The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) has been setting up virtual events throughout the pandemic to bolster its editorial coverage as well as to expand its pool of 2.5m digital subscribers.
The Future of Everything Festival is one of its landmark events, with a three-day agenda on a breadth of topics (as the name suggests), like technology, philanthropy and sustainability.
In normal times, it would net around 4,000 physical delegates. But its last virtual event, also held over three days, captured 15,000 unique delegates and close to 30,000 when we include all the returning attendees throughout the festival, said Kim Last, head of live journalism and special content at the FIPP D2C Summit last week.
It was not the only event that was a hit; 5,000 people attended the last two WSJ Jobs Summits, a brand new event created during the pandemic for job seekers navigating career and employment uncertainty.
Part of the appeal is the fact that people had more time on their hands during lockdown. There is also the "democratisation of access", as Last puts it, where it has especially seen Asian and European audiences tuning in to hear talks from prestigious guests like Jerome Powell, the Federal Reserve Chairman.
"We were hearing that this was a particular event that could help people, and it was designed as a toolkit to embody and heighten out service journalism," says Last.
"We have the information and data to help you in this long stretch of your career."
Headlines in real-time
In reality, these events show "news happening in real time" and see the story break before the headline is written.
The team has thought hard about how to fight the oft-cited "Zoom fatigue". Last thinks that part of the problem is regurgitated talks and PR mantras, so the team focused on original stories.
For example, the American investor and CEO of hedge fund company Pershing Square Capital Management, Bill Ackman took to the stage to break the news about his company investing in pizza company Domino's.
"Boom: there's your headline," says Last. "No-one knew that and we made that news on the stage."
Although the team agrees on an agenda and topic of conversation, journalists are on hand to pounce on scoops from these "newsmakers" - high profile guests who are magnets for stories, like Elon Musk and the aforementioned Powell.
Editorial teams are assigned talks to monitor and cover, just like the external press who have tuned in and are expecting to file a story based on merit. Video producers service out the clips to the right desks at WSJ and depending on the story, even further afield to other publications across its parent company Dow Jones.
Switching up the tempo
"It certainly feels like you’re seeing a litmus test in real-time around which sessions people are enjoying," says Last, adding that the data provided by virtual events affords crucial insights on which interviewers they liked and gauging delegate opinions on subjects.
Virtual events have also afforded room to experiment. Something that has proven to work so far is soliciting pre-taped recorded questions from audiences, either for attendees who are tuning in live or on-demand.
They have also hosted AMA (ask me anything) sessions which is a considerable departure from the sessions where journalists probe speakers. Turning the tables has been a good way to engage people on Zoom panels.
Bumps in the road
It is not just useful to breathe life into a stagnant Zoom chat box; the reverse has also been true. Some well-attended events have had chat functions overloaded with comments from delegates, sometimes to the point of choking the networking element. Keeping questions pre-selected helps keep this under wraps.
"We’ve also had to get very comfortable with the idea that not everyone will sit there glued to their office chair or laptop watching, and that’s okay," says Last.
She has coined a term called '‘choose your own adventure', which essentially means that delegates can come and go throughout the day freely. The big consideration is making sure talks geared towards certain markets suit the time zones they are aimed at. Generally, WSJ has pivoted to shorter agendas for virtual events and that has worked well to sustain engagement.
Other issues have just been a matter of trial and error, and we have all had our fair problems with the production values: iffy backgrounds, people stuck on mute, and dodgy WiFi connections.
Zoom has been the preferred tech platform for WSJ precisely because international audiences have different internet stabilities. But it all gives the publication something to think about as hybrid events enter the conversation: utilising the best of both the virtual and physical venues.
WSJ is hosting Tech Live this October: "three days of unscripted interviews with game-changers around the globe, peeks behind the industry’s elusive curtain and new spins on networking."
It is also the first true hybrid, bi-costal event: two days in Laguna Beach (California), one day in Washington, and an online audience streaming in throughout the three days.
The venues will welcome 100 or so senior-level attendees, whilst anyone can register for the online version.
"Certain events in the past could have been seen as these closed-door events and maybe we'd run a short piece or a video clip [afterwards]," says Last.
"But [this time] we'll take some of the really big highlights from the newsmakers and stream it across the Journal platform: to the homepage, app and social channels, for example.
"The added benefit of being there physically with us is the potential chance to bump into speakers and senior-level delegates sitting near you. That true, event DNA that we all used to live and breathe.
"But as for hybrid, there is also a lot to be said about the distribution opportunity here; the big audiences on top of the senior, influential leaders who want to use this for networking opportunities, in particular."
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Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the Live Journalism Team "rehearses with its guests". WSJ has said this would break its journalistic standards and clarified it only agrees on an outline of conversation ahead of time. Tech Live is also happening in Laguna Beach, not Los Angeles, and the article has been updated to reflect that.