5 takeaways from inaugural, all-virtual MinnPost Festival in April


By Joe LananeLMA Contributor

MinnPost, a nonprofit state news outlet for Minnesota based out of Minneapolis, normally relies on two flagship events to help drive revenue: MinnRoast, which features locally topical skits and an on-site reception, and an annual Anniversary Celebration spotlighted by one high-profile guest speaker.

But like most operations in 2020, those events were canceled; instead, MinnPost held the first-ever MinnPost Festival. Inspired by similar events from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Texas Tribune and Voice of San Diego, the all-virtual festival hosted a mix of local and national media figures, including Emily Ramshaw, Errin Haines, Astead Herndon and Charlie Sykes.

Here are five lessons the MinnPost team learned from the inaugural effort:

1. Let attendees pay what they can afford

Hosting MinnPost’s first digital-only event “removed some barriers,” Executive Director Tanner Curl said. Turnout was greater than anticipated, especially because registrants were allowed to attend as much of the event as they wanted.

“That aligns with our work overall as all of our reporting is available to readers for free,” Curl said.

Curl

Nearly 300 people attended free of charge, while dozens more paid as much as $125 for the week-long festival. Others paid either $25 or $65 to participate. MinnPost calls the experiment an overall success, and Curl already pledges to maintain some free element of next year’s festival.

2. Split revenue with participating media partners

One MinnPost Festival session included other Minnesota news outlets to discuss local media issues and how they effectively serve their respective communities. Panelists included representatives from the following outlets:

  • Minnesota Native News, a statewide Native American news outlet
  • Pine Knot News, a hyperlocal weekly newspaper covering northern Carlton County
  • Sahan Journal, a nonprofit news organization that covers Minnesota’s immigrants and new Americans
  • North News, founded in 1991 as a print community news source in North Minneapolis

Extra fundraising was done during the session, culminating in MinnPost splitting the money among the participating organizations. Curl, who has a background in nonprofit fundraising and a passion for journalism, said it felt important to support other media during a challenging era in business sustainability.

“Also, when we started at MinnPost, some of the big players were not so nice to us,” he said. “I know there’s a competitive spirit within a media market, but it’s important to acknowledge where we can collaborate and share resources.”

But is the decision to split revenue with partnering media a scalable idea?

“I do think there is a way to scale and continue that kind of partnership with other organizations, and I’m interested to keep experimenting to see where we can do more of that,” Curl said. “I’m also hoping to see more experimentation around this in the field more generally.”

Speakers at the MinnPost Festival included leaders from across media.

3. Create exclusive opportunities for individual donors

VIP packages were also available for those wanting to contribute more, ranging from $300 to $5,000 tiers. Curl came up with the idea to host donor-only events after most sessions to offer exclusive time with speakers — essentially creating two events per session.

The goal was to reward high-dollar donors, Curl said, given that individual donations drive the most event revenue. “And it seemed to work well,” he said, although the extra VIP events could be reduced next year to a select few speakers.

4. Put your board to work soliciting corporate sponsorships

Previous MinnPost events typically didn’t draw more than $5,000 in corporate sponsorships. However, this year garnered more than $27,000. What changed? A simple ask.

Brian Perry, director of advertising and sponsorship for MinnPost, said this was the first year staff asked the board of directors for help, resulting in five times more corporate support than usual.

“Just that simple act of having somebody do a personal introduction turned into almost $27,000 in corporate sponsorships for a first-time event that was literally just a concept at the time,” Perry said.

Much of that support came from organizations contributing to MinnPost for the first time. Overall, the organization raised $120,000 total while spending only $10,000 in operational expenses.

5. Use next year’s event to improve upon lessons learned

The next MinnPost Festival will likely be a hybrid event featuring online and in-person access. Without a marketing budget, much of the outreach this year was done in-house and via trades, Perry said. That proved successful enough to create an event brand for MinnPost, resulting in more events, including a 1-on-1 with home-state U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

And it was all done with only a few weeks of advance effort. Perry, who was in charge of the Zoom production during sessions, said prep work for MinnPost Festival was far less time-consuming compared with MinnRoast and the Anniversary Celebration.

“Compared to any of those two specific events, this was a piece of cake,” Perry said. “Most of the heavy lifting was the technical side of things because we haven’t done it this way before.”

But the event was still a learning process, and MinnPost will continue to experiment on how best to balance the editorial content with audience and revenue goals.

“This is the type of event we want to do moving forward,” Perry said. “We turned this around quickly, and it turned out great,” Perry said.