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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.”

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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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World Economic Outlook 2020-2021: The Great Lockdown

The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt the U.S and world economies a series of often unprecedented shocks—the “Great Lockdown” as economists refer to it, basically closed a wide range of sectors including travel, tourism and entertainment and many more, resulting in unemployment rates in the U.S. of more than 20 percent as of June 2020 and drastic revisions of worldwide economic growth for 2020 and 2021.

In a Connectiv/SIIA webinar on June 3, Chris Walker, Deputy Division Chief of the International Monetary Fund, offered an overview of how government and financial institutions are attempting to combat the crisis as well as economic forecasts for the U.S. and other advanced and emerging economies based on IMF research that can be found here.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the IMF had predicted the U.S. economy would grow at a rate of 2.3 percent in 2020—basically the same rate of growth for the last 10 years. Now, however, the IMF has dramatically revised its forecast, suggesting a drop of 5.9 percent for the U.S. and 7.5 percent for the Euro area this year.

“Anticipated drop per person worldwide is considered to be much sharper than during the 2009 financial crisis, which at the time was consider the gravest financial crisis since the Great Depression,” said Walker. “That highlights the scale of what we are dealing with.”

Governments and financial institutions have also taken actions not seen since 2009 (and in many cases, exceeding those measures) in an effort to preserve economies, including paycheck protection, loans for small business and individual rebates, as well as the Federal Reserve cutting interest rates to nearly zero.

“If you consider the three packages passed by Congress, that’s an increase in spending of about $3 trillion or 3% of the total GDP,” said Walker. “The Fed has provided a huge amount of credit support to the corporate sector and even extended lending to municipalities. Interest on a 10-year bond is now well below 1%, something no one anticipated the U.S. would ever reach.”

A recovery path depends on several factors, most notably a resurgence of COVID-19 in the second half of 2020 and 2021. “Our initial estimate is that we will not have a V-shape recovery for advanced economies–it’s actually shaped more like a check-mark with a sharp drop followed by a more gradual recovery over time,” said Walker. “Most risks are to the downside, with the first downside scenario being the outbreak lasts longer than originally anticipated. That means that at the toughest point, growth will be 2% or 3% worse than what we forecast. For example, the forecast for the U.S. is minus 5.9% for 2020 but that could end up being a loss of 8%.”

On the bright side, neither the U.S. government nor world economic institutions have exhausted their means of support. “We can’t borrow indefinitely even at these rates and not expect to see repercussions,” said Walker. “However, we are far from limit of support that the government can provide. If you can issue debt at less than zero percent and it can be used to support economic activity, that is an opportunity.”

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PE Firm MidOcean Partners Offers Employee Support Fund to Portfolio Companies During COVID-19 Crisis

MidOcean Partners, which owns B2B media and information companies such as Questex and Hanley Wood|Meyers Research, has created an Employee Support Fund that offers financial assistance to employees of its portfolio companies during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Support Fund—which is available to recently furloughed and laid off employees as well as current staffers—is intended to help with any one-time unforeseen hardships, including medical conditions and procedures not related to COVID-19 and caring for family members that are experiencing hardships.

“When the crisis hit, it affected each of our companies differently” says Jim Scarfone, MidOcean’s Chief Human Resource Officer. “Some are barely affected while others suddenly had no revenue coming in. Obviously, this is a time of hardship for a lot of people and we discussed internally, what else can MidOcean do?”

In addition to financial assistance, MidOcean will cover the cost for employees of portfolio companies to receive legal counsel for up to one month from another MidOcean holding, LegalShield, which provides affordable access to legal services and identify theft and monitoring and restoration services.

MidOcean hasn’t publicized the Employee Support Fund (I heard about it from a Connectiv member who is an executive at a MidOcean portfolio company) but it’s an outstanding gesture and reminder that we are all in this together.

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How Events Are Finding New Revenue (and Securing Budgets for Rescheduled Shows at the Same Time)

As events originally scheduled for the first and second quarters of 2020 migrate to a fall season already packed with existing conferences and trade shows, preserving original budgets is no sure thing.

Two clients of M&A advisory firm Grimes, McGovern & Associates are creatively leveraging new webinar strategies and membership programs to not only drive new revenue and secure sponsors and attendees for their rescheduled live events, but keep their valuations intact as they explore sales to new owners.

“At first it was the March events but within a week it became apparent that April and May were in jeopardy too,” says Marlon Wurmitzer, Senior Associate at Grimes, McGovern & Associates. “The sole owner of the business, who also runs the conferences, had to act quickly because we are in the middle of trying to secure the sale of his company. Because of his ability to scramble quickly, he has created a revenue stream that will increase the value of the organization.”

That company produces more than 20 events with 300 to 600 attendees and revenue of $50,000 to $200,000 each across the emerging technology, digital infrastructure and commercial real estate markets.

To produce revenue now, as well as preserve sponsors and attendees for events shifting to the fall, the company created an hour-long “Daily Webinar” featuring one or two sponsors paying between $1,500 to $3,000 each. The webinars feature thought leaders from both sponsors and end-user organizations and are free to attendees—provided you are a ticket holder to a future live event.

Another Grimes, McGovern client is hosting weekly webinars that are sponsor-curated, with free access for all current subscribers. Sponsors pay between $7,500 and $15,000 for each webinar and the company is planning to transition subscribers to an annual membership program to receive exclusive access for this type of content at a later date.

“Sponsors have been receptive as long as the pitch takes into account the grave situation that we are all going through at this time,” says Wurmitzer. “Value needs to be demonstrated. In terms of attendees, this has shown us that there is an absolute need for value and insight during this time of crisis.”

The two event companies are generating between 200 and 400 attendees per webinar and projecting $20,000 to $50,000 per month in new revenue over the course of the next three months.

An Opportunity for Smaller Events?

Wurmitzer says the future is extremely bright for smaller event organizations, more so than larger ones. “If a company has had to cancel a sponsorship to, say, one of the bigger Data Center Conferences companies like Gartner, DCD, Microsoft or AWS, they may find themselves with extra sponsor money available in 2020 on a ‘use it’ or ‘lose it’ basis. Smaller event companies are poised to benefit and they are beginning to hear from potential sponsor that they never secured before, for their fall events.”