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‘You’ve Got To Be Bold’ – Why Moving to Virtual Events for All of 2020 Is Turning Into a Win for PRWeek

The hope that live events will return in the fall is increasingly giving way to the realization that many (if not most) conferences and trade shows in the U.S. will continue to be virtual or hybrids of online and in-person for the remainder of 2020. Last week, Informa saw an 8% stock jump when it said select trade shows would resume in Asia but warned that live events in the U.S. won’t return until at least September.

On June 3, Haymarket Media’s PRWeek became one of the first B2B media brands to announce that its full slate of events—including conferences and awards programs—will go virtual for the remainder of the year. Soon after, another Haymarket brand, Medical Marketing & Media, announced it will also be taking the remainder of its 2020 events virtual.

I caught up with Steve Barrett, Vice President and Editorial Director of PRWeek, on making the call, how virtual events are opening up new audiences and how the PRWeek edit team is rising to the challenge by creating new types of content that break the mold of traditional B2B.

On making the decision to go virtual for the remainder of the year…

Steve Barrett: The start of the lockdown came at bad time for everyone but particularly for us because we had our biggest event of year, the PRWeek Awards, set for March 19 in New York City, where we get over 1,000 PR pros in a room at Cipriani.

You’ve got to be bold in business. We had to make a difficult call then and we’ve been making difficult decisions about events since then. We’ve got awards shows, conferences, honorifics like our Hall of Fame, which honors women in PR, our Brand Film Festival at the Paley Center for Media and our Global Awards program that usually takes place in London.

At the end of the day, after taking all the guidance of our stakeholders into account and thinking about safety, which is the most important thing, and whether there’s really an appetite to travel and get together in large groups, we decided for clarity, for safety and so everyone can plan for rest of year, to call it and go virtual.

How virtual events give PRWeek new scale…

Whilst it’s regrettable that we can’t meet in person, there’s a lot of things that you can do like widening it out to a larger audience.

Our Global Awards are normally held in London. We made it a three-part event and optimized each day for a different part of the world—one day for Europe, one day for Asia, one day for the U.S.

At a physical event, nobody wants to sit there and watch loads of content—they want to network, they want to go to parties and obviously, we want to encourage that. In a virtual environment, they are more apt to focus on the content.

Our smaller Convene events usually run over lunch and we do three or four 30 to 40-minute discussions. We had one on COVID-19 and communicating in the coronavirus era and three thousand people registered. Normally, an event like that would get 80 to 90 people in a room.

When we come back to live events, virtual elements will still be part of that going forward. We’ve seen the potential of it.

On redefining content in the COVID-19 era…

We’ve added a lot of new elements to our weekly content. Lockdown Life features profiles of people in their work-at-home situations and includes fun videos where we get kids to say what they think their parents do for a living. We’ve talked to people in the industry who had the virus and what that experience was like; we had one where we featured two people working from home at competing PR firms.

There’s been a lot of bad news this summer so we’ve tried to balance that with some fun and engaging content. We launched Coffee Break, which are just short, 15-minutes videos like we’re doing here, with people in the industry.

At Haymarket Media we’ve got 40 brands across the world and we launched a coronavirus briefing with content from all those brands. Whereas B2B is about going deep in a vertical, this was a horizontal slice on one topic. That was really interesting—I could see that happening on other issues like the future of work or diversity.

Necessity is the mother of invention and editorial teams have been doing this for 10, 15 years now. We’ve had to be scrappy; we’ve had to pivot. We’ve had to work through challenges before like the financial crisis. I sometimes think consumer media is only just catching up to us. We’re battle-worn, we’re battle-weary, but we’ve still got a lot of energy and we’re still full of great ideas and I think there’s some great content being produced in the B2B environment.

 

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Keys to Starting and Running a Top Awards Program

A SIPA member emailed me last week to tell about their success with the awards program they run. (He/she wanted to remain anonymous.) No less than a U.S. senator from Nebraska called the awards program “prestigious” and sent out a special press release congratulating the Nebraska company on its award.

After talking about the many benefits of their awards program—good publicity, building customer loyalty, greater visibility, and even some personal feel-good vignettes—the SIPA member wrote, “I guess the bottom line for publishers to remember is we have a platform to get to acknowledge excellence and make people feel good about their daily lives for them and their families, and their legacy.”

Many SIPA members run excellent awards programs: Ragan CommunicationsColumbia BooksAccess Intelligence and Chartwell, to name just a few. And, of course, SIPA has our own SIPAwards, now in their 41st year.

The SIPAwards remain the industry’s top program for honoring specialized publishers. We’ve given them a refresh this year to increase their gravitas, keep up with the times and spotlight the winners more. So you’ll see new categories like Best Team on a Project or Event, and Best Infographic, categories honoring trends like video, podcasts, social media and data use, and then, of course, the standards for newsletters, articles, marketing and investigative reporting. Others that got fewer entries have been consolidated.

Here are some other keys to running a successful awards program:

Choose a good foundation. Use an awards system and process that saves you time, makes you look good, and, most importantly, is easy for every participant in your program.

Take time to plan an accurate and appropriate program calendar. Timing is critical for all awards programs. If your call for entry is too short, you may lose out on potential applicants. If you plan your gala near a holiday, no one will show up. Don’t approximate timelines; take the time to plan things out carefully.

Create a great awards website. Your awards website is one of the most important parts of your program and should be a big focus in the preparation of your call for entry. Ours is here. In creating an informative and easily navigable site you can guarantee that any visitor’s questions will be answered, and that they can become familiar with your program’s legacy and credibility within the industry.

Link your program to the core values of the organization. Whether you’re just getting started or are a seasoned veteran, step back and ask yourself: Is your program aligning with the goals and values your organization is trying to promote? A successful awards program will be focused on what the organization is all about and create an opportunity for others in the industry to showcase their similar interests.

Attract and promote a high-caliber panel of judges. Cynopsis did this for their Short Form Video Festival awards, and we do this as well for the SIPAwards. It makes winning much more special. Jurors for Cynopsis included film executives from Vox Media, IFC, People/Entertainment Weekly and Meredith. For SIPA we get many presidents of member companies and experts in their niches.

Price reasonably and incentivize early entries. If you can get your entry to us by Friday Feb. 28, the cost per entry is the lowest price. Getting early entries also helps you relax; there’s that tendency in so many of us to do the things at the last minute.

Create varied categories. What are the latest trends in the industry? What would you like to see examples of? More categories will get more entries, if you’ve done your homework and know what people are doing.

Put on an awards gala. An awards gala is a great way to celebrate all the finalists and winners in your program. It’s also the perfect way to recognize every participant in the program, from the entrants to the judges to the program managers. Splash your brand around the gala and include your sponsors, too, if you have them. It’s a win-win-win! The SIPAward Luncheon Gala will be June 2.

Analyze the program each year. When your program is over it’s tempting to sit back, feel good and chill, but it’s important not to just take a break from things until the next awards season comes. Every program should analyze their data in order to understand what worked and what didn’t and how they can use that information to make next years’ awards even better.