I was on a panel at a recent virtual meetup of media entrepreneurs giving my thoughts on the likely trends in media as we go into 2021. Following are my bullet point notes…

  • Move towards “365 solutions” i.e. year-round / ‘always on’ digital offerings (not just events, training etc.).
  • More consultative solutions - more customised, bespoke content, bespoke introductions & matchmaking.
  • Focus on digital propositions and business models not reliant on ads, print, events. Especially membership / subscription models more like SaaS.
  • Community’ is back… one of the 3Cs of the 90s dotcom boom (Content, Commerce being the other two) is hot again. Not just a desire to reconnect after a year of distancing but also a stronger way to engage and retain readers, members, subscribers, learners.
  • Rise of Audio – radio listening has soared recently. Podcasts popular but how to monetise in any meaningful way? How to avoid dependence on the big podcast distribution platforms? How to cut through the noise of the million and one other podcasts? Text to speech interesting e.g. Project Songbird at BBC, Amazon Polly etc.
  • Growth in “Micro-media” models e.g. niche, paid, newsletters and communities powered by tech platforms like Substack/Revue, Patreon, Guild etc.
  • Move to “hybrid” learning and accreditation propositions i.e. blend of live digital and on-demand is best for learning; opportunity to sell accredited elearning.
  • New skills in demand – virtual events (tech, experience, networking, sponsorship selling etc.), community building, data, martech etc. Do you hire new talent and get rid of old? Or can you retrain existing talent?
  • The mindset now required – initiative, experimental, learn and adapt quickly… again, do you keep/repurpose existing talent or get fresh blood/thinking?
  • The “Trump bump” (and “Covid Kicker”?) surge in traffic and subscriptions now ebbed away / plateaued. Can you retain this traffic and these subscribers going into economic winter of 2021?
  • Community” is making a comeback – how can you develop a sense of belonging, a more emotional attachment, create meaningful connections etc to retain/grow members and subscribers?
  • Paywalls – lots of experimentation going on around optimising conversion rates, more nuances around how content is being gated – but generally there is a “tightening up” of paywall meters by most subscription businesses (e.g. to only 2 free articles/mth).
  • Pricing and packaging of subs/membership – also increasing sophistication and focus on how to price subscriptions, how to bundle and present benefits, use techniques from SaaS e.g. personalisation, customer success and onboarding.
  • Lot of interest from subs businesses in adding elearning / ecourses and accreditation to their offerings.
  • Ad revenue was hit hard in 2020 and mostly this isn’t coming back. Certainly not in print. Some growth in digital but most of that will go to the Big Tech platforms (esp. Google, Facebook, but also Amazon increasingly for ecommerce).
  • Editorial capability being used/repurposed to provide commercial / branded content offerings to advertisers/sponsors. This revenue stream is being pushed to try and replace lost ad revenue.
  • Move to subs/membership and community propositions was already happening but accelerated by pandemic.
  • Ecommerce as a revenue stream also more of a focus to help make up for lost ad revenue. Direct sales in some cases but mostly partner/affiliate revenue – stellar performance of Future Publishing, and its acquisition of GoCompare, showing what is possible.

How/when will in-person events return in 2021?

  • A few event organisers are planning H1 events in-person but most are going for H2.
  • Quite a few are sticking with digital-only for 2021 just to avoid uncertainty and make it easier to plan/budget now with more confidence and clarity.
  • Even after vaccination it is not clear if/when companies will allow their attendees to go to live events (a risk for them) – less of a problem for B2C events but worse for B2B events.
  • Companies have seen travel/accommodation savings + time savings from not having their employees attend events this year… have they got used to that and baked into 2021 budgets?
  • Increasing sensibilities around environmental impact caused by in-person events, travel etc. also a structural impact on in-person event attendance.

Conferences/summits with paid attendance have done ok over 2020 and will take some of these learnings and advantages into 2021 e.g.

  • Can market/sell internationally much more easily. Tap global niches. Adapt marketing, especially digital marketing, to go after these new audiences and attendees.
  • Easier access to top speakers around the world – they don’t need to travel, they can fit in more virtual events, you can get more diversity/perspectives etc. Cheaper/better speaker opportunities.
  • More scalable – virtual events are not limited in capacity. You might have to charge 50% less but can get 4X or more to attend.
  • Lower costs to stage virtual events means profit margins can be higher than in-person.

To combat ‘Zoom fatigue’ and continue to engage virtual attendees, virtual events will become more like TV

  • High-end experiences / production values – e.g. custom studios, multi-camera and vision-mixing.
  • More entertaining/engaging – more like live TV chat shows.
  • Virtual event hosts/MCs an emerging skill/talent – the rise of the ‘ZJ’ or Zoom Jockey.

Networking has been the hardest thing to do well virtually compared to in-person:

  • Anything where face to face networking is a key part of the proposition (some industries e.g. pensions, property etc OR formats like away days OR trade shows/exhibitions) has struggled delivering this virtually.
  • Sponsors generally not satisfied with the ‘networking’ delivered by virtual events over 2020 – works best with round tables/small groups discussing topics etc and least well with “virtual booths”.

Focus on looking into other ways to monetise event content:

  • Creating year-round “hubs” of content including all event content.
  • Monetising event content via pay access to archives.
  • Turning event content into “ecourses” and other forms of elearning to monetise via subscription access.

Rethinking how to keep sponsors happy with virtual events

  • Sponsors report seeing big drops in attendance/engagement in Q4 in particular so wary of committing for 2021 but do have budget and have targets to hit – so need to find a better way to deliver value.
  • Networking via tech not worked very well, especially for virtual booths – so in increase in more manually facilitated introductions and conversations/relationships sparked around content rather than booths.
  • Better data/analytics - tech platforms provide various levels of data/insights/analytics that can add value to sponsors but could be much better. Some doubt around the quality of event organisers' claims for 'attendance' at a virtual event - need for standardisation of metrics to provide greater clarity, transparency and confidence.
  • Value can be delivered year-round, rather than just at event, with digital content and community.

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