to meet in the rehearsal room in Zoom meetings. They are still experimenting with creating a networking effect in virtual events.
Hybrid events and the future
SCMP has not embarked on any hybrid events yet, but Manjaji sees two teams running the event. One manages the on-site logistics and another manages the technical aspects of live streaming and the online audience. The key to make this successful is to treat both sets of audiences in the same way, he said.
Peckham-Cooper was also excited about potential for hybrid offerings. He said it will allow delegates to experience WSJ’s live journalism wherever they are, whatever their device, and whether they want to view it live or on demand.
“There’s a real appetite to allow the end user to choose their preference and the hybrid world allows that. We have this internal phrase at the moment – which is ‘experienced by few shared by many’ – and that will be the notion moving forward, which is the hybrid world,” – Angus Peckham-Cooper, Dow Jones
About the author: Lee Kah Whye is Director at Project Mercury, a media business consultancy. Prior to this, he spent nearly 20 years at Reuters and was head of the news agency business for Asia.