FEATURE 

Building recurring revenue from an event business

Organisers are increasingly focused on making money in between their events by offering a range of paid-for services. Carolyn Morgan examines some case studies of successful ventures and offers ten tips to organisers looking to do something similar.

By Carolyn Morgan

Building recurring revenue from an event business
“Virtual events can expand audience reach up to five or ten-fold compared to annual in-person events.” Photograph: fizkes / iStock.

Event organisers had their world turned upside down by the pandemic, pivoting rapidly from in-person to virtual events. This meant moving to more frequent, virtual events and building an all-year round relationship with delegates. And virtual events have a useful by-product – generating video content for clips, as well as a refreshed attendee database. No surprise then, that many event businesses are exploring recurring revenue models including subscription and membership. In this article, I review case studies and summarise practical principles for event organisers considering this path.

Mind The Product

Mind The Product began as a series of meetups of product managers, self-organised by local reps in cities around the world. The community was free to join, and content created by members was shared online. All the revenue came from conferences and training workshops - paid ticketed events promoted to the community of 350,000 product managers, with a further 20% of revenue from sponsors.

In March 2020, in-person events were suspended by the pandemic, and the team had to act quickly to save the business. They developed a membership proposition in six weeks, consulting their users and their tech team. This included exclusive content: deep dives, case studies, interviews, self-paced training, virtual panels and events and a members-only newsletter.

Several thousand signed up for the ‘Prioritised’ membership ($25/month) and they developed a premium ‘Leaders’ option with extra, dedicated content and events at $99/month and a ‘Team’ package. Local meetups stayed free. In-person conferences have recently returned, and members get discounts on tickets.

In 2021, Mind The Product was bought by Pendo. They see the value in its global community of product managers, future buyers of their software products.

Cannes Lions

Cannes Lions (part of Ascential plc) is a long-established festival of creativity bringing together agency creatives from around the world. At its core are awards for creative advertising in 28 categories. Winning an award builds careers and agency reputations. Brands use award history in selecting agencies. Core revenue streams for Cannes Lions include awards entries and delegate fees.

For over a decade, Cannes Lions have been exploring opportunities to develop digital subscriptions. ‘The Work’ includes access to 200,000 pieces of work from 2001 and 1600 on-stage Festival talks, plus editorial commentary, and trends. Subscribers include brands using the database to identify agencies, and to understand what advertising is effective in each sector. From subscriber relationships, the team have developed an advisory business.

The shift to virtual events during the pandemic allowed agency creatives in developing regions of the world, or early in their career, who would not have had access to travel budgets, to participate in the Festival. While the return to in-person events is welcomed in the industry, Lions has also developed a digital membership package combining virtual events, community, and education programmes, with a discounted rate for under 30s.

Although subscriptions and membership are still a relatively small part of the overall business, and the Cannes Lions Festival itself is core, Lions’ Phil Thomas believes that the broader package of products strengthens the influence of the business across the world and will draw in future rising agency stars.

TXF

TXF provides intelligence and events for the export, commodity and trade finance sectors. When Covid halted in-person events, they decided to develop a virtual event platform in house. It automatically stored and tagged event session videos for later on-demand viewing in the platform, unlike most third-party platforms. They also built in an attendee directory and direct messaging both during live events and all year round.

They offered a membership package, initially to organisations who sponsored their events, providing their entire team with 365-day access to the member directory, live events and the on-demand content. Buy-side delegates are usually offered complimentary passes to relevant events, plus a short-term membership. With separate communities for each niche, both member contacts and content are highly targeted and relevant.

In 2022, most events are in-person, with content streamed live into the platform. Members joining virtually can network online with delegates at a one-off live event, and then continue to follow up in between events. TXF have developed a set of on-demand training modules targeted at buy-side members to prompt engagement; these are available in the same platform as event content. Members also receive a discount on tickets to live events.

Retention rates for corporate members are high, and TXF are now beginning to merge membership benefits with their existing premium intelligence and data product which is bought by both sell-side and buy-side organisations. There is a single login, so it is easy for staff to access data, event content and networking.

Social Media Week

Social Media Week switched its in-person conferences to virtual in 2020, and then launched SMW+ as a streaming platform offering live and on-demand programming for marketers sourced from their virtual events. Founder Toby Daniels described it as “Netflix for marketers” and even renamed events as “seasons” and sessions as “episodes”. Membership was priced monthly as well as annually. In January 2021, Adweek acquired Social Media Week.

Procurement Leaders

Launched in 2004 as a magazine and event for senior procurement professionals – focusing on the top 5% in the sector. Having built credibility and trust with the community, they launched a benchmarking business and a research offer. High end clients wanted more than the benchmarking solution and so Procurement Leaders provided bespoke services at a higher price point. By the time of their sale in summer 2019 to World 50 for an estimated £30m+ price tag, they had 33,000 members and revenues of over £12m. Membership contributed 60% of revenues, events 39%.

Here is some practical advice on moving from events to recurring revenue:

  1. Have a separate team: Phil Thomas at Cannes Lions had been investigating membership ideas for several years, but each year, as the live event approached, his team were distracted from long term plans. Large events suck in time, resource, and attention. Teams start with good intentions but as the next event approaches, NPD gets shelved. If you are serious about developing digital subscriptions, set up a separate team.
  2. Know your audience: Analyse your audience – people who only attend an in-person event once every decade to find new suppliers will not be prospects for membership. But people who stay in an industry for many years and are keen to network and learn about trends are more likely to take up a long-term offer. Membership implies cross-connections with peers, so if that is important in your sector, it will be easier to establish recurring revenue.
  3. Find your unique IP: For Cannes Lions, the awards history is their unique intellectual property (IP). Creativity has been proven to drive sales, and award winners can build careers and gain new clients. The archive of winners by year, category and agency was their treasure trove. Work out what is the core value generated by your flagship event.
  4. Mind The Product had a different asset – the international network of 350k product managers all with local meetups. This provided an insight into the hot topics and priorities of the audience, helping them develop online learning packages and exclusive deep dive content.

  5. Build reach with virtual events and digital membership: Virtual events can expand audience reach up to five or ten-fold compared to annual in-person events. Early career executives can participate virtually when flying to international conferences was beyond their budget. Digital membership allows emerging businesses to access content at a more manageable cost and creates a pathway to higher value packages. Lions offer a discounted package for early career creatives. Mind The Product has an entry level package priced at $25/month and a ‘Leaders’ package at $99/month.
  6. Involve your audience in creating a membership package: Mind The Product followed their own product development advice and created their membership proposition with their community. It is fine to adjust the package as you go along. TXF discovered that sell-side customers were more interested in a member directory and networking, while buy-side customers were attracted by online training modules.
  7. Invest in driving member engagement: Members need regular prompts and reminders to return to an all-year-round platform. Monitor analytics carefully and consider a customer success team to show new members how to get more value from the platform.
  8. Data drives higher priced packages: Access to on-demand event sessions is a good starting point, but price points may be limited to a few hundred pounds or dollars. If you can aggregate valuable data and trends and deliver it digitally with intuitive search and useful visualisation, then subscriptions can move into thousands.
  9. Cannes Lions learned from sister businesses WARC and WGSN and packaged its archive of award-winning creative work into a higher ticket subscription. Benchmarking proved to be the killer application for Procurement Leaders. TXF already had a premium data and intelligence product and are now integrating features from their membership platform into their intelligence subscriptions.

  10. Subscription buyers may be different to delegates: Buyers of subscription services are likely to be in different job roles to those who attend events. They may be more focused on analysing trends, while delegates are seeking creative stimulus and networking. But they may be working for the same organisation, so there is opportunity for cross marketing.
  11. Subscriptions lead to other value: Insights from subscription products can generate excellent content at events. For Cannes Lions, this has led to an advisory business, which is unlikely to have developed directly from the event.
  12. Moving to recurring revenue takes time and effort: Not all events-led businesses can make an easy transition from one-off pay as you go events to a subscription or membership business model. You must know your audience, bring in a dedicated team and invest the time to develop a product that meets a genuine business need. But the prize of high renewal rates clearly justifies the effort.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.