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.

‘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.


Woman connecting with her computer at home and following online courses, distance learning concept

Pause Your Day, Collaborate More and Add Diverse Sources to Get 2021 Off to a Fresh Start

By Ronn Levine

Two years ago—almost to the day!—Fast Company posted an article titled How to Redesign Your Days to Give You Back a Few Extra Hours Every Week. The author listed five categories where we can make changes:

Quit Something;

Limit Something;

Pause Something;

Delegate Something; and

Add Something.

A lot has changed in two years but I think we could all use those few extra hours back every week. Contemplating these five areas during a pandemic, cultural reckoning and domestic insurgency brings a somewhat different light, but here are a few suggestions to ignite your thought processes.

For Quit Something, they wrote “Quit a recurring meeting. Quit a committee. Quit Facebook. Quit Candy Crush.” I’d say it’s a good time to quit a poor policy: going with the same old speakers for events, sources for stories and members for your audience outreach. Some favorites are okay but take some extra time to do research to find new and diverse sources for your next article and speakers for your next podcast, webinar or virtual event. Almost everyone is available these days. With those new speakers might just come a new audience. Growth consultant Robyn Duda, who moderated a great events panel for us at BIMS, led a charge to Change the Stage earlier this year. “Whether the content is digital or physical, I am challenging us all to set the bar higher, to make our stages and screens inclusive of new, different voices.”

For Limit Something, how about limiting a lack of collaboration? “Journalism has become more collaborative, but our culture, for the most part, has not,” writes Bo Hee Kim, director of newsroom strategy for The New York Times, in NiemanLab’s Predictions for 2021. “Leaders will need to believe that newsroom culture has a bigger impact on the journalism than they understood in previous years—that a strong team dynamic is as important as their sharp and shiny stars. Managers are key to this transition and will need to reset with a new definition of success, followed by support and training to change.” True collaboration was never easy and has become even harder during our remote lives. “The challenge before you as you craft your narrative,” DEI expert Leslie Mac eloquently told us at AM&P 2020, “is how to motivate in a way to lift humanity and be bold as you go about your work. This is not the time for casual work. Together is where we can create change.”

For Pause Something, they wrote: “[Go] on a walk in the middle of the day. [Give] yourself permission to run an errand during your lunch break. Stopping for a moment to assert your ability to do the non-urgent reduces the sense that everything has to happen at a frenetic pace, and that there’s no time to slow down.” Wow, this has just multiplied in its relevancy! Many of us are starting our work day earlier and ending later, amplifying the need to take breaks. There is one problem, however. In his book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, Dan Pink wrote: “Research shows us that social breaks are better than solo breaks—taking a break with somebody else is more restorative than doing it on your own.” That may not be easy right now. I greatly miss my walks around the office during the day. Try reaching out to a neighbor for a socially distant walk or call a friend while you walk. I need to do more of that.

Delegate Something has become a bit tougher in these times, for two reasons. One, we’re interacting even less, of course, with co-workers so delegating something takes more intentional outreach. And two, maybe “delegate” isn’t a great word anymore because we only think of giving tasks to someone less senior, rather than sharing tasks and perhaps giving one or two to someone who is more suited to them, regardless or your command chain. Wrote Fast Company: “As you plan your day, ask yourself: Is this something that I really need to do myself, or could someone else do this instead?” If this makes you reach out to a colleague, then that’s a good thing. A 10-minute phone call can supersede 30 minutes of emails sometimes.

For Add Something, their advice now makes me chuckle a bit. “Add an exercise class, book a trip, plan a get-together with friends.” No, no and no. Okay, well, actually, I do have a virtual yoga class Thursdays at 5:45 pm from a woman I met in Jamaica three years ago. These can be a bit awkward—move over Romeo (the cat)!—but very helpful. At our last staff meeting, our CEO got such a good reaction to his request for favorite holiday cookies that he’s now asking for recipes to compile into a guide. That is one very enticing and tasteful addition that can be replicated in many different ways. Business-wise, how about adding more member photos to your publications. “It’s always nice to feature the faces of your members and [worth the effort] tracking down those photos,” Lilia LaGesse, senior creative strategist, GRAPHEK, told us at AM&P 2020.

Ronn Levine, editorial director for SIIA, can be reached at

download (1)

Behind Questex’s New ‘Modern’ Information Model: Combining Content, Data and Events to Go to Market Faster

Editor’s Note: Join Paul Miller at our virtual Business Information & Media Summit on Dec. 2 for a look at The New Go-to-Market Strategy: How Questex Launches Products Faster, Better and More Profitably. Join the discussion as Paul shows how Questex aligned internal assets to create a more efficient structure and leverages data to drive the entire process. Register here. 

In June, Questex announced the creation of a “modern” information services model that leverages audience data to tie content and events closer together to create a year-round customer engagement framework.

And as publishers scramble to make up for lost event revenue amidst the pandemic, the new approach also gives Questex the ability to launch new products and go-to-market at accelerated rates (think virtual events being produced over the course of a few weeks, rather than a full year, as with a live event).

Questex debuted the new approach with its Fierce Life Sciences group, aligning the Fierce content business with ExL Events, a Questex division acquired in 2016 that produces events in similar markets such as life sciences, pharma and healthcare, but until recently had operated as a separate business from Fierce.  

Tying events more closely to digital isn’t a new idea but one that hasn’t been well executed, according to Questex CEO Paul Miller [pictured]. “On a personal level, we’ve been talking about this for many years—how we combine different types of content and data and use learnings from that to bring together the community,” he adds. “We’ve almost gotten there a couple times in our past lives but not quite.”


Miller points to live events tacking on an online directory or virtual floor plan. “There’s nothing wrong with that but it’s not a real translation. Those of us coming from a digital background say, we’ve got all this data on content consumption, wouldn’t it be great if we use that to pull together conference programs around what’s trending.”

The Immediate Payoff

The new approach paid dividends almost immediately as Questex shifted to virtual events, with Fierce and ExL coming together to produce the Virtual Clinical Trials Online on April 22-23. The virtual event attracted over 2,000 registrants with 50 percent generated by the FiercePharma content websites. The sponsors saw over 600 booth visits and there were 2,800 downloads of content providing strong sales leads for the vendors.

“For the first time, we had complete collaboration between ExL and the Fierce team based on content, speaker recruitment and reporting on what’s going on at the event,” says Miller. “We’re thinking, let’s do things differently. If something is really trending, let’s change our conference program and launch it quickly, taking a couple weeks to plan rather than a full year.”

Elsewhere, Fierce is working with Arizona State U to launch a new virtual event in July for the education tech marketplace called Remote that will focus on how institutions are adapting higher education in the coronavirus era. The event already has “many thousands of registrants and high-level sponsors,” according to Miller.

With 70 percent of its revenue coming from live events prior to the pandemic, Questex hasn’t avoided a major revenue revision or the significant lay-offs that came with it.

But the Fierce group is up 20 percent year-over-year and there’s early evidence that the model can pay-off across the entire organization, including Questex increasing the overall number of webinars it produces (up from 199 in all of 2019 to 347 through May 2020), while its American Spa business capitalized on the CBD craze by launching a CBD-focused virtual event over the space of just four weeks, securing a quarter of a million dollars in sponsorships.

A Second Attempt at Reinventing B2B?

In many ways, the new Fierce approach borrows from Questex’s first attempt at reinventing the B2B media model with The Beauty Experience, a content and marketing platform that the company launched last fall for its beauty industry vertical that upended the “search and click” way of scrolling through websites by enabling users to choose specific content tags that they want to follow, which then serves up relevant content.

The idea was that the data produced by the feed and follow approach would help program events, identify prospects for sponsors and create opportunities to serve users beyond the events itself. Unfortunately, the Beauty Experience Event, scheduled for March 7, was one of the first to be canceled due to COVD-19. 

“Beauty is a pro-sumer market and we learned a lot of lessons from that community, says Miller. “Social is really important there and we were able to get very good in the social world, seeing which keywords work and using artificial intelligence to personalize the journey. Unfortunately, we were not able to see that come to full fruition due to the event cancellation and some market dynamics in the beauty sector.”

Getting There: Culture is the Biggest Obstacle

While Questex needed the right tech infrastructure to get the right data into the right hands, Miller says that getting beyond perceived cultural differences between Fierce and ExL was the biggest challenge. 

“We were dealing with two different cultures that hadn’t been integrated and the team didn’t do a lot together,” says Miller. “Fierce thought it did this, ExL thought it did that. But did they really? The fact of the matter was, they needed to be doing stuff together.”

While COVID-19 has been the bane of B2B publishing, it has helped Questex pushed through some of the inertia that would have held up change in the past.

“In terms of collaboration and bringing these groups together, I have to say the COVID situation helped us do this more quickly than we normally would of,” says Miller.

Miller credits Questex’s ability to break down siloes and get groups working more closely together to its Centers of Excellence, in which experts across the company come together to produce best practices in a variety of areas including audience and database, content, customer experience, and product, with topics ranging from protecting customer privacy to identifying where the customer is in the buying cycle to hosting virtual events to which headlines work best and why.

“The first thing is you need to do it to make the decision on what you want your internal core competencies to be, which is easier said than done,” says Miller. “Usually, you’re saying collaboration gives you more of a competitive advantage than really deep product knowledge. We combine the two—the markets work with the Centers of Excellence by saying ‘Our audience wants this, our advertisers wants that’, and the Centers of Excellence say, ‘OK, we have that over here, which parts work for you and what do we have to create as new?’”

Having that expertise on hand has enabled Questex to move quickly. “Someone asked, how have you pivoted so quickly to virtual events?” says Miller. “We just did it, but in essence we didn’t just do it because we have six people on our team in our Centers of Excellence who were part of creating the first scalable virtual events about a decade ago.

download (2)

Connectiv To Merge With Major B2B Publishing Associations

Editor’s note: The following is an announcement from Jeff Joseph, President of Connectiv parent SIIA; Meg Hargreaves, SIIA Board Chair; and Kevin Novak, Connectiv Board Chair. 

We hope that this email finds you and your organization in good health and steering to solid ground during this time of upheaval and transformation. We have seen Connectiv members move with impressive agility and originality in accelerating and shifting strategies and operations and we have been pleased to see strong response to Connectiv programs designed to help you navigate these turbulent times.

We are excited to announce change is coming to Connectiv as well. SIIA, the parent association of Connectiv, is pleased to announce the consolidation of ConnectivAssociation Media and Publishing and the Specialized Information Publishers Association into one newly branded association, designed to bring greater value to your membership while retaining the high value programming, content and networking opportunities that have long been hallmarks of each division. This change follows a vote and passage by the SIIA board of a streamlined FY21 budget (effective July 1) and a strategic plan framework that included both this merger and the elimination of two other separate divisions, ETIN and SSD.

The board moved with both strategic and financial considerations in mind as the organization seeks to shape a compelling future-focused value proposition, retain popular programs and conserve resources under a single leader, unified brand and updated website. These efforts were obviously accelerated following COVID-19, which has dealt the Association as well as our members difficult challenges around live events. We are confident this new streamlined and consolidated membership group will be the premier membership organization for the specialized publishing, content, and media community, as we convene, develop, educate and advocate for current and emerging leaders of an industry undergoing rapid and continuous change.

This important effort is not taking place in a vacuum. We have convened a working group consisting of board members and representatives from the three associations to help develop value-added programming, content and a governance and operating structure that provides myriad volunteer opportunities. As we move forward, your interests will continue to be well represented via a new advisory board, which we expect to announce in the coming weeks – along with the new association’s branding, staff leadership and additional volunteer opportunities for you.

Of course, we need and desire current and recent member input as we take the next steps toward building the new organization. To that end, we are working with Readex Research to conduct an online survey designed to probe on membership benefits, service gaps and needs. The insights gained from your survey participation will help ensure that SIIA continues to serve as a valuable resource to you and others in the media, content and publishing industry.

Kindly be on the lookout for a survey link from Readex this Thursday, August 13. The short survey can be completed in about 10-12 minutes, and your participation is greatly appreciated.

This letter is the first of regular updates you will receive throughout August discussing the changes and our new path forward. On August 31, we will hold a live webinar providing an update, further describing the rationale and strategy, and taking your questions. FAQs, which may answer other questions, are now available on the SIIA website.

As our members have long recognized, SIIA operates at a pivotal and difficult juncture for trade associations, exacerbated by the pandemic. We believe this consolidated approach sets a strong foundation to launch a new division, poised for the growth, serving both for-profit and non-profit entities. We hope you will share our excitement as the vision takes shape.

Please feel free to reach out to Jeff or SIIA staff with your questions, comments, or concerns. We greatly welcome and value your input as we move forward. And please let us know if you wish to opt out of future communications on this matter.

Jeff Joseph

Meg Hargreaves

Kevin Novak


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.


FTC Delivers Stern Warning on Native Advertising and Sponsored Content

Two years after holding a workshop on “native advertising,” the Federal Trade Commission (FTC or Commission) has issued an enforcement policy statement and guidance for businesses on how to utilize native or sponsored content without crossing the line into deceptive advertising.

With these new materials, the FTC maintains that not all native advertising is necessarily deceptive, but that this type of content should not be “indistinguishable from news, feature articles, product reviews, editorial, entertainment and other regular content.”  Put another way, the Commission is seeking to ensure that practices do not mask the signals consumers customarily have relied upon to recognize an advertising or promotional message.

What exactly did the FTC release?

There are two distinct document released by the Commission.  First, the Enforcement Policy Statement on Deceptively Formatted Advertisements is essentially a summary of the underlying principles the Commission has used in enforcement actions, advisory opinions and other guidance over several decades addressing various forms of deceptively formatted advertising.  This document establishes very clearly the Commission’s policy on deceptive advertising, and it chronicles the long history of cases over the years where they have determined advertising was provided in deceptive formats, misrepresented source or nature, and provided misleading door openers or deceptive endorsements.  The message from Commission in this document is as follows:

Regardless of an ad’s format or medium of dissemination, certain principles undergird the Commission’s deceptive format policy.  Deception occurs when an advertisement misleads reasonable consumers as to its true nature or source, including that a party other than the sponsoring advertiser is the source of an advertising or promotional message, and such misleading representation is material.  In this regard, a misleading representation is material if it is likely to affect consumers’ choices or conduct regarding the advertised product or the advertisement, such as by leading consumers to give greater credence to advertising claims or to interact with advertising with which they otherwise would not have interacted.  Such misleadingly formatted advertisements are deceptive even if the product claims communicated are truthful and non-misleading.

Of course, determining what is or is not deceptive is the tricky part, as we’ve been discussing for the past couple years.   The second and more important document for publishers is, Native Advertising: A Guide for Businesses. This set of practical guidance seeks to identify which practices are acceptable, or “clear and prominent,” and to differentiate from those that are not.  The guidance contains many examples regarding when businesses should disclose that content is “native advertising,” and how to go about making clear and prominent disclosures.  Boiling down this standard, the Commission provides detailed recommendations about the “proximity and placement” of disclosures so that consumers will notice them and easily identify the content to which the disclosure applies.  For instance, the FTC has suggested that placement of disclosures “in front of or above the headline,” or in the case of an image or a graphic, that “disclosure might need to appear directly on the focal point itself.”

The Commission also clearly states that a single disclosure may not be sufficient where there are: multiple ads in a grouping (depending on the formatting if the advertisements are mixed with non-sponsored content); that disclosures should remain when native ads are republished by others and remain after consumers arrive or click on the ad; and that multimedia ads should be accompanied by a disclosure before consumers receive the advertising message to which it relates.

Perhaps most significantly, the guidance also addresses the language which should be used in disclosures, stating that these should be in “plain language that is straightforward as possible,” and “the same language as the predominant language in which the ad is presented.”  It identifies specific terms that are likely to be understood, such as:  “ad,” “advertisement,” “paid advertisement,” “sponsored advertising content,” or some variation thereof.  It also identifies that the following terms should not be used:  “promoted” or “promoted stories,” which are ambiguous and potentially misleading.  Also, terms such as “presented by [x}, “brought to you by [x],” “promoted by [x],” or “sponsored by [x]” may reasonably be interpreted by consumers that a sponsoring advertiser funded or “underwrote” but did not create or influence the content.  This is important in cases where editorial staff may work directly with advertisers or sponsors.  In those cases, it’s not unlikely that the FTC could find these labels misleading.

With respect to the application of these guidelines, the Commission made it a point to specifically state that they don’t just apply to advertisers.  If you’re a publisher, ad agency or operator of affiliate advertising networks, or “everyone who participates directly or indirectly in creating or presenting native ads should make sure that ads don’t mislead consumers about their commercial nature,” you have a responsibility to honor these guidelines.

What does this change, and what does it mean for businesses?

These documents have been out for less than 24 hours, so they’re worth a thorough review and discussion among publishers, advertisers and affected parties.   As we highlighted in our summary of the December 2011 workshop, the FTC has been enforcing deceptive advertising for decades, they were  sure to follow with specific guidance on “native” at some point, and they don’t need any new authority to crack-down on new and innovative forms of native advertising—rather  they have all of the authority they need under Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits “unfair or deceptive acts or practices in or affecting commerce.”

What the Commission did yesterday was to (1) signal very clearly they have the authority and a long history of enforcement in this area, and (2) to establish some fairly precise guidance around adequate disclosures.  There are definitely some gray areas, as is usually the case with respected to complex practices, such as those where there is close collaboration between editorial staff and sponsors in the production of content, depending on how this may be placed.

After a workshop, two years of deliberation, and this set of documents, publishers and other businesses are officially on notice that the FTC is likely to ramp-up enforcement in this area.  So, a review of your current practices with respect to native advertising and sponsored content would be an excellent New Year’s resolution!