How a Column on Happiness Inspired The Atlantic’s 2021 Event Strategy

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Starting a regular column at the beginning of a pandemic about how to find happiness is a pretty sure bet. What The Atlantic didn’t expect was how it would pave the way for its approach to virtual events in 2021. 

The Atlantic’s How to Build a Life column by author Arthur Brooks, launched in April 2020, is going from biweekly to weekly on Jan. 21 after audiences craved more ways to build resilience and happiness. (The Atlantic declined to share specific reader metrics.)

In May, the magazine will host an event based on Brooks’ column about the pursuit of happiness with a lens on resilience and recovery, covering topics like mental health, spirituality and love. It’s the first of 20 planned virtual events in the first half of the year themed to “journalism that helps audiences navigate how pillars of society have been changed by pandemic or policy,” according to the publisher.

“Brands are gravitating to those types of conversations: the world and society today, the future of work, healthcare,” said chief revenue officer and publisher Hayley Romer, adding that there’s a stronger appetite now for brands to work with The Atlantic on topics previously thought of as controversial, like workplace inequality or racial injustice. “Being part of the relevant conversation, that is what’s important to them.”

The lower barrier to entry in creating virtual event has also made it easier for the publisher to take popular editorial topics and spin them into digital gatherings, and brands are keen to get involved.

Scale no hotel ballroom can match

Publishers are figuring out how to finance events businesses in 2021 after pivoting to virtual when the pandemic hit last March, decimating, in some cases, up to a third of publisher revenues. While the economics of in-person events are different—there are no swanky ballrooms to reserve—the revenue is often lower, but the potential audience pool greater. Experimentation into how to effectively monetize virtual events is rife.

All options are on the table for The Atlantic, including brand sponsorships, ticketed events and subscriber-only events.

In 2019, The Atlantic hosted about 140 in-person events; the revenue generated accounted for roughly 20% of the publisher’s total. In 2021, it expects events to make up roughly 15% of its total. The Atlantic wouldn’t share exact numbers, but virtual events, despite their higher margins, are not enough to mitigate the significant drop in revenue when in-person events disappeared. 

On the plus side, The Atlantic has grown virtual attendance by 50% year-over-year. People familiar with the publisher said its flagship Atlantic Live Festival had 3,000 attendees. It also transitioned a number of brands sponsoring in-person events to the virtual versions, like software as a service company Salesforce.

To spearhead its digital efforts, The Atlantic hired Candace Montgomery as general manager and svp of events. In May, the publisher laid off 68 employees (17% of staff) across its events, sales and editorial teams. Now, it has a team of 10 running event management, audience, marketing and editorial, and works with another 20 people across sales, marketing, product and edit. 

“We don’t intend to put everything we did live into virtual events,” Montgomery said. “They are uniquely different. We will focus on how to make them unique and meaningful in 2021 and beyond.”  

In December, the publisher hosted Assembling an Administration, which focused on President-elect Joe Biden’s transition to the White House. The event was underwritten by management consultancy BCG, which is also working with the publisher to create a custom podcast focused on similar issues. It’s also creating a resource for government leaders during a time of transition, where  BCG is adding its own expertise to the conversation.  





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