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11 Surprising Lessons Culture Leaders Learned About Monetizing Virtual Content

During the Covid-19 pandemic, many businesses, organizations and artists shifted their in-person events to the online realm. Because these live events were often a big source of revenue, hosts had to figure out how to monetize their new virtual content. However, they quickly learned that making money from online events wasn’t always as simple as it seemed.

Below, a panel of Rolling Stone Culture Council members shared challenges they’ve faced monetizing online or virtual content. Here are some lessons they’ve learned about successfully bringing in revenue from digital events like webinars, conferences and concerts.

Sponsorship Opportunities Can Offset the Costs of Production

Producing a virtual event isn’t cheap, and this often surprises clients. You can generate revenue, however, by creating sponsorship opportunities for your partners. For one global event for a major tech company, we created 30-second ad spots, man-on-the-street segments, social media callouts and more. The audience was captive, and the sponsored content was relevant to their interests. – Allan Fair, Meaning

New Audiences May Not Want to Pay Admission

If you have an existing community, charging for your virtual event makes sense and attendees know what they’re getting. However, if you’re looking to attract new audiences, it’s challenging to get them to pay the price of entry for a myriad of reasons. In this context, I learned that getting a few sponsors upfront is the best and most effective way to monetize virtual events. – Harrison Wise, Wise Collective Inc.

A ‘Free’ Version of the Event Can Encourage Paying Audiences Later

There’s a misconception that virtual events cost less to produce, which causes consumers to think ticket prices should be lower or even free. This makes it hard to charge the premium you may need to make your event profitable. Try giving your consumers a taste by allowing them to attend a free version of your event. Once they see how much value you’ve created for them, they’ll be back and ready to pay. – Matt Tuffuor, Toasted Life

Creating Effective Virtual Content Is Like Producing a TV Show

Many retailers are finding powerful ways to reach customers with fresh social media content that visually conveys the value of the brand: visiting the headquarters, showcasing the artisanship or meeting the founder, designers and style experts. Some do Instagram TV, Facebook Live and feature new and upcoming collections. Think of Zoom and social media like producing a show! – Lynn Rosenthal, Periscape

You Need to Offer Something Unique and Valuable to Generate Income

At first, we were all just pivoting, so there was a ton of free content with folks trying to adapt. Then there was the learning and refinement phase to see what worked. Once we had a committed audience and something unique to offer, we became confident in assigning value to generate income. Though we are eager to gather in person again, the reach of virtual is powerful with the right execution. – Erik Oberholtzer, Tender Greens / cohere

There Is a Difference Between Fans and Customers

A blessing for my company has been to be in a specialized niche in the online publishing space. The biggest lesson learned is that there is a big difference between fans and customers. You can get all the praise in the world, but it does not pay the bills. Customers paying with their wallets are priceless. Follow the money and not the fans. – Matt Campbell, My Wedding Songs

The Rolling Stone Culture Council is an invitation-only community for Influencers, Innovators and Creatives. Do I qualify?

Offering Physical Merchandise Can Boost Revenue

We focus on digital content as a value add to physical, high-margin merch. When the pandemic began, we noticed platforms using a percentage-of-sales model, which made little sense. Why should a streaming company get a percentage of your T-shirt sale? By focusing on tickets and the physical as a single transaction for livestreams, artists have inverted the model of buying on the way “out” to 60 percent buying merch on the way “in.” – Tommy Stalknecht, Single Music

Your Audience Will Decide How You Ultimately Differentiate Yourself

Online content is a very busy space. It’s tough to stand out and truly be authentic with such noise. The challenge we faced was how to present our content in new and unique ways that felt like more than “just another podcast.” What we found and learned was that ultimately your audience will decide, and it’s truly about being genuinely interested in their opinions, listening to suggestions and iterating. – Codie Sanchez, Contrarian Thinking

Live, In-Person Events Should Always Be Digitally Captured for Future Use

The digital capture of every Broadway show should be included in the capitalization. Hamilton was filmed pre-pandemic with the original Broadway cast, so when live theater was shut down across the world, it was ready to be licensed. And although it was Hamilton, Disney+ still paid a record $75 million for it because of the scarcity of professional digital captures of live Broadway shows. – Bonnie Comley, BroadwayHD

Complimentary Event Tickets Can Help You Build a Following

With so many brands promoting monetized events online, many prospective attendees are viewing ROI more closely. Rather than charge people to attend, a better solution is to use complimentary tickets to build a following. After you create a following, the next step is to market your products and services to the attendees through targeted social media ads and email campaigns. – Jeff Shuford, National Invest In Veterans Week

Don’t Assume People Aren’t Willing to Pay for Your Event

Don’t assume that just because you won’t pay for something as a consumer doesn’t mean that somebody else won’t. I was shocked by the number of tickets being sold to events that I just straight up could never see myself buying a ticket for. I’m glad I didn’t make that assumption because I would have left a lot of money on the table last year. – Cassie Petrey, Crowd Surf

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