An events strategy needs to start by asking “For whom?”

Gathering as much information as a local news publisher can about its events’ potential audiences helps to create the best format, timing and location for individual events. Deep knowledge of an audience is also essential for wooing sponsors, advertisers and partners.

A couple different sources can help start this process. In addition to insights to be gleaned from census data and available market research about a news publishers’ area, publications likely have access to online metrics and readership data.

A Texas Tribune Festival room 2013 ()

A Texas Tribune Festival room 2013 (Travis Swicegood, Creative Commons)

First identify the overall audience pool

Five months into the launch of the new nonprofit news site, The Texas Tribune, staff got the results of an audience identification study. In the words of April Hinkle, whom was hired as director of business development not long after, the audience was “pretty dang amazing.”

The Texas Tribune’s audience identification data from 2012 showed that Tribune readers were highly-educated (91% college graduates with 53% advance degree plus), involved in the political process (98% registered to vote and 96% voted in the last election), often homeowners (77% own their home) with 52% having a household income over $100,000 and 21% earning over $200,000. Many in the audience study also “attend events” – 59% stated they attend speaking engagements or lectures.

Stats like these speak volumes to potential advertisers or sponsors. But that last bit (bolded) is a kicker for event-specific asks. If publishers can get data on whether their audience “attends events,” that adds value. It can inform a publisher’s sponsorship proposals and it can reinforce to the publisher that people will come to its events.

What the audience reads and spends time with can indicate what events may work.

Of greater importance for publishers is having the general readership data. Demographic dimensions such as age, sex, education, occupation, or home ownership give a framework for publishers to determine a basic events strategy and sponsor ideas.

When research for the small nonprofit news site Oakland Local showed strong connections with youth audiences and people of color, for example, the publisher used this information as a foundation for building an events participation strategy. Oakland Local and the Texas Tribune serve different audiences, and so different events will work for them.

Unlike other organizations, news organizations have the benefit of using digital readership metrics to guide their initial conversations about event subjects and formats. What the audience reads and spends time with can indicate what events may work, e.g., significant readership of outdoors content could point to hiking, camping and other events.

That said, publishers should gather more than quantitative data. Not all of the Texas Tribune’s audience understanding comes from tech and surveys, for instance. Its plans for 2014, for instance, involve focus groups of Tribune readers and non-readers. The qualitative information will be valuable for their organization, including its strategy for events.

Publishers should assess their own situations and resources, cautiously avoiding assumptions about the audience. Quantitative and qualitative information together create the foundation for imagining what kinds of events will succeed.

Finally, publishers should have specific audiences in mind for an events strategy. The audience should never be “everyone.”

Match events to high-performing audiences

While the 10,000-foot view of a publisher’s audience should inform general events strategy, publishers have found they also can use events to target niche audiences.

For example, The Texas Tribune’s editorial focus is public policy, politics and government. It is not a cultural or general interest publication. As a result, unlike some of the other publishers in this study, Texas Tribune events are heavy on news, newsmaking and commentary.

The events go deep on topics like Texan population change or education reform. The Tribune’s events crew holds some events in the morning, before the “9-to-5” hours, which works well for attendees who like discuss these topics and network, according to Hinkle.

But what works for the Texas Tribune may not work for everyone.

The Bakersfield Californian is a daily newspaper serving the mid-size city of Bakersfield and the greater Kern County area, a couple hours north of Los Angeles and several hours southeast of San Francisco.

“Just because an event was a huge hit in San Francisco does not guarantee that it will be successful in Bakersfield,” said John Wells, senior vice president for revenue at marketing at The Bakersfield Californian, which has produced events for several years.

Just because an event was a huge hit in San Francisco does not guarantee that it will be successful in Bakersfield.

One popular event for the Californian has been its Taste of Home Cooking School. About five years ago, staff thought they would change the event and “parlay off of the demand for cooking shows.” They recruited Martin Yan, a popular Chinese-born Hong Kong-American chef and food writer from the San Francisco Bay area. Yan has a popular PBS cooking show, “Yan Can Cook,” which covers Asian cuisine, healthy eating and other topics. The Californian held its event with Yan on a late Saturday afternoon.

“It was a dismal flop,” said Wells. Numbers were significantly lower than projected, and for a variety of reasons – the chief of which was the target audience.

Yan’s style of food didn’t match the preferences of most Bakersfield residents, who enjoy biscuits and gravy, BBQ and Hispanic dishes. The Bakersfield market “is what it is,” said Wells – it is not San Francisco.

The cooking school also suffered from the Saturday afternoon schedule.

“We’ve always held our cooking school on Tuesday evenings,” said Wells. The timing worked well for many families and the working class in Bakersfield. But the Saturday event had to compete with soccer games, charity events, yard work and more. “Way too much else was going on.”

Later the Californian staff also realized that the ratings for PBS in their market were low, Wells said, and “even though we did a lot of promotion, many folks did not know who [Yan] was.”

In too many ways, the target audience didn’t align.

“Before you get to the P&L’s, the staffing, the venues, and so on, make sure that the event you’re going to put on will match [the audience],” Wells said.

The disappointing Yan event was just a temporary setback. The paper is doubling its events in 2014 from two to four, and in 2015 it will increase to six, Wells said. That’s another important takeaway: Events that don’t work are part of the learning process and should be seen as lessons not just failures.

Use events to better connect with fringe or underperforming audiences

While aiming events at high-performing audiences may make immediate sense, events can also be used for outreach.

Modeled after The New Yorker Festival and organized by the same staff member responsible for its success, the Texas Tribune’s main event of the year is a massive three-day Texas Tribune Festival with over 150 speakers and a few thousand attendees. This event brings in half of all the organization’s event revenue. The size of the festival attracts many sponsors, but people also pay to attend (unlike other Tribune events). To get as many people as possible to attend, the Tribune uses its other (free) events to promote ticket sales for the festival.

Many of the attendees and businesses involved in this event come from Austin, the headquarters of Texas Tribune and site of the festival. But some come from the rest of the state.

Texas spans 268,820 square miles and a growing population of over 26.4 million residents. The Texas Tribune staff wants the publication’s in-person reach to grow — especially for the festival — so the team devised a plan.

Publishers should avoid viewing each event as a ‘one-off.’

The Tribune launched a series of “On the Road” events. These are one-day, single-topic symposiums that take place in multiple locations across the state. The locations are chosen strategically to draw interest and momentum for the fall festival. “We try to do [On the Road events] outside of Austin so that more people can experience that type of event and want to come to Austin in the fall for the ‘big’ event,” said Hinkle.

People do drive in for the festival. In 2013, the Tribune sold out its hotel block for the festival and added more rooms and other hotels.

Publishers should avoid viewing each event as a “one-off.” In the internal New York Times Innovation report, the authors note that some of the most successful strategies in this space involve going to multiple locations with the same or similar line-up. Billing events to build toward one large annual event can also be effective. It advances a discussion over time and helps build interest.

Other goals for Tribune’s events across the state include simply creating good experiences for the audiences. On the Road events in this way can expose new audiences to the Texas Tribune and what it does. The Walrus, a magazine in Canada, does similarly with its Walrus Talks events.

Some event attendees may have little other engagement with the publication. In-person interaction may boost the likelihood of further involvement.

Events can even lead directly to new subscriptions. The Chattanooga Times Free Press looks to hold some events in areas where it wants to boost readership. At every event the paper has a booth selling subscriptions. “You wouldn’t believe how many subscriptions we sell in-person,” Jason Taylor, the former president, said. “Always have a table.”

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