The Neal Awards Provide a Most Prestigious New Home for SIPA Members

The work that I’ve seen win SIPAwards the last few years could win awards in any journalism competition. So I strongly encourage you to enter the Neal Awards. Most of the categories that you’ve become familiar with—Best Blog/Commentary, Best Profile, Best Podcast, Best Series, Best Use of Video, Best Instructional Content—are there in the Neals.

Neal Award winners provide their audience with value. “Basically, I’m using data to help tell a good story—whatever it may be…,” Todd Dills, a senior editor at Randall-Reilly and a multiple Neal Award winner once told me. “I started looking around at the different sources of data that concerns issues readers have. It’s the readers who drive this. And I’ve always been interested in numbers.”

He spoke about the difference data was making in their journalism—and equally important in their readership (truckers). “We started doing a series of state law enforcement profiles; at the end of the day information like this gives the readers a better sense, a better reality,” Dills said.

The key, he added, is serving readers. “The big takeaway is that there’s data gathered on everything our readers do,” noting that the way you use it shows your “valuable priorities as a journalist. I have been able to essentially prove our readers right on some things and wrong on others.”

That is just one example of the importance and relevance of the awards we give out. Not only do they recognize people like Todd doing great work in our industry, but they amplify the trends—sometimes even before they become trends! Of course, data journalism is now one of the biggest difference makers in the content world of B2B publishing and media companies.

Over the last few years, I have had the privilege of working on both the SIPAwards and the Neal Awards. Both have been essential in honoring and promoting the amazing work done by B2B (and some B2C) publishers. This year—in order to devote the amount of resources that the entries and awards deserve—the SIPAwards have been integrated into the Neal Awards.

For SIPA members, it adds an even more prestigious layer. Now in its 67th year, the Neal Awards have a celebrated history and are known as the most respected awards in the world of specialized journalism. Named after Jesse H. Neal, the first managing director of American Business Media, the Neal Awards were established in 1955 to recognize and reward editorial excellence in business media.

You will be up against the best of the B2B world, but in categories separated by company size. I can say firsthand that the work I’ve seen win SIPAwards the last few years could win awards in any journalism competition. So I strongly encourage you to enter. Most of the categories that you’ve become familiar with in the SIPAwards—Best Blog/Commentary, Best Profile, Best Podcast, Best Series, Best Use of Video, Best Instructional Content, and Best Editorial Use of Data, to name just a few—are there in the Neal Awards. Check out all of the 2021 Neal Awards categories.

And as an homage to the SIPAwards, there is a new Neals category: Best New Product, recognizing innovation in new product development, including events and pivots to virtual events. In addition, there are two more new categories that I know SIPA members have the work to nominate for: Best COVID-19 Coverage and Best COVID-19 Package.

Early nominations—which represent the most cost-effective way to enter the Neals—will be accepted through Jan. 31. Regular nominations then go from Feb. 1-21. And the extended nomination period is Feb. 22 – March 7.

We Also Need Judges

Award entries will then be assessed by your peers in three rounds of judging. This is also where we can use your help. Judging will be all virtual, of course, and will not require a huge time commitment. As in the past, it is a great way to see the best work of your industry, learn new ideas and observe how others are approaching work and revenue strategies during the pandemic. All the details about judging—including a detailed FAQ—can be read here.

Be assured that your voice is still clearly heard and will resonate loudly throughout the industry with your entries in the Neal Awards. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to email me. We are excited to expand these awards and reward and amplify even more great work by people in this industry.

Vote on Questions, Reimagine Swag and Get Out a Bit to Reenergize Your Events

How I would’ve loved to vote on which questions get asked at the many panels and interviews I attended in-person pre-pandemic. Now we can. What else can we do to liven up our virtual events in 2021? Swag, speaker walks, a new networking game. One thing is for sure–it’s worth the risk to be a little creative.

In a park in Palatine, Ill., in March last year—with birds really chirping—a bundled-up Wylecia Wiggs Harris, CEO of the American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA), addressed members on Facebook Watch before taking a much-needed walk. She wanted to assure everyone that she and her colleagues were okay, and, of course, make sure that members were doing okay as well.

It was a very effective use of video and the elements. I thought of this again when reading a 2021 recommendation that we encourage our speakers to take us somewhere new this year—literally.

“In-person keynotes and education sessions are compelling partly because dynamic speakers walk around the stage or even draw a picture or do something else creative while presenting,” Samantha Whitehorne wrote in Associations Now. “Find a way to get your virtual presenters to do the same. During his prerecorded keynote for the Turnaround Management Association’s IMPACT 2020 virtual meeting, Duncan Wardle, former head of innovation at Disney, walked around, used different camera angles, and had large paper slides hanging behind him that he illustrated himself.”

While most agree that virtual events will take a supporting role—in the name of hybrid—once in-person events return, that does not mean that they can’t improve this year. Here are a few more ideas that I’ve seen that can improve the virtual event experience.

Network like the old days. Fast Company calls Gather “half video game, half video call.” “Spend time with your friends, coworkers, and communities like you would in real life,” their site says. Everyone at a gathering is “represented as little controllable avatars that can stroll around and talk to each other. When your avatar approaches another one, the real-life video from your respective webcams will pop up on-screen so you can converse face-to-face. Walk away, and the video disappears. Small talk has never felt so fun!” It’s free for up to 25 users, with paid plans starting at $7 per user, per month, for additional features.

Explore new ways to pick questions for Q&A. (From The Economist) At one conference, questions were displayed in a queue. Attendees could donate “points” to other people’s questions based on their interests—like a Reddit upvote. The moderator then asked the highest-ranked questions first. This ensured that the questions asked were those that mattered most to attendees.

Provide transcripts. (Also from The Economist) “Pre-recording sessions means event organizers can arrange for text chats, closed-captioning, even ASL interpretation. Even if you do the presentations live, providing transcripts later is enthusiastically welcomed. And there is now a wide range of AI tools that can provide accurate transcripts.”

Consider mingle-with-speaker sessions after panels. We did this for our BIMS 2020 conference—letting attendees chat with one another and the speakers on Zoom directly after a session. I was the lookout/moderator for a few of these. We did not have huge crowds join us in the Zoom rooms—maybe 4-6 people—but the people who were in there said they got great value by being able to ask questions in this more intimate space. So it felt worth it.

Reach out to presenters—look for enthusiasm. Asked what makes a virtual event great, 49% of respondents in a recent survey said when “presenters are enthusiastic and engaging.” Three in four respondents (74%) said passion and good online delivery were essential qualities in a great presenter—well ahead of being knowledgeable about the content (22%). To improve events, 51% said “being able to access the presenter after the event in an online forum” (see previous bullet) and almost a third said smoother technology.

Re-imagine swag. This idea—sending items to participants ahead of time—really picked up steam as the year went along and 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. 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.

‘They Mean More Than a Date on the Calendar’; Federal Bar Association Uses Anniversary to Celebrate and Grow


In discussing why the Federal Bar Association decided to put together a most impressive, coffee-table book to be the centerpiece of their centennial anniversary last year, executive director Stacy King flashed a 2021, better-days-are-ahead smile.

“Attorneys love books. They really do. Since we’ve been doing all these Zoom calls, I never realized how many of my leadership has just books on books behind them. Everyone has that prestigious bookcase with all of their books.

“The other [reason] was that when the party was over”—the FBA put on a big virtual 100-year celebration in September to replace the canceled March festivities that would have included welcoming remarks by Chief Justice John Roberts—“we really wanted to make sure we had something to celebrate, something about the bar for years to come. We also wanted it as a marketing tool to raise our profile. So we are actually in the process right now where we’re sending the book to all three branches of government, all the chief federal judges, so that every federal courthouse has a copy.”

This informative and entertaining AM&P 2020 session—we even saw a photo of Eleanor Roosevelt speaking at a war-time FBA luncheon with their first female president!—was titled 100 Years of Content: Anniversary, Event, and Experience. Chris Durso, associate vice president of content, MCI USA, joined King for the session. He collaborated with her and FBA on the project, actually becoming, in her words, the “FBA historian.”

“Every association has anniversaries, and they mean more than a date on the calendar,” King said. “Use them to boost membership and raise a little money.”

Here are more key takeaways from this session:

Start early. Things take time. And stay in charge. I just heard that a new Denzel Washington movie coming out was written in 1993. King said that they started talking internally about the centennial eight years ago. After a few years of not much getting done, she learned that doing it by committee wasn’t going to work here. “We started from the get-go about the book with feedback [from the committee],” she said. “We took that and decided to do certain things. We kept officers apprised and made volunteers feel heard, but then we went and did the right things for the organization.”

Celebrate your history. “Every association has anniversaries, 25th, 50th, some are up to 100,” King said, “so the idea is to really honor where you came from and celebrate. Honor past members. For us, so many are still engaged. We get a lot of turnover—chapter leaders change every year. We wanted to inspire current leaders and show how prestigious an organization they’re a part of. We also got the engagement of the federal community and brought them together.”

Think about outsourcing. The FBA has a “tiny staff” so King knew they had to outsource the work. “Look to have a good partner; it’s important to have someone you feel comfortable with [because you’re] trusting a vendor with your organization’s history. And you’re going to spend a lot of time together.”

Use it to build community—and membership. “We wanted to bring everyone back together,” King said. “Treat it like a reunion. Community is super important to us. We also used it to drive membership.” They started a campaign to drive past 20,000 members. “As an association anticipating change, we also started to talk about the future. In 2019 we adopted a strategic plan. What better way to get people excited about change than to celebrate where we came from. It was a way to set up changes and toast our 100th anniversary.”

Decide on a centerpiece. The first thing he discussed with King was, “How do we tell this story?” Durso said. “These are attorneys and judges who work for the federal government. We were really telling the story of the American century. So we took a mosaic approach. It’s a very handsome hardcover book.” There are listings of every national FBA president and where they worked, showing the prestige of the organization and giving a sense of impact.

Highlight your diversity. Prominently displayed in the book is the FBA’s first African American president, J. Clay Smith Jr., in 1980. There’s also that Eleanor Roosevelt photo and one of Elena Kagan at an FBA meeting. Durso and King did not speak about how to deal with a history that does not include any diversity. In that case, it would make sense to highlight the diversity that you have hopefully transitioned to now and your commitment in the future.

Think about your website. The FBA was in the midst of an overall website redo, and we all know how that can go. So King made the decision to launch a standalone site: “It became the hub for the centennial,” she said, “and gave us breathing room for the new [overall] site, which we actually launched on the exact 100-year anniversary date.” The fedbar100 site includes material from the book formatted as interactive timeline, profiles of FBA legends, and memories from past and current leaders. “They love to reminisce about the past,” she said.

Don’t be bashful. FBA used the new website for sponsorship and giving, approaching it in two ways. They set up a centennial fund within the foundation and then for the party focused on sponsorship. They asked for $100 donations for the 100th anniversary, and the past president issued a challenge for $1,000 donations. We were able to raise the funds to cover the book,” King said. “And we used sponsorship outreach to cover the events we planned. I’m so glad we did the website as a standalone. Now it’s really a legacy site [and] another way to try to reach your members where they are. Some like the book, some like the website. We tried to capture all the voices and share with as many people as possible.” Added Durso: “The book was our stone tablet; the website gave us breathing room. We put voices there that we couldn’t put in the book.”

Be ready to pivot. This was everyone’s mantra for 2020, but it’s probably a good lesson for any time. “We had a whole weekend planned in March including a gala Saturday evening,” King said. They had not booked a Saturday night speaker deciding to “focus on the bar and who we are. Let the bar be the keynote.” That allowed them to come up with a plan b that actually transitioned well to the virtual world: a centennial video. “What better way to take the book and make it come to life than a video,” King said. “So that’s how the book became a movie, and the focus was on the association itself and not the speaker at the party.” Durso said that, for him, it felt like they “were producing a trailer for the book.” It allowed them “to take advantage of all the information and photos we found.” The video lasts about 17 minutes. “It’s kind of in the Ken Burns PBS model,” he said, with slow pans over documents and photos. “Every association has a story that can be told in more than one way,” King said.

Consider sending swag. I have read numerous success stories about sending swag in lieu of in-person event swag since the pandemic. The FBA adds another one to that. They mailed attendees to their September event swag bags that included the book, of course, plus centennial pins, chocolate, and movie popcorn with a sticker on it that told them when the movie premiere would be. Part of that Friday night virtual celebration also included a Q&A between King and Durso. “Did you know that the first FBA president was born before the Civil War?” Durso asked, flashing his new historian credentials. “And the first African American member, Louis Mehlinger in 1944-45, was the son of a freed slave from Mississippi.”

Ronn Levine is the editorial director of SIIA and can be reached at

Referrals, Rewards and the Ability to Adapt Helped Morning Brew Percolate

Morning Brew has always shown a willingness to change and a propensity to grow. By the end of 2020, they were calling Sidekick “the unexpected star of our editorial lineup this year: a new lifestyle vertical.”

Their philosophy paid off big-time. After a subscriber increase from 100,000 to 1.5 million over 18 months, Business Insider bought a controlling stake in Morning Brew in October for a reported $75 million.

“The best way to grow a specific medium was to get promoted on that medium,” Austin Rief, COO of Morning Brew, tweeted in December. “If you are a podcast, cross-promote with podcasts. If you are a newsletter, cross-promote with other newsletters. We found that readers we acquired from ads in other newsletters were >2x as engaged as readers we got from Facebook or referrals. Noticing this, we bought ads in every newsletter that would let us. These ads were incredibly effective in acquiring quality readers.”

Here are more reasons for Morning Brew’s success:

Make your publication easy to share. Morning Brew created webpages that allowed their content (the full newsletter and the individual stories that comprised it) to be archived online. That made it possible for readers to share the individual newsletter stories on their social media accounts directly from the newsletter.

Establish rewards. For three referrals, you get Light Roast, an exclusive Sunday newsletter that costs Morning Brew nothing extra. Over 75,000 people get that—meaning they have each referred at least three people. Five referrals gets you Morning Brew stickers. Ten referrals puts you into the Insider Community, a private Facebook group. And it goes up from there! 25 a shirt, 50 a mug, 100 a sweatshirt. So that means more free advertising.

Be clear, especially at the beginning. “People first need to know you have a rewards program (and how it works) before it can become effective,” senior product lead Tyler Denk wrote on Medium. “Put yourself in the mindset of your users.”

Be creative. “When we began to exhaust the newsletters we sponsored, we needed to figure out a way to find more,” Rief wrote. “A bunch of other companies had large email lists, but had no clue how to monetize them. They didn’t even know how to create or sell an ad. We helped these businesses build out their ad department. In exchange, we received inventory in their newsletters. This opened up millions of newsletter impressions for us as the first advertiser.”

It’s not quite gamification, but… They provide a real-time counter that tracks how many referrals someone has, along with some encouragement: “You’re only X referrals away from receiving Y!” A previous progress bar was shuttled for the numeric counter.

Design a clear landing page. They tested layout of the page, header text, subheader text, text on the button, style of the form, color of the button, additional images, testimonials, etc. For their emails, they increased the conversion rate by over 4% through a few iterations involving those elements.

Simplify feedback. Readers just have to hit, “Reply” to offer comments. They “also leverage the passionate community of Morning Brew Insiders [to] conduct polls and facilitate discussions.

Build growth mechanisms natively into the product. “Morning Brew has implemented a milestone-based referral program, which has a dedicated ‘Share The Brew’ section baked into every single newsletter we send,” Denk wrote.

Celebrate successes. Milestone emails are triggered after a first referral and then at 5, 10, 15, 25, 50, 100 and, ahem, 1,000). Wrote Denk: “The purpose of these emails: to acknowledge the reader’s accomplishment, show them how to redeem their reward (if necessary), and to motivate them to hit the next milestone.” They call it “the referral pipeline” and they want people to climb up it.

Express Value, Avoid ‘Trigger’ Words and Include Numbers to Increase Open Rates

Emails with video indicated in the subject line generate the highest engagement rates. But only around 8% of the emails in a recent study from GetResponse contained links to videos. “For now, the best workaround is to use an image (maybe even a GIF) that looks like a video player and links to your page,” they suggest. “That way, you’ll boost your click-throughs and enhance your contacts’ experience as they’ll watch the content in their default browser or video player.”

What can we do to improve engagement and open rates of our email? Let us count some content-oriented ways here.

1. Don’t use all caps anywhere in your email or its subject line, and try to stay away from exclamation points. Using all caps in your subject line might get the recipients’ attention, but probably not in a good way. It can be annoying to people. Much better to personalize, establish relevancy, and use catchy and pleasing language. As for exclamation points, when 69% of email recipients report email as spam based solely on the subject line, you’ll want to stay away from triggers.

2. Speaking of which, avoid spam trigger words. According to CoSchedule, these trigger spam alerts: 100%. Congratulations. Don’t. Get started. Innovate. Problem. Quickest. Success. Vacation. Volunteer. “A good rule of thumb is this: If it sounds like something a used car salesman would say, it’s probably a spam trigger word. Think ‘guarantee,’ ‘no obligation’ and so on.” Instead, they encourage creativity and being informative—without giving too much away.

3. “Free” is back in again. For what works well, a recent GetResponse survey revealed that the top words for inducing opens in a subject line are “pdf,” “newsletter” and “ebook.” “If you’re promoting a piece of content or a valuable resource, you’re probably better off if you mention it in the subject line.” For click-to-open rates, “infographic” scored huge at 35.1%—very easy to digest—followed by newsletter at 31.4%. “Sale” and “free” also fared well—the latter drawing this comment: “This phrase, previously believed to cause deliverability issues, seems to work well for quite a few marketers… People still enjoy receiving free things.” Amen.

4. Include a number in your subject line. A recent study looking at 115 million emails surmised that email open and reply rates go up when there’s a number in the subject line. “Numbers and data get your emails noticed, demonstrate a clear and straightforward message about your offer, and set the right expectations for your readers, helping draw them in.” Some I’m seeing today: Last Chance to Save 25% on Mediabistro’s Online Career Workshops; 9 Ways to Avoid the Summer Media Sales Slump; 7 Productivity Hacks to Help You Work Smarter in 2021.

5. Keep your email subject lines relatively short. Here, as is often the case, it’s best to know your audience. If the majority are opening your emails on their phone, then go short. iPhones show about 35-38 characters in portrait mode, and Galaxy phones show roughly 33 characters in portrait mode. “Subject lines that are 17-24 characters long are most likely to boost your email open rates.” That can really feel short sometimes. The main lesson in that is to be direct. Language cuteness has its place, but subject lines need to make an immediate impact.

6. Utilize preheader text to boost subject line open rates. Preheaders summarize the content in your email for added explanation and enticement. Your readers gets an opportunity to preview the email, even while it sits unopened in their inbox. I just started doing this for another newsletter I send out. When done right, the subject line and the preheader complement each other. One example: “Innovative event ideas – Coffee mugs for speakers, drive-in meetings and year-round platforms highlight new twists for the virtual age.”

Market Accurately, Book Panels and Get Sound Right to Keep Your Event Audience Tuned in

Over the break I watched a live virtual event interview with the incredible cast of the new film Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom starring Viola Davis. Tragically, it became the last film for Chadwick Boseman, and one in which he may receive a posthumous Oscar nomination for his heartbreaking performamce.

The moderator was an esteemed curator of a museum. At the beginning, however, she went into much-too-lengthy introductions of the many actors. If not for the promise of what was to come, I fear she would have lost many viewers—perhaps they did anyway. I recall this now because I’m reading a virtual event survey called the 2020 Redback Report. In it, they specifically advise to tell your moderator to avoid long bios in the introduction. Focus on “what that presenter will be bringing to the session, rather than where they have worked.”

This tidbit is also important because according to the report, 86% of respondents say they have abandoned a virtual event early—up from 66% a year earlier. So it would seem crucial that the early pace of your events moves briskly and gets to the point.

Here are more takeouts from this event report.

Schedule early in the week… Tuesday is their favorite day to attend digital events, nominated by one in three respondents (32%), closely followed by Wednesday (29%). These two days are almost twice as popular as the next most popular day—which is actually Friday, with 17%. Thursday went from 27% last year to 8% this year. Maybe it becomes just too packed in our remote worlds.

…And early in the day. The time of day that respondents prefer to attend an online event is mid-morning, cited by two in five respondents (39%), followed by mid-afternoon (23%). Any other time in the morning ran third (15%), beating out lunchtime, which was preferred by just 13%. “I’m able to focus more easily and retain information in the mornings,” said one respondent. The problem for our east coast events is that mid-morning makes it pretty early for west coast people.

Book more than one presenter. According to this study, single-presenter events are declining in popularity, with close to half of us preferring two or more voices. Almost three-fourths of the respondents prefer a format with multiple people speaking. Only 18% prefer a single speaker. Interactive audience Q&As are also popular.

Talk with your moderator. In addition to shortening the intros, Redback recommends making sure that your moderator fully understands what the presenter(s) is presenting ahead of time. “You don’t need to know the topic in detail, but you should understand it at a high level.” If possible have the moderator and presenter speak to each other before. But “don’t script it,” they warn. “Have prepared questions that segue into each topic of the presentation, but keep the event free-flowing.”

Be clear in your marketing for the event. Remind attendees why they signed up for an event—looking at the email they responded to could help here—because the most common reason to leave a virtual event early is that it was “not what I signed up for.” Another big reason is when presenters are “too salesy and not educational enough.” Being live does seem to have an advantage as live viewing is increasing. More than four in five respondents (83%) attend at least half of all digital events live rather than on demand—up from 64% who did so in 2019. So they recommend that even when you pre-record a talk, presenting it first at a specific time is best, with at least a live Q&A if possible.

Get the sound right. “If you take one thing away from this year’s Redback Report, make it the importance of crystal clear sound,” they write. Besides the obvious, this is important because many people will switch to audio only as they do other things. Asked what’s most important for a digital event, 63% said audio quality while only 33% said video clarity.

Look for enthusiasm. Asked what makes a virtual event great, 49% of respondents said when “presenters are enthusiastic and engaging. Three in four respondents (74%) said passion and good online delivery were essential qualities in a great presenter—well ahead of being knowledgeable about the content (22%). To improve events, 51% said “being able to access the presenter after the event in an online forum” and almost a third said smoother technology.

This particular report, which you can download here, did mostly stay away from the ability to connect and interact with your colleagues. We will address that another day.

‘Produce Work That Fits Their Needs’; 2021 Predictions Focus on Being Essential

While none of us has a crystal ball, the journalists and media execs that NiemanLab chooses every year for their predictions usually come pretty close to being right. In the cross-sample I’ve chosen, we are encouraged to think about what worked well in our COVID coverage to apply elsewhere, be essential to our audience, and over-deliver on value.

“Pull out the red pen and start crossing out what’s no longer working,” writes Jacqué Palmer, a senior content strategist focused on newsletters for Gannett, in NiemanLab’s annual Predictions for Journalism 2021. “Do not go into 2021 with the mentality of ‘this is how we’ve always done it.’ This year has shown us that we need to adjust how we serve our audiences.

“Pull all the email data you can for the past three years. If the data is showing you that no one’s reading your sports content in email, pandemic or not, then nix that newsletter. Find out what other channels resonate more with that audience, create a strategy around serving them there, and invite those newsletter subscribers to join you. Do this for all your newsletters. Commit to developing a more intentional strategy around your newsletters that have high engagement, retention and loyalty rates.”

Palmer’s assessment is just one of many excellent entries in this year’s predictions. Here are three more that seem especially on target for us (see them all here):

Take the COVID resources idea into other areas. “When the coronavirus pandemic first hit northern Ohio in early spring, our team at Mahoning Matters poured their efforts into building resources on topics like ordering from local restaurants and educating kids at home, as well as updating a rolling FAQ, writes Mandy Jenkins, general manager of The Compass Experiment at McClatchy and publisher of its two local news sites.” Of course, we saw similar efforts from many SIPA publishers, but then Jenkins goes further: “We took the same approach in compiling our voter guides for November’s election—including content on the issues and candidates on the ballot as well as the basics of how to register to vote. These resources and guides ranked among our most visited stories of the year, serving our regular readers and attracting new ones via social shares and search.”

Don’t chase — build. And build with integrity. “I believe 2021 will be (should be) the year we embrace audiences of all shapes and sizes and work to produce work that fits their needs—as opposed to chasing as many people as we can to pay attention,” writes Cory Haik, chief digital officer at Vice Media Group. “We need to be essential. Here is a non-comprehensive list of some of the things I’m thinking about as I consider the needs of my audience, as opposed to my own business bias in how I serve them:

– Ask your audiences what they need. Talk to real people; be a reporter about it.
– Tell your advertisers what your audiences say they need.
– Community and connection are part of the value proposition of a digital publisher, which can be the opposite of “race for as many eyeballs as possible.”
– People follow people, not brands. Consider how you show up in places where you weren’t really invited (i.e., TikTok).
– Our products should be content-led; we are content companies.
– Dig into the insights and source material. Understand the why and the need being served before launching anything new.”

Deliver more value than expected. “If growing content personalization and the rise of AI were journalism predictions of past years, the prediction for next year goes further—combining both, accelerating personalization to become more comprehensive and integrated,” writes Renée Kaplan, head of digital editorial development of the Financial Times.

“We’ll be developing much more than just the customization of content preferences, combining it with understanding preferred modes of accessing and consuming content. We’ll seek out and leverage every possible kind of behavioral data about our users, trying to understand their day, their seasonal habit shifts, their weekend evenings, their professional aspirations, their families, their holidays—understanding what topics in what formats or devices we need to prioritize for their needs, whether it’s shorter audio briefings in the morning, an email digest of text links on Saturdays, or a customized desktop homepage during working hours.

“The future of news media is one in which we deliver more than what subscribers think they paid for. We compete with not only other similar news media but every kind of frictionless and dynamically adaptive content experience that users get from all the other content apps on their phones. As always—for better or for worse—excellent journalism, even the perfect customized mix of journalism, isn’t enough anymore… We need to learn how to anticipate a specific kind of content need and develop an adapted editorial product for it: the capacity to offer our journalism in a content experience suitable to any (ideally all!) of a user’s needs.”

These four happen to be all from women leaders. Fitting then that the last one I’ll mention is titled, Let’s Normalize Women’s Leadership,” by Errin Haines, editor-at-large at The 19th.

‘Ultimately, You Want People to Be Invested in Your Central Story’; a Master Storyteller Offers Advice

“In science, as in other fundamentally human pursuits, we would do well to remember that we are only truly at our best and most equipped to tackle grand challenges when we put our differences aside and work together.”

That is the final sentence of the 2020 Silver EXCEL Award winner for Best Feature Article—“Tracking the Journey of a Uranium Cube” by Timothy Koeth and Miriam Hiebert of the department of materials science and engineering at the University of Maryland, for the American Institute of Physics’ Physics Today. It is a dramatic ending to a riveting story about Germany’s failed attempt to build a nuclear reactor during WWII. We are taken through the panels of history that was ignited for the authors by the delivery to them of a small uranium cube in 2013.

So many things work about this article—the language, the historical heft, the arc of the story—but what stands out for me in reading it now is the ending and the place they eventually took the reader. It reminded me of a quote I read from the brilliant storyteller, performer and filmmaker Mike Birbiglia.

“People always say with stories: There needs to be a beginning, a middle and an end. I disagree slightly. I feel like there just has to be an end… and it has to be definitive, and you need to indicate to the audience that eventually you’ll get there. Because if it doesn’t end, people will be furious. They want to go home, they have plans, they have parking arrangements. They just want some ballpark indicator of how long this is going to be. The key thing is starting with your ending and then building it backwards from there.”

Birbiglia was speaking about his excellent live show, The New One—which I was fortunate to see in 2019. Of course, we know that all facets of a story are vital. But that idea of starting by knowing your ending could apply to many of our feature stories these days, in multiple platforms. We hear the importance of storytelling emphasized so much today, and what’s interesting is that even when a story is just 300 words or a video is just a minute, they still need a beginning, middle and end.

How’s this for a beginning of a story: “In the summer of 2013, a cube of uranium two inches on a side and weighing about five pounds found its way to us at the University of Maryland.” And how’s this for a middle? “…the revelation of the existence of the additional [uranium] cubes makes it clear that if the Germans had pooled rather than divided their resources, they would have been significantly closer to creating a working reactor before the end of the war.”

There’s a moral here—as writers for associations, we need to imagine where we want our readers to be at the end of our content. Have we brought them to a better place of understanding or knowledge? Have we given them ideas so they can do their job better? Have we increased their connection to the subject and to the association, or at the least, further engaged them? In this article, the authors have given the reader an incredible amount to think about, and that reflects very positively on AIP and Physics Today.

Here are four more tips from Birbiglia about storytelling:

Be as inclusive as possible. The New One—which centers on he and his wife wanting a baby—started out to be just about that and nothing more. Birbiglia said that was fine for audiences his age but drew silence at a college. “So I needed to come up with a metaphor of something that people can all relate to. And I started thinking about what I was like when I was in college and about how me and my roommates brought home a couch from the street, and then I was like, ‘Oh, that’s sounds like a great metaphor for the whole thing.'”

Be careful of your detours. “With any digression, it’s really about whether it serves the purpose of your central story.” Don’t get too far from your main point, he advises. You might lose people. “Ultimately, you want people to be invested in your central story… If you go too far from that, you can lose people’s investment in the equity you’ve built up…”

Establish eye contact (so to speak). I’m adding this one from a talk I went to by Brian Grazer, the Hollywood producer (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind). Birbiglia said to imagine that you are talking to someone one-on-one at a party. If you digress too much in your story, you might lose them. Grazer, whose latest book is titled Face to Face: The Art of Human Connection, agrees and is very big on making eye contact. The editorial equivalent of that is to engage someone early and stay on point. Don’t let them turn away.

Be as authentic as can be. Let your passions and foibles come through. “In comedy or storytelling, it’s amazing when you figure out how to be yourself,” Birbiglia said.” It’s so hard to do, and it takes years and years. I still struggle with it. To this day, I’m always trying to be more myself.”

Ronn Levine is editorial director of SIIA and can be reached at

Woman with mask using phone with city traffic background

What Price Events? Value, Not Pandemic, Should Dictate Your 2021 Pricing.

While publishers and media companies worked hard last year to provide similar and even more value for their virtual events, one element that varied was pricing. Low-priced—and even free—registration became the norm. But a pricing consultant wants you to now remind your audience that 2020 was an outlier due to the pandemic, and you have to return to a sustainable model, especially as hybrid models get closer.

“I think discounting and knee-jerk reactions to make everything free need to stay in 2020,” said Michael Tatonetti, a consultant who specializes in organization pricing, in an excellent article on Associations Now. I understand that for 2020, we wanted to get the right education to our members. That’s noble, but moving forward, it’s not sustainable financially. It can undervalue you if you eventually decide to do hybrid [events] or if we go back to in person.”

No one had definitive answers on virtual event pricing in 2020. Attendance fees ran the gamut from free to $600, and no one seemed sure about their strategy—at least until after the fact. ASAE—after starting with a fee to attend—and The Atlantic both made their major annual events free, but with several sponsors.

I just checked CES which begins next week—it was $149 up until yesterday and now jumped to $499. That’s actually interesting; I would guess that they are trying to price against the major trend that people sign up very close to the start for virtual events. (Can be a bit nerve-racking, especially for a big event like that.) Will be good to check with them afterwards to see how that strategy works.

“Sit back and ask, what is the value? What are we charging? What is the strategy?” Tatonetti said. “When we get into conversations about value, we are actually having a conversation about innovation because we are saying, what else can we do? How else can we serve? What new things should we be doing? What should we stop doing? Is there anything that is no longer of value that we can sunset?”

Here are some pricing examples from last year:

Charge for access. The Financial Times put their value on special access and on-demand networking. For their FT Live event in October, they offered three tiers: The Knowledge Pass ($299) gave you access to the live talks and the Q&A and polls. The Professional Pass ($599) added meet-the-journalist sessions and that networking—and video—on demand. The Group Pass ($3,000) multiplied everything by six people.

Price low, aim high. On the lower end, Christine Weiser, content/brand director, Tech & Learning, a Future plc division, said they charged just $25 for a big virtual event they put on—with good value—and more than 1,300 people signed on! “We had no idea,” she said. “Will they pay more? For education they do have professional development budgets.” She said if you do price low be ready for late signups.

Add value. “We feel that people are getting a lot more value [this year],” Jared Waters, training director for BVR, said about their Virtual Divorce Conference. “We can do a lot of things to add value to an event. So we figure a price point—[they charged about half of last year]—and then throw a lot of value on it. It really is a great deal for our attendees.” That value included pre- and post-conference bonus sessions and a $200 credit on their registration to a future in-person event.


Waters will be delivering a webinar for us on Jan. 21 titled Pricing & Product Evolution from Single Sale to Multi-headed MonsterRegister here – free for members.


Keep pricing similar but deliver more value. “There had been, at least back in March, a sense that virtual should be cheaper,” Heather Farley, COO of Access Intelligence, said at SIPA 2020 in June. “But people are starting to appreciate the value of what we bring [virtually]. It still has the value of live, and [brings] the experience to connect buyers and sellers. The connections that you’re bringing aren’t all of a sudden cheaper. And the same amount of time that goes into [putting together] live events goes into virtual events. We have to make sure we don’t give deep discounts.”

Cut prices but get more sponsors. TechCrunch’s Disrupt 2020 cut ticket and exhibition prices roughly in half. Individual ticket prices started at $350, down from $695 in 2019, while exhibition passes went from $1,000 to $445. There was also a Disrupt Digital Pass for $45 that offered access to one stage of programming, but did not include CrunchMatch. (It’s amazing how many names there are for virtual networking now.) Sponsorship revenue was actually up, thanks to more expensive packages (by about 6%).

When you do decide to raise prices, Tatonetti advises communicating the value you’re still providing to your audience. “As we do come back to some level of normal, now is the time to introduce some new things, and try some new things, and reprice a bit because it’s almost expected,” he said.



Remind Registrants, Do Dry Runs and Give Attendees a Clear Guide Are Just a Few Virtual Event Lessons

As The Economist recently pointed out, late flights, noisy conference halls, time away from the office, bad coffee, and too much swag gave way in 2020 to a “new set of clichés: Forgetting to unmute. Arcane sign-up processes. Over-complicated technology platforms. Connectivity snafus.” Needed kids and pet breaks. Welcome to the not-so-new normal.

Having looked at virtual event life from both sides now—as an attendee and as part of the team putting it on—I can offer at least a partial list of lessons, good and bad, as we push forward to 2021. A move to hybrid events will hopefully follow by the fall, but in the meantime we are still in virtual event mode.


Put as much energy into attending as into registering. This may be one of the biggest differences. Yes, a couple people may have opted for the beach when our BIMS event was in Fort Lauderdale, but most had paid and traveled and were coming downstairs for the sessions. But now, with registration fees much lower or often free and Zoom fatigue hanging over us, we need to remind attendees why they registered and that our event looks even better now. This should go all the way up to the event. I’ve seen analytics where an email 10 minutes in gets a good amount of clicks.


Conduct a dry run. The Economist agreed on this one. “Invite presenters and exhibitors to tech-check sessions to introduce them to your chosen platform’s idiosyncrasies, and check network links, cameras and lighting. Ask presenters to use exactly the same set-up they will be using for the live event.” This may not always be possible, but if it is, it will help alleviate some things that the 15 minutes or less that a speaker joins you on the event day doesn’t allow time for. There’s just so much more that a dry run will do for you than the explanations of the best platform organizer.

Give as clear instructions as possible for attendees—and then go over them. This is all still pretty new, and as technologies get better, much will still be new. “Let participants know what is happening and when, with easy-to-navigate event schedules. If your event contains multiple tracks, make it easy for attendees to compare what’s happening in different tracks at a given time.” We get frustrated so easily these days—I’m put off when the toaster goes wrong. So your extra attention will be appreciated—especially when you want more networking. Set up a helpline to assist attendees and provide a separate “backstage” helpline for presenters.


Schedule breaks, anticipate shorter attention spans. We had a running joke here after the very content-strong SIPA 2020 event in June. One session went right into another with hardly time for a break, if you know what I mean. So lunch, bathroom breaks, checks on the kids and pets meant missing session time. It’s certainly a balance—you want to provide value above all else. But there’s just so much we can absorb now. Of course, also emphasize the on-demand-ness of all the content. “If it doesn’t work for you now, come back and consume at a time that does!” But again, this needs reminders and easy access as well.


Try not to panic in your marketing. People register late for virtual events—often in the last week. It’s just a fact. See what the analytics are telling you about your early emails. What are people looking at? Have a strategy and adjust to what seems to be getting eyeballs. And definitely keep at it until the end.Give extra focus to that last week.


Be okay with—and maybe even encourage—recorded sessions, as long as there are live Q&As. I’ve always been a proponent of live talks, but what’s gained from the spontaneity and “this is live” button can be made up for in the Q&A. And there will just be so many other things that you have to worry about, that if by recording sessions you can reduce that list, do it.


Diversify your speakers, in every sense. Our FISD Division just had a special event day in December, and for one particular session, I recall seeing perhaps five of the six speakers were women. For an international financial services group, this has not always been the case. It was just so impressive seeing this, and a big audience followed. Spend a little extra time reaching out. Diverse experts are out there; they may just be a little under the radar and not in your rolodex. Reach out on LinkedIn or in other places where you might find new speakers. The Plug is one new site focusing on Black entrepreneurs that our BIMS keynote, Sherrell Dorsey, founded and runs.


Networking is needed and wine tastings are being duplicated for a reason. At BIMS we had an excellent sommelier lead us through some great wine questions. People asked, they chatted and spoke to each other, they smiled and they sipped a bit as well. We had ours a couple hours after the last session, around 4:30. If you do this, send reminders.


And three more from The Economist:


Set clear expectations for presenters on technical standards, dress code (how casual?), and whether you expect them to use a virtual background or a real one. Ensure they have a decent webcam, microphone and lighting setup. Ship equipment to presenters in advance if necessary, particularly for keynote speakers. Provide a ‘how to prepare’ document that summarizes all requirements in one place.


Give every session a moderator, even those with just a single speaker. Don’t ask a presenter to be a host, manage chat sessions, or decide whom to answer during the Q&A. Speakers have enough going on. (One added tip—encourage communication between those moderators and the platform people, so they know exactly what will be taking place.)


Think about providing transcripts. Pre-recording sessions means event organizers can arrange for text chats, closed-captioning, even ASL interpretation. Even if you do the presentations live, providing transcripts later is enthusiastically welcomed. And there is now a wide range of AI tools that can provide accurate transcripts.