‘What Keeps You Effective?’ The Questions You Ask Customers Matter Greatly.

In his keynote at BIMS 2020 two weeks ago, National Journal president Kevin Turpin spoke about the transformation that his company underwent 10 years ago, from publisher to information services organization. “There were a number of strategic things we did to get here today,” he said. Foremost in that was asking the right questions.

“We had a really deep dedication to getting to know our audience as best we could,” Turpin said. “Knowing what their top challenges are, how those challenges are changing? ‘What are the new things that are getting into your budget that wasn’t there five years ago? How are you managing the office differently?’


“We spent a year with our customers, asking them a set of questions over and over. The most important one was, ‘What keeps you effective?’”


Previously, Turpin had spoken more broadly about transformation. “When businesses are trying to recreate themselves and change, they spend too much time inside, in strategy meetings, batting around ideas that they think will work. We don’t spend enough time going around. How are [our customers’] jobs changing? What are they thinking about? What are they investing in this year? This will give you solutions.”


Of course, “going around” means something different these days—phone, Zoom, social media, Slack. But the idea of asking important questions of your customers remains paramount. Sales consultant Ryan Dohrn just wrote about this in an article on Editor & Publisher, saying “What keeps you up at night?” just isn’t good enough anymore.


“Your questions simply have to be better. One of your main questions that makes me nuts and that I hear in my ad sales training is this: ‘Tell me more about your business.’ C’mon, you’re better than that… And then, ‘What’s your budget?’ You can do better than that.


“Those are three questions we do need to ask, but maybe ask them in a more vibrant kind of way so that we don’t sound like every other media salesperson that’s calling on that customer,” Dohrn wrote.


I recall another sales consultant who liked to visit the offices of her clients and observe what sat on top of customers’ desks—that would tell what projects were most important. That also can’t happen now, of course, though we can see what books might be on someone’s shelves or what hangs on their walls.


“Here are four [questions] that I really like to ask,” Dohrn continued.


1. “When you agreed to meet with me, what business challenge or problem were you hoping that I could help you solve?”


2. “If I could give you a magic wand that you wave, what business challenge could I help you solve?”


3. “When you think about competing here in our community or others in your competitive set, do you want to be seen as having some sort of a presence out there? Do you want to be competitive? Or do you want to be dominant?” (He said that the three options will lead him towards a budget that’s more actual.)


4. “If everything went perfectly with your marketing campaign with me, what would the perfect end result be for you?” or “If I’m going to keep you for a lifetime as a customer, what do I need to do?”


Number four is interesting because we just had an events panel speak at BIMS, and much of their advice was knowing what results you want to see from your event before scripting it.


In a 2020 Association Benchmarking Report, only 38% of respondents said they are conducting communication-specific surveys at least once every 12–24 months to stay on top of members’ needs. And only half believe they have a good understanding of their reader, member and advertiser needs.


“What’s the first question [customers] ask you every time you check in?” Turpin asked. “Those top three feed into ideation. Let’s take the challenges of what we learned in spending time with top clients. This is where our transformation is going to go.”


Ask for Selfies, Try ‘Squares’ Instead of Bradys, and Create Video Stories – More Innovation Ideas

It’s always a proud feeling when I can write about innovation in our own SIIA backyard. Over the last few years, I’ve had the privilege of proofreading the very excellent Year in Review, an annual synopsis of member activities from another division here, FISD. Normally, the publication highlights members with photos from FISD events around the globe. That’s not possible this year, of course.

“Though the pandemic impacted our ability to gather together in person, your friends and colleagues, and we at FISD too, would love to see what you’ve been up to this year and include your photos in the Year in Review. Please send us your selfies…” To get their members in the mood, FISD included selfies of staff in the email (which you see above). Not only does this convey a fun holiday feeling to their community, but it makes staff feel good as well. Just seems like a win-win all the way around. I will be sure to include some snippets when the publication is complete.


Last week I wrote about the importance of this type of innovation and gave some examples. A 2020 survey from Marketing General found that “a culture of innovation is the critical driver” for creating member/subscriber value. ”Try something new or you’ll plateau and decline,” one respondent said. Those who have seen member/subscriber gains “are significantly more likely to have a process in place for innovation and new ideas.”


Since then, I’ve come across more examples and wanted to share them:


Extend and extol your events. Informa Markets pivoted—did you know “pivot” is the marketing word of the year?—their October 6-9 Festival of Licensing into an innovative virtual event. The restructured event featured Trivial Pursuit, an MTV-styled workout and Spongebob Squarepants-themed yoga. Also notice the time frame. They transformed the three-day trade show into a three-week experience over a three-month period. Wrote Matt Swenson on the TSNN siteAfter-hour activities and built-in breaks like the Spongebob and board game activations were added to alleviate the strain of attending a trade show on a computer. ‘We wanted to quell virtual attendee burnout,’ said Anna Knight, vice president of Informa’s Global Licensing Group. ‘We hope that these styles of events will be as inclusive as possible and enable participation for those unable to attend in 2021 and also those who perhaps have not thought about attending previously.’”


Use pricing research to grow revenue. In an article on Digital Content Next last month, Ashley Deibert, CMO of Piano, spoke to Veebha Mehta, CMO at Crain Communications, about how they use pricing research to make sure they are not leaving significant revenue on the table. “Using a combination of price research and live price testing, Crain ran a promotional program to drive up their subscriptions. Significantly, they discovered that many of their trusted products were priced far below what consumers were willing to pay. This data empowered Crain to adjust prices in order to meet revenue targets, as well as experiment with trial offers to attract and retain new subscribers.” Mehta said that it was also valuable to “decouple its print and digital pricing. Price testing for Crain’s Chicago Business… showed that the demand for digital was higher than for print.”

Get creative with Zoom. I mentioned this Friday but didn’t show the picture. The Editorial Freelancers Association held a virtual chapter meeting in October. “We are getting the hang of this new format and took advantage of Zoom’s features to maximize our time together.” Nothing special there, but the accompanying photo of participants is not the Brady Bunch boxes that we always see, but The Hollywood Squares! Can a Match Game or Family Feud configuration be next?

Conduct weekly live interviews on Facebook. Chesapeake Family continues to do hard-hitting interviews on their Facebook channel every Friday at 2 pm. On Friday, “Shantelle Bisson discussed tips for getting through the holidays with your kids, without losing your cool—a special challenge this year while we are living in close quarters due to COVID.” “I really like to do those virtual interviews as long as we can give 2-3 days notice,” publisher Donna Jefferson said, adding it’s a good platform to talk about timely topics. Previous interviews focused on Virtual School From Home Tips and Navy Football Takes on Racism with an assistant coach and running back. This Friday’s talk is titled Pay It Forward, quite appropriate for this time of year and 2020 when so many people are having a tough time.

Videos about innovation. On the National Association of Broadcasters website, under a section titled Innovation Stories Videos, a two-minute video shows how Beasley Media Group is reaching young audiences with a novel strategy for a radio broadcasting organization—investing in competitive video gaming. The clip features Lori Burgess, COO for Beasley’s esports division. “Younger consumers around the world…are heavily invested in video gaming,” she said. “And we really saw an opportunity to get very, very immersed in this space and start to attract and develop these relationships with younger consumers when they’re forming their decisions about what matters most to them.”


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Products, Venues, Conversations and Swag All Have Room for Innovation

A 6th grade teacher here in northern Virginia made positive headlines last week for teaching virtually from a treehouse. Nellie Williams said “a lot of math was involved” to remodel the space this summer with her husband, but she enjoys the serenity and uniqueness of the unconventional classroom—and how it connects with students.“They are really excited to have a teacher that is teaching from a treehouse,” she said.

That got me thinking again about innovation. A 2020 survey from Marketing General found that “a culture of innovation is the critical driver” for creating member/subscriber value. ”Try something new or you’ll plateau and decline,” one respondent said. Those who have seen member/subscriber gains “are significantly more likely to have a process in place for innovation and new ideas.”



Innovation is hard. It involves taking chances, which during a pandemic is not easy. I’m not sure what the publisher equivalent of a treehouse is; maybe it could lead to new ideas about where speakers present from. Here are a few more ideas I’ve come across.


Virtual shuttle ride. When the Institute of Food Technologists transitioned its Annual Meeting and Food Expo to SHIFT20 Virtual Event and Expo, organizers didn’t want to lose all of the networking opportunities that participants had become used to, reports Associations Now. Since shuttle rides often lead to spontaneous conversations and connections (I’ve actually had a dew of those myself on the way to hotels or an evening reception), IFT hosted a 15-minute virtual shuttle ride before every evening event. Each night, two IFT members moderated a live shuttle-bus-themed discussion with a guest to chat about the ideas emerging at SHIFT20.


Trivia nights. Atlas Obscura invites members to a Trivia Night or as they call it, Convocation of the Atlas Obscura Guild of Trivial Knowledge and Fascinating Ephemera. “During this trivia experience, you can team up with other subscribing members of Atlas Obscura’s membership community by either setting up a team with them independently OR by being grouped with other players on the day of the experience. It’s a terrific chance to engage with other members of the Atlas Obscura community!”


Custom product development. “All it took was a blanket to point Futurism in a new direction,” writes Digiday’s Max Willens, who moderated Friday’s BIMS 2020 Q&A with National Journal’s Kevin Turpin. “Last year, the science-focused publisher produced the Gravity Blanket, a weighted blanket designed to help with insomnia, anxiety and other conditions, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. After selling 65,000 of them (with some help from a feature on Good Morning America), the publisher created Futurism Products, an eight-person team to develop more products.” That led to Crypto Candle, which reveals a coin when it melts that can be redeemed for bitcoin.


Personalized guides and messages. Your writers are becoming more familiar to your audience day-by-remote-day. To do what Cameo does with celebrities and charge for those writers wishing happy birthday is a bit much. But the idea of making those connections has merit. At Schibsted, a large media site in Norway and Sweden, new subscribers can choose one of their favorite editors or journalists as a guide through the onboarding period. These personalized onboarding emails have a higher unique opening rate: 63% versus 38% for the standard onboarding process. The retention rate after the first renewal is also five percentage points higher.


Swag boxes. This trend will probably get even more popular in early 2021. In late June, the American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science and the Association of Genetic Technologists sent swag boxes to attendees—JAM Packs—that included a kazoo. Guess what the concerts were called? The Daily Kazoom. Bustle Digital Group sent out yoga mats for its virtual yoga retreat, complimentary for the first 150 attendees to RSVP. BIO Digital (Biotechnology Innovation Organization) took place in June with more than 7,000 participants from 64 countries. To foster community, they changed the meeting’s tagline from “Beyond” to “Nothing Stops Innovation.” Then, in advance of the conference, BIO mailed all speakers a custom mug with the new tagline. “It was an added expense, but worth it because it gave speakers brand recognition onscreen that reflected togetherness,” said Erin Lee, VP of marketing operations and customer experience. You’d think sponsorship could also be possible for that.


BIMS 2020 Produced Revenue Strategies, Event Advice, Marketing Tips and… Wines

In the events Power Panel at BIMS 2020, Orson Francescone, head of FT Live, spoke about how their events work to bring in new subscribers. “We had 160,000 ‘digital delegates’ [this year – attendees to their events], so suddenly those numbers are kind of blowing our model out of the water, in the sense that we are bringing in a huge funnel of new subscribers. That’s a very attractive proposition to someone who owns an integrated media platform like us.”

Francescone was just one of so many impressive and influential speakers at BIMS 2020. We’ll continue to offer coverage from those three days, though it will still be very worthwhile for you to purchase access when it shortly becomes available. In the meantime, here are seven content highlights, and some wine recommendations from our sommelier for your evenings.



1. Be intentional about feedback. “We are annually seeking how to hone those products” that our clients are using most, said Kevin Turpin, president of National Journal, in Friday’s keynote. “We are intentional about starting different feedback loops on what we’re doing, how do we change it and how do we hone existing products to make sure our renewal rates stay strong. And then creating products off existing products that can be upsells.”


2. Keep the bump. There has been massive consumption of B2B content in the last few months,” said David Fortino, SVP audience and product for NetLine. “The question is, ‘How do we keep that bump?’ You need to have content that resonates with your audience, of course.” But he went further, asking, ‘How can your content become a tool for you where you’re making it helpful to someone making a decision.’ You want it to solve a need.”


3. Amplify the benefits. Jim Sinkinson of FiredUp! Marketing echoed Fortino’s comments. “How do customers use your products to get results?” he asked. He wants you to focus on benefits. “Our customers buy benefits not features. A benefit is the promise to transform someone’s life for the better.” Think about what makes a difference in people’s lives.


4. Earn trust. “What will keep them and what else might they want [after a couple years of subscribing]?” data journalist and founder of The PlugSherrell Dorsey asked in her Thursday keynote. “People have to feel like they trust you. For us it wasn’t just about being loud. There are lots of larger publishers. For us it was about doing something deeper—taking our time to be intentional about the type of stories we need to be doing… and having a level of expertise that we can bring to the conversation.”


5. Be intentional about connections. “Where we’re shifting our thinking a bit is that content is still usually important and getting the best speakers is great, but… making sure that people really connect in this virtual environment is really critical,” said Chris Keating of Winsight on the events Power Panel. “Sitting home alone staring at the computer screen is not a very immersive experience. So for us putting together peer group meetings so you can spend time connecting with [colleagues], putting together meetings with exhibitors and attendees, not in a selling situation but in a sharing knowledge situation. That’s always been there, but for us that becomes more important. Just having speakers, virtual booths, hoping they’ll connect. I don’t think that is going to help anyone out.”


6. Build relationships now. “Building relationships with new prospects means that when we are able to do this in person, a hybrid format will bring those people into the fold as well,” said Dorian Sullivan, VP, audience development, National Association of Broadcasters. “We want to have a year-round relationship.” Added Merek Bigelow, executive editor, Loss Prevention Magazine: “You assume that same content will resonate. It really won’t. You have to look for ways to create that interactive conversation.”


7. Experiment. “If you think how early we are in the medium, the signs are very encouraging about [the virtual events] coming out of this,” said Microsoft’s Bob Bejan. But this is definitely a practice-makes-perfect affair. Asked about Microsoft’s partnership with CES on their upcoming huge show, Bejan said, “Everything we’re doing in CES is the sum total of every mistake we’ve made the last eight months.”


And finally… wine. Here are wine recommendations from our Wednesday Connections and Cocktails, courtesy of our professional sommelier Lydia Richards of Vino Concierge. To truly enhance your wine experience, consider the vessel from which you sip these exquisite wines. Elevate your tasting sessions with a set of finely crafted wine glasses that not only accentuate the nuanced flavors of your chosen vintage but also add a touch of sophistication to your evenings. Explore an array of options, from classic designs to modern stemless styles, at Their curated collection of wine glasses promises to elevate your wine-drinking experience, turning each sip into a moment of refined indulgence. Cheers to the perfect pairing of exceptional wines and exquisite glassware, creating an ambiance that celebrates the art of savoring life’s finer moments:


Banshee Sauvignon Blanc – California

Acrobat wine – Oregon

RdV Winery – Virginia

Aslina wine company – South Africa

Merry Edwards – California

Brazilian sparkling wines

Laura Hartwig wines – Chile

Kali Hart chardonnay – California

Talbot Vineyards – Carmel by the Sea, California.

Quinta Nova wines – Portugal

Graham’s Vintage Port

Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port


Know the Results You Want, Then Script Your Virtual Event, BIMS Panel Advises

“I write the last line [of the novel], and then I write the line before that… You have to know what your voice sounds like at the end of the story, because it tells you how to sound when you begin,” author John Irving told The Economist in 2012. I once heard Irving talk in person about this—writing your ending first and then working out how to get there. A Power Panel at BIMS 2020 last week said something similar about virtual events: Script the results you want to see first and then work accordingly to make it happen.

After 30 minutes of listening to five very smart people talk about the future of events on that panel, I thought back to this idea: What do you want your event to accomplish? What should your ending be? If you’re the Financial Times, you want more subscribers. If you’re Winsight, you want to bring buyers and sellers together. If you’re an events company like Emerald, you probably want to do both—or just deliver the most overall value possible.


“Can I give you some numbers?” Orson Francescone (pictured right in photo), head of FT Live, said. “FT is a newspaper, and we reached a million subscribers a year ago. Our strategy is to drive subscriptions and we’re doing that very successfully. Events were always a big part of that strategy because subscribers who attend events tend to be better engaged [and bring] longer lifetime value…


“Last year we had 24,000 delegates at our conferences. This year with 220 online events”—and counting with three more December events scheduled—“that’s webinars, conferences and award shows, we’ve had 160,000 ‘digital delegates.’ So suddenly those numbers are kind of blowing our model out of the water in the sense that we are bringing in a huge funnel of new subscribers into the FT machinery. That’s a very attractive proposition to someone who owns an integrated media platform like us.”


While Francescone set the very substantive tone, he did not define it. Chris Keating, EVP, conferences for Winsight, scripted a positive ending for his company, where connections mostly trump content. Kudos also go to moderator Robyn Duda, co-founder, Change the Stage, for keeping the conversation pinpointed and flowing.


“Where we’re shifting our thinking a bit is that content is still usually important and getting the best speakers is great, but… making sure that people really connect in this virtual environment is really critical,” Keating said. “Sitting home alone staring at the computer screen is not a very immersive experience. So for us [what’s crucial is] putting together peer group meetings so you can spend time connecting with them, putting together meetings with exhibitors and attendees, not in a selling situation but in a sharing knowledge situation.


“That’s always been there, but for us that becomes more important. Just having speakers, virtual booths, hoping they’ll connect, I don’t think that is going to help anyone out. But creating these environments, these opportunities to make the human connection—because lets’ face it, there’s not many things that someone will learn here that they can’t read somewhere or talk to someone. You have to create that human connection and to us that will really become a key part of our strategy.”


With those differing views, it took Jessica Blue, EVP, Emerald Expositions, and John McGovern, CEO and owner, Grimes, McGovern & Associates, to round the topic out.


“The best model I’ve done is the one that integrates media, content, in-person, matchmaking and live experience,” Blue said. “I’ve run a lot of events with associated media and honestly that’s the most attractive model and sees the most brand loyalty no matter what market you have—[it creates] that year-round community engagement. [During my time] at UBM, [our] events-first strategy was misunderstood. To be only about events is far from the reality of it and what we were really encouraged to do is view our media assets in a different way. To integrate them fully into the events business to build the brand strategy and to drive the cross-portfolio growth. That strategy when well executed really paid off.”


The discussion of media assets led right into McGovern, who represented the M&A world. He believes that long-term, being able to successfully put on virtual events will have many advantages.


“Think about how valuations are set—the buyer builds a pro-forma model that shows that one plus one will be more than two once they do the acquisition,” he said. “Pre-COVID, very few of those models had significant revenue or gross profits tied to online events. Now you’ve got all these event companies doing online events which are doing well and, depending on the market, they can support 12 months a year. [So when] live comes back, you end up with ultimately higher margin businesses with the combination.”


Duda, who like Keating and Blue, spent time at events giant UBM, agreed about the “super importance” of creating connections but also emphasized user experience. “Part of that is navigation,” she said. “You can have the best content in the world, you can personalize things, you could create the best connections. But if people don’t have a seamless, UX user experience,” it won’t matter.”


While Financial Times has jumped fully in the virtual waters, Blue said that although Emerald has put on “31 virtual events across our portfolios… it’s [also] given us an opportunity to step back to look at what we do and how we do it—exploring research about trusting trade show organizers.”


Keating concurred about making good use of this in-person events break. “One thing we have to get better as an industry is proving ROI, something digital media is very good at. We’re using this downtime to figure out how to become a much more active connector between buyers and sellers… Hopefully, we can be active connectors and this gives us an opportunity to be good at that.”


Francescone believes that the result you’re looking may be reliant on which type of event you run. “It depends how you define events,” he said. “That word has been blown up. Are we publishers, television producers, trade show organizers, online magazines? So how you define events is really the key here. If you’re a trade show organizer then trying to go digital is tough. If you’re a conference organizer trying to go digital, it’s easier. We’re really good at delivering content. We know it’s hard to deliver those connections in a digital format. I think it will get better as the technology improves. What is an event really? That definition will keep evolving.”


Keating says that Winsight does not want their events division to be siloed. “I grew up in media and moved to events. We don’t want them to exist on their own anymore. There’s a so much more powerful way that you can connect. Our main restaurant website has over 1 million unique visitors a month. That’s an enormous audience to tap into and connect with for live events.”


When Will In-Person Events Come Back?


“I don’t know,” said Francescone. “I’m comfortable with that because we’ve built a very successful digital model. When the physical model comes back we’ll be able to switch back very quickly. But, just to try to help our audience with the way that we’re thinking about this, there are a few steps.”


The first three steps he named were vaccine rollout, the slashing of travel budgets and staff safety. The fourth was more complex. “Behaviors have changed, and I think they’ve changed forever,” he said. “The reality is the days when you used to get on a plane to go to a conference in New York or Singapore are either long gone or will take a long time to come back. So I think the big international shows are the ones that will be hit hardest.”


Francescone said the likeliest scenario is that in-person events will return in the fall of 2021 “slow, gradual and localized. It will start with roundtables, dinners, breakfast briefings, small conferences and then when people feel more comfortable it will keep going from there. But the main trend will be localized and hybrid, connective.


“All events will be digital forever, so I say to my team, digital-first forever is our strategy right, regardless of when the live comes back.”


Blue said that Emerald just put on its first in-person event since March—the International Gift Show of the Smokies in Pigeon Forge, Tenn. “Exhibitors were down 60%, buyer attendance down 30% but there were 12 attendees per exhibitor. And the serious buyers were there. We also got to test the rollout of our health and safety plan. Masks, temperature checks, waivers, 6 foot queuing, one entrance in, one entrance out. It’s a good thing for the industry, but [events are] dependent state by state.”


“People have been gathering in groups longer than flying in airplanes, so people are going to get comfortable doing that again,” Keating said. “[But] business travel will be depressed for a long time. The day trip to Dallas or the three-day trip to see clients who may not work in an office anymore. That’s going to take longer to get back so what we do, our events are going to have to be an extremely efficient and powerful way to see a lot of customers in a short period of time. That need is not going to go away.”