Five Things: June 24, 2021

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_ONE

The future of in-person events | Brian Morrissey

Hard costs are going up. Putting up a testing center is a new expense. It’s not the only new expense organizers will need to shoulder, as more staff is needed to enforce protocols like mask wearing. On top of that, events are going to start at less than normal capacity.”

The average event attendee — from small work functions to massive trade shows — typically has no idea what’s involved behind the scenes in producing an event; even bad events take a lot of time and work to put together. Among the many industries hit hard by the pandemic, live events were arguably among the worst, especially large ones that drew audiences from across the country and/or the world.

Last year, watching major events delay cancellation decisions until the last minute, often because of insurance issues, and smaller ones feint towards ill-conceived, premature re-openings was depressing and infuriating. The vast majority of hot takes typically put commerce ahead of common sense and helped fuel premature “re-open the economy” misinformation, and almost all of them were dead wrong.

The short-term future of large B2B events is absolutely going to be hybrid—smaller in-person meetings for people who genuinely value face-to-face networking and can afford the increased costs; larger free and/or cheap online events for anyone with an email address of some value. Programming & networking quality will vary wildly across the board, affecting word of mouth and further slowing the pace, while newer entrants unbound to pre-pandemic business models will have a better shot of pulling off something worthwhile.

Further consolidation is inevitable, especially among media companies who pivoted too aggressively to live events and weakened other areas, particularly editorial content, because it will be a few years before the pandemic disruptions settle down and live events have a chance to get back to the 50% margins that drove the previous pivot.

__TWO

Andy Hunter on the Role of Independent Bookstores and the Need for Innovation | BookSmarts Podcast

“BookShop—this is self serving, and I admit it, but BookShop is the most successful thing to happen for online book selling benefiting the Indies, since IndieBound, and IndieCommerce was launched by the ABA. So that was over 10 years ago. So we can say like, this is the biggest thing that’s happened in 10 years. Does that mean that we’ve had huge industry support? Not really, not from publishers.”

I’ve been ambivalent about BookShop from the beginning and, despite its inarguable success during the pandemic, remain skeptical about its long-term prospects as a significant game-changer. This interview offers some interesting insights into its pros and cons that give me some confidence it will be more successful and sustainable than the disappointing IndieBound ended up being, particularly because they recognized the value of establishing a simple affiliate program that media organizations could easily implement alongside or, in some cases, instead of linking to Amazon.

Hunter rightfully criticizes major publishers’ aggressive shifting of advertising budgets away from the media partners who organically promote their books through reviews, interviews, and softball news coverage, giving that money instead to Facebook, Google, and Amazon to build email lists and, theoretically, drive sales they can’t directly measure but will most likely attribute to Amazon. It’s one the most egregious examples of being data-driven rather than data-informed, and has done incredible damage to some of the critical industry infrastructure they rely on.

My main quibble with BookShop is the popular argument that indie bookstores are a critical discovery channel despite any hard, or even soft, data to really back that up. It’s an emotional argument supported by a small fraction of successful indie booksellers, but it ignores the wide swaths of this country where readers’ only physical options are Barnes & Noble and the public library, both of which publishers have enabled Amazon to trample on in myriad ways. Both do far more for driving book discovery and sales than your average local bookstore, but rarely get their commensurate love and adoration.

One of the main criticisms of BookShop has been the direct threat they pose to local bookstores themselves, offering the relative convenience of buying from Amazon under the comforting umbrella of “supporting” local bookstores. It’s a legitimate concern Hunter dances around, putting the onus on publishers to do more to support BookShop and indie booksellers in general. It will be interesting to see how things change as bookstores of all types get back on their feet, and “advocacy fatigue” inevitably sets in again.

Meanwhile, it’s worth remembering many publishers had a banner year last year while indie bookstores suffered, and 2021 is off to an even better start.

___THREE

Business Out of the Ordinary | Michael Cairns

“The intellectual exercise of thinking things through is essential for seeing how, in the future, out of the ordinary ideas could support your business objectives in ways you hadn’t thought of.”

Some interesting thoughts here on why you should respond to unsolicited business development pitches, particularly when thinking about event technology and ecommerce. I have quibbles with some of it, of course — way too many pitches are just spaghetti being thrown at an industry wall, hoping something sticks — but the underlying idea of using left field ideas to refine your own understanding of your business objectives, and what does and doesn’t help you meet them is a strong one.

I’m typically the “no” guy, constantly shooting down ideas from bosses and senior executives sparked by ill-researched “news” or cold email pitches, but I’ve generally gotten away with it because they know I always dig deeper before dismissing anything. I’ve learned to keep an open mind, too, because I don’t always see the big picture right away; an informed back and forth can help everyone refine a potential opportunity into something that’s either worth pursuing or collectively shooting down and moving on.

Interestingly, the events business in several industries lagged on developing virtual options because the margins were so much higher on live events. Many organizers spent the past year scrambling to belatedly vet technology that’s been available for years but hasn’t been fully developed because it was generally dismissed as not relevant to their current business models. Womp womp.

____FOUR

Bring Back the Weekly Newspaper | Zeynep Tufekci

“I’m not laying all this out as a blame game. I’m just saying that the way our brains absorb information is not conducive to being truly informed in a useful manner. We pay undue attention to negative, alarming information and initial impressions, which register strongly, and just can’t balance that with correcting and updating the impressions with later data.”

Tufekci is always a fascinating read, and this one combines election forecasting, pandemic misinformation, and the ongoing media challenge of “being first vs. being right.” When being first became more valuable than being right, the media traded trust for attention, something we’ve seen the full impact of over the past couple of years, but as much as people love to blame the internet, it’s a problem that goes all the way back to the days of “if it bleeds, it leads.” Amusing ourselves to death, indeed.

Coincidentally, it’s the kind of long read I’ve been finding more time for as I’ve been spending less time on Twitter trying to stay on top of the news, instead seeking out thoughtful and informed perspectives from credible sources on key issues after some of the dust has settled. Highly recommended!

_____FIVE

Birch Beer: The Best Soda You’ve Never Tried | Dan Nosowitz

This has been my longest and most intense issue yet so, if you’ve made it this far, I’ll end with a fun little read. I don’t drink soda much anymore, but I grew up a fan of Root Beer and Dr. Pepper, and occasionally enjoyed Birch Beer, not realizing it was a regional thing. I vaguely recall liking it a lot, and Nosowitz’ reflections make me want to look for a bottle next time we’re in Pennsylvania.


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