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The newsonomics of the new Chattanooga (Events) Choo-Choo

“Events” has been a buzzword in publishing circles for years — but few have been able to execute on a strategy as well as the daily in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Here’s how they built their business.
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Jason Taylor is a madman, even at 8,100 feet. While many of his fellow conferencees gasped for breath in the thin Vail air, Taylor commanded the room possessed with the energy of a Boyd Crowder, the wild-eyed, tow-headed preacher criminal of (Elmore Leonard’s) Justified.

Taylor sells neither religion nor rowdiness. He sells events. He is high on events, a Barnum & Bailey events promoter of the 21st century. And, he’s a newspaper guy. Just celebrating his sixth year as president of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, a WEHCO paper, the small chain run by early paywall advocate Walter Hussman, Jr.. Taylor is in the events vanguard.

Sure, Tina Brown just won a new round of notice, leaving Daily Beast and devoting herself to her new Tina Brown Live Media company. And “events” as a revenue strategy are seemingly everywhere nowadays, at the Times, Journal, FT, dozens of metros, public radio stations, the Texas Tribune, and many magazines. But the zeal Taylor brings to the idea — and his success — is worth noting.

But first let’s put the events business in a little perspective. It’s nothing new. But it’s been mostly been business-to-business business, with B2C events and conferences run largely by companies that specialize in them. In fact, about 10 percent of all marketing money in the U.S. is spent on events of one kind or another, amounting to $40 billion or more, according to Outsell research. Of that, $17 billion is spent on B2C events; in the B2C realm, that’s 6.5 percent of overall marketing spending.

Now news publishers are waking up to the potential. Why? It’s part desperation, as the ad business has forced them to push into all kinds of “alternative revenue.” There’s also the high-tech/high-touch angle: The more we go digital, the more we crave actual human connection, it seems. It’s the connection between the written word and the spoken word — from publishing to event to…more publishing. It’s a circle of reader usage, and publishers are starting to round it. If you speak the language of brands, call events “brand extension.”

The Times Free Press now puts on 12 big events a year, making “direct events revenue” 11 percent of its retail revenue, generating well into the seven figures in income; “indirect events revenue” contributes another three percent. Taylor, an ad guy by trade (now 39, he became an ad director at age 23), has made events a centerpiece of the sales push in Tennessee’s fourth-largest city.

His success has led to — of course! — an industry event. On November 3 to 5, the first annual Event Revenue Summit will be held in Chattanooga, sponsored by the Southern Newspapers Publishers Association. The price tag: $949 — which may be a bargain if publishers can replicate just a fraction of Taylor’s model.

There’s a lot of logistics necessary to making an events business successful. One key ingredient is passion. Listen to him describe the malaise surrounding the news business: “I get on a plane. I’m in the newspaper business. And they say, ‘Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh.’ They want to send flowers,” he told an industry group at the annual Vail Roundtable recently. “We’ve got our people excited. We’ve got penetration, brand, and creativity and we’re in the 86th biggest DMA. Mom and Pops [events companies] can’t come in and leverage. Use what you got.”

Competition isn’t an abstraction to Taylor: “Others will swoop in and take money out of our markets. If you don’t take advantage of events, shame on you. The Southern Women’s Show is an interloper,” he says, talking about the rival events company Southern Shows that produces 19 kinds of shows in 11 markets. “I don’t want them in Chattanooga. I came out with a better women’s show. We have to say no.” It’s the kind of fervor that tells us something about how to reassert newspapers’ roles in their communities.

The business model is straightforward. While many publishers are focused singularly on event sponsorship money, Taylor works both traditional ends of the newspaper business: merchants and readers.

Whether it’s a big service show or a major community-recognition awards dinner, all events have overall corporate sponsors. Then, in addition, the expos (senior, bridal, women’s, kids) sell booths to exhibitors. The banquets (“Best of Preps”, “Best of the Best”) also sell tables to companies. All events are paid admission — as little as $5 to more than $100 for a VIP entrance.

So there are two significant revenue streams at play here: businesses and individuals. The newsonomics of the Chattanooga model are intriguing ones and worth study by all publishers into or getting into the events business. The events gospel according to Jeff Taylor:

  • Tap different budgets. Ad budgets are in decline, but promotion budgets are in ascendance, as Borrell and other studies show. Main Street is waking up to the range of digital marketing possibilities, well beyond buying space in print or online, and newspapers are servicing that need with local digital services businesses (“The newsonomics of selling Main Street”). So the events business taps marketing and promotion budgets more than ad budgets. That’s a smart move: Go for the widening slice of the pie, not the thinning one.
  • Knock on the marketing budget door with a new hand. Taylor says his ad director had cold-called a local remodeler often times, to no response. When she called using the name of an upcoming Expo in the pitch — rather than the newspaper’s name — she got a hearing and a contract. Just rubbing elbows with local business people at a newspaper-sponsored event opens up new relationships. Lesson: Newspaper advertising may seem passé, but events participation is au courant and another way to open ad doors.
  • Aim as much at non-advertisers as advertisers. The remodeler is like most local businesses: a non-advertiser. Taylor says the events business has exposed the paper to a large new set of businesses, a number of whom are now also buying ads as well as event sponsorships. That means new “indirect events revenue” as events-led ad packages find new life. Says Taylor: “These small business owners — when you do this stuff for them — it changes their perspective of you. We’ve changed the perception of the future of the paper in the market.”
  • Figure out a new way to attract McDonald’s money. McDonald’s is not a traditional newspaper advertiser. But the paper’s Kids Expo brought McDonald’s on board as a sponsor, which then opened up other doors to new marketing budget revenue from McDonald’s. Today, says Taylor, McDonald’s is a “high, six-figures customer,” buying “front-page stickies” among other ads — showing the arithmetic of both “direct events revenue” and “indirect events revenue.” Similarly, events brought in sporting goods retailer Academy Sports into a multi-year contract, where other sales efforts had fallen short.
  • Keep costs low. The paper’s events are coordinated by a full-time staff of four. Newspaper staffers also volunteer their time — trading a day of working an event for another day off — to help staff the big events. Taylor says that his events-business competitors have to spend 30 percent or so of their expenses on marketing; he’s got a free marketing machine, in print and online. Jim Moroney, Dallas Morning News publisher and incoming CEO of A.H. Belo, makes a similar point about using old-fashioned newsprint. “Our secret sauce is using our unsold inventory or extra space in the paper to sell tickets,” he says about the Crowdsource events company he launched a year ago. “Basically, its an arbitrage of the unsold digital inventory and the low cost to the publisher of newsprint to sell tickets.”
  • Find events that are immune to economic cycles, such as traveling bridal shows. Taylor points out that, boom or bust, couples get married, making Bridal Expos — twice annually, each running a “six-figure profit” — recession proof. “When you get engaged, where’s the first place you go? The newspaper.” At that first point of contact, the newspaper begins its process of lead generation for the swarm of businesses serving brides and grooms. When non-local bridal fairs were in the market, Taylor says he sent his people to chase them out, handing out competitive flyers on the street.
  • Use events as a content platform. The Kids Expo proved successful, so the paper launched a new kids magazine, with a 45,000 monthly press run, leveraging new readership and advertisers. Another side benefit Chattanooga is learning: “strengthen underperforming audiences.”
  • Sell newspaper subscriptions at events. Newspaper subs? Yes, just as some papers are selling Sunday print to digital-only subscribers, events themselves offer just one more avenue for old-fashioned circulation. Taylor says the numbers sold are in the hundreds, a no-extra-cost side benefit of the events business.
  • Do more, not less, if you want more money — and thanks. Remember that woman out in the New Orleans streets demanding a real daily newspaper? That’s the kind of thanks and loyalty that newspapers can (sometimes) earn. The Times-Picayune earned it during and after Katrina. Great community-serving journalism is a major part of the deal; so are the kind of community-recognition and services events the Times Free Press is putting on. “I can’t believe the number of people who say ‘Thank you’” after one of our events, Taylor says. Two thousand miles away, the new Orange County Register’s emphasis on community serving is a hallmark of its aggressive strategy.

Where is this all going? There’s plenty of room for creativity; the Austin Chronicle has just sponsored its 11th annual Adult Spelling Bee, with an added inducement: “Worried about stage fright? That’s what $3 ZiegenBock drafts are for.” We’ll have big, intellectual events — think the Atlantic-sponsored Aspen Ideas Festival, or The New Yorker’s — and we’ll have many that help people with the little events (marriage, family raising, retirement) in all their lives. The common denominator is engagement.

For publishers, from the Chattanooga Times Free Press to the fast-innovating Atlantic Media, it’s all about breathing new life into the business. In fact, Elizabeth Baker Keffer, president of Atlantic Live, tells me that The Atlantic’s events idea really germinated about a dozen years ago, out of the experience Keffer and Atlantic owner David Bradley had with both the Advisory Board Company and Corporate Executive Board. Both those B2B businesses utilized events to deliver research and make money. So they adapted the events ideas to The Atlantic, as Bradley bought it in 1999.

“We created a third dimension to our business [after advertising and circulation],” says Keffer. We wanted to get our editors and publishers out to an audience.” Finally, it’s about bringing to life what can sometimes seem like stodgy nameplates: “We wanted to animate the brand.”

Photo of Chattanooga Choo-Choo sign by Brent Moore used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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