Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research

Virtual Conferences, Revenue Generation, and Making Mistakes with Sami Benchekroun

May 01, 2022 ScienceTalks Season 1 Episode 10
Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research
Virtual Conferences, Revenue Generation, and Making Mistakes with Sami Benchekroun
Show Notes Transcript

In a continuation of the chat with Nikesh Gosalia, Morressier’s Sami Benchekroun shares his expertise on the inner workings of virtual conferences. He talks about the use of virtual conferencing to spur revenue generation, as part of an integrated business model that takes into account the key components of content, conference members, and sponsors or exhibitors. Nikesh and Sami tackle a valid concern among remote participants – effective networking. While Sami admits that there is no definitive way of ensuring that virtual participants get the same value as in-person participants, he suggests well-rounded business packages that adjust price for value. He reiterates the importance of experimenting with different ideas and making mistakes, especially since online conferences can be quickly improved upon based on participant feedback. Sami also shares his strategies for staying updated, including podcasts, meetups, and staying open to different conversations.

Sami Benchekroun is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Morressier, a virtual and hybrid conference platform geared towards the scientific community. He has significant experience in virtual conferences and scholarly publishing, and has achieved a Master of Science from ESCP Europe. A man of many hats, Sami is the founding member of the Edtech Founders Club, guest lecturer at the Technische Universität Berlin, and a polyglot proficient in 4 languages. Sami can be reached via his LinkedIn or Twitter.

Insights Xchange is a fortnightly podcast brought to you by Cactus Communications (CACTUS). Follow us:

Nikesh Gosalia [00:00:12]

Moving on, I'm sure your clients and partners have already told you this.  They are facing revenue pressures in one way or another.  Can virtual conferencing be an option for top line growth or to maybe keep your members engaged rather than just a way to salvage maybe a canceled offline meeting?


Sami Benchekroun [00:00:36]

Yes.  It's a very good question, and definitely, you're right, on all our conversation with our partners and clients, it's definitely a big point.  Let me first answer the question with a big fat yes, very, very clearly.  We've seen it work, we've had great successes, we have great case studies that were just working very, very, very fine.  I would love to introduce you into that world by saying that I would not like to take virtual conferences very solitarily as just one part of revenue generation.  What I think the pandemic showed us is that it is a multitude of items, it is a very modular way on how to look at revenue generation and new business models.  I feel that you cannot really look at conferences completely separated from everything else, which happened in the past, by the way.  It was a very separate unit and then you looked at that unit conferences and how much revenue it made.  And then that was performance.

But if you look into the conferences, there're many components that just need to be connected with everything else happening in scholarly societies.  Just very bluntly speaking, I see that there are always three components.  The one component is obviously the content, which is closest to my heart.  There're posters that are being presented, there're presentations, there are videos, there's all sorts of wonderful content, early-stage research, preliminary results, that in itself is so rich.  There's so much going on.  There's so much that we can combine with everything else in terms of traditional scholarly output, combining early results with all the iterations that come after, combining them with preprints with journal articles, and really creating a holistic picture that can be absolutely monetized, depending on if you want to go the open access route, if you want to go the subscription route.  There're all those possibilities, and even the possibilities to also monetize on top of data.  The whole concept of information, of insights, of trends, there is a lot going on in that content.  There's a wealth of knowledge and information that is still untapped.  There're a couple of forward-thinking societies and publishers that definitely already looked into it and benefited from it a lot.  I'm quite excited to see that.  This is one component of a conference that definitely needs to be connected.

The second component is the foundational piece as well, if you will, the members, the people visiting.  So far, we have seen them very much from a perspective of, all right, they pay a ticket price for the conference and that's it.  But I feel that if we start seeing it more of an integrative in like an overall holistic structure where we say, all right, you have the membership structure, you have conference as one component, you have workshops, you have online-offline workshops, you have online-offline conferences, you have all sorts of benefits for your members for your scholars.  Then, you can suddenly see it much more on a bigger scale, if you will, which a lot of societies are starting to do.

Next to content and the members itself, you then have obviously also the entire topic of sponsors and exhibitors.  We see great dynamics in new packages, new products that societies are actually wrapping for their sponsors that are much richer and also much more data driven.  Suddenly, we see everything that we have learned in online advertising, we see now entering the world of scholarly conferences on one hand side and scholarly societies just generally on the other hand.  We see packages that consist out of a – a society might build up a workshop series for a sponsor, might add up dedicated banners on a community page, might add a sponsored symposium, and so on.  There're all sorts of creative ways for revenue generation, but they're all very much wrapped and integrated.  Again, a big fat yes, yes, yes.  There're more opportunities.  They're very much untapped so far, but we see great growth with the partners that we're working on together.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:05:00]

Thank you, Sami.  That was really useful.  It acts as a perfect segue into my next question, which I think partly you've answered, but it might be interesting again for the listeners to hear more thoughts from you.  When a society hosts a virtual conference, clearly, it needs to satisfy not just the attendees, but also the sponsors and exhibitors so that the society can generate revenue.  I know you've spoken about a couple of tips for societies on how to manage sponsors or the things that can be done by sponsors, and they're very creative solutions.  But are there any additional tips that you have for societies on how to manage the exhibitors effectively in a virtual meeting?


Sami Benchekroun [00:05:46]

Absolutely.  What we've seen work very well is, maybe, I'm stating the obvious here, but really involving them in your thought process.  We have seen in great collaboration understanding the needs and the goals of the exhibitors because that did change.  When you had an exhibitor floor, you sold your square meters and that's it.  That was the way things worked.  Now we saw great success in actually involving the exhibitors and the sponsors into the thought process.  You see suddenly a very diverse set of needs where one discovers that one size fits all solution just does not work.  We saw that just also selling square meters on the exhibitor floor wasn't really the best way possible.  Hence, we have a huge opportunity to involve the exhibitors and sponsors in our conversations and packaged products in a multitude of ways because exhibitors might have different goals.  Some are there for lead generation, some are there for brand building, some are there to just simply showcase their new product, just as an announcement, some are actually also looking for new talents, some are looking for new members.  So it's a very diverse set of set of needs that exhibitors might have.  Hence, entering a dialog with them is one of the first things that we definitely suggest every society and also opening up your tradition barriers.  Really being creative, seeing, all right, what can we add into the mix?  Is it only around the conferences or is it around some other partnerships that that one might engage?

We can be very inspired I feel generally by online marketing in that regard.  I always encourage everybody to just look outside and think outside the box quite frankly because it's exactly the time to be creative.  Again, to speak with the sponsors and exhibitors for opportunities.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:07:58]

Thank you, Sami.  I think that's very useful.  Going back to the point around hybrid meetings, I just had one more question.  It's easier to say that they offer the best of both worlds.  In many ways they do, like we just spoke about.  But in a hybrid conference, the virtual attendees might still end up taking time making that shift in their mindset because maybe they're drawing a comparison with an in-person event.  As a result, they don't get the networking opportunities in person.  From that perspective, again, what would you suggest conference organizers do about this to make sure that even in a hybrid or a virtual conference, people are able to network effectively?


Sami Benchekroun [00:08:46]

I think you're speaking about – that's definitely the elephant in the room.  The way I look at it and the way we see it at Morressier is we really, really, really want to avoid this concept of two-class citizen.  You really don't want to create that.  With all the opportunities that arise and with all the almost democratization, so suddenly the entire world can participate in these conferences, we really need to pay attention that it doesn't end up in that qualitative hierarchy, if you will.  The ones that are there get the biggest value and the ones that are at the comfort of their home do not get such a value.

Again, my answer is maybe, unfortunately, a really non-answer.  But it has to do with balancing things out.  It's really packaging business models the way that they make sense.  You might think that the networking has the bigger value, maybe your pricing needs to be adapted.  Maybe it's a higher pricing, a lower pricing, depending on how the structure is and then the virtual component accordingly.

Maybe if you buy the virtual package, you get some other symposia's left applied or some other assets.  Again, I think it is about the different needs of the society and the different needs.  Quite frankly, about the purpose, what do you want to achieve with your tactics in there.  There is no clear answer that I can give.  But just to point out that it is very important to avoid these two-class citizen structures, and really try to create a well‑rounded portfolio of offerings.

Now, having said that, it is also very important, and I'm saying that from a startup perspective to dare to make mistakes.  It's exactly the time where we can just test out things, and people are understanding.  We are all learning, and while learning, we will make mistakes and on the way of making mistakes, there will be some discrepancies of the goal that we want.  The moment we listen and learn from one another, the moment there is always a channel also for the participants, for the scholars, for the research, for the attendees to always give back and circle back feedback on what they like, what they didn't like, that's what we want to achieve.

If that is guaranteed, I think we can just go ahead, start things out, and iterate quickly.  Because I just want to point out that in the world of offline conferences, purely offline when you had one conference a year, the speed of innovation wasn't really fast.  You iterate it, and it was always from one year to the other.  Now, you suddenly can test out.  You can have a meeting on 1 month, and then the next month, you can already iterate and slightly adjust until you actually go into a world where you found a great balance for you.  Encouragement to do more, to dare to make mistakes, and to iterate fast.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:12:11]

Thank you, Sami.  I think personally, for me, this has been a great conversation because when we started our conversation, I was thinking of it as it has to be more like a black or white, a yes or a no, one solution replacing the other.  But I really liked the approach that you've spoken about, one, just being very practical about it.  Let's work in a true partnership spirit with societies.  Let's make mistakes on the way.  That's fine.  It's a learning journey.  We cannot solve for everything.  Let's bring about that change in mindset in terms of what can we learn through virtual conferencing?  How can we network?  How do we make the most of it?  How do we save time?  And all the other aspects that we're talking about.  I think the most important thing is that it's not here to replace the traditional networking that we want to do.  Yes, we want to still have that glass of water, wine, juice, like you said, and being humans, we do need that.  But it can co-exist, and it is going to be a perfect complement to an in-person event.


Sami Benchekroun [00:13:23]

I fully agree.  Just to add on that.  I think you summarized it perfectly here.  I think what we always believe is that there is an 'or' in between everything.  But quite frankly, sometimes there is also an 'and' where the addition and the multitude and the multifaceted way of approaching things makes also the market more diverse, it creates new opportunities, and in our understanding and in our observations when it comes to market dynamics, it increases the possibilities.

Suddenly, we have an entire marketplace online of communities that are exchanging online.  So much more people are now online and looking into all those opportunities.  With the combination of the offline world, suddenly we have much more content output, suddenly we have much more content types.  More and more societies and players in our field are actually embracing the fact that there are so many more content types.  I love that.  It's a new openness almost that was created through these dynamics.

To just add one more thing because this is very important always for us.  What I feel in the past and I'm speaking now from a software perspective, from a software mindset, I feel that we're now suddenly in the space where we actually start avoiding these un-flexible type of software pieces where you say you develop it based on current understandings, and then you'd never change it for the next 10 to 20 years.  I think we're now at a very pivotal change where people appreciate the fact that software for the scholarly industries are getting more lightweight, are very innovative, they're looking at true state-of-the-art capabilities where things are not fully customized for dedicated societies, but that are actually a foundation that works for the entire industry because we understood that we need that foundation to create that fast pace of innovation.  There're just little bits and pieces that might be customizable, might be a little bit more flexible.  But the general chunk of it needs to be very adaptable, very scalable, very movable to new heights.  I feel that this pandemic exactly created also a new understanding of software in the scholarly space, which in my feeling is paired with innovation.  The moment we are there suddenly on the basis of that new understanding, we can innovate much faster.  It's highly needed with all the dynamics around open access, open science, with all the dynamics about diversity issues that we need to tackle.

These are the points, but I feel that we need a very clear foundation on which we can work upon.  A big thought, if you will, that I see very positively into the future because of the conversation that we're having currently are very lightweight, and they support exactly that hypothesis.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:16:45]

Absolutely.  That's very promising and very inspiring, Sami.  I think it has to start with a vision, it has to start with a thought, and if I may, if we would have spoken 5 years back, and I would have to use an example, if I would have spoken about infographics and videos and plain language summaries becoming mainstream, I know that a lot of people, including me, perhaps might have had like a laugh over it.  But it's becoming a reality now, as people are starting to sense, we have to break down the barriers, the push towards open access, we need to involve a lot more folks into it, we need to understand the impact, we need to engage more.  I absolutely get where you're coming from and your passion and your zeal towards this is very, very inspiring, as always, Sami.


Sami Benchekroun [00:17:37]

Great to hear.  Thank you so much.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:17:39]

No problem at all.  One final question for you, just so that listeners can benefit.  How do you keep yourself updated with everything that's happening within the industry as far as scholarly societies are concerned, general trends, how do you keep yourself updated?


Sami Benchekroun [00:17:55]

Yes.  I think there're several sources.  Me personally, obviously part of many groups because we are part of a wonderful group ourselves.  That dialog inspires me a lot to just get more information.  I'm tuning into several podcasts, quite frankly.  There's a couple that I benefit a lot from.  I'm an avid Scholarly Kitchen reader.  I feel the team around Scholarly Kitchen does a marvelous, marvelous job and very insightful topics.  I'm a big person of constant conversation, so I love to keep up the dialog with different groups and different individuals.  Now here in DC and in London, taking part in meetups, now starting to listen to All things SciComm very clearly.  Generally, I'm very open to all sorts of discussions.  Whenever someone reaches out, whenever someone has a topic, I'm very happy to engage in a conversation because quite frankly I feel that the topic that we're acting in needs also that – if you will – lobbying work, so I'm happy to share my thoughts to share best practices that we've seen to just get the message out there.  The combination of taking in all those information from all those different outlets, but then also sharing my own view in direct dialogs, something that I do regularly.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:19:21]

Thank you.  Thank you, Sami, for sharing that.  I've seen you in action.  I know that you do that really well.  Thank you, Sami, for being our guest on All Things SciComm.


Sami Benchekroun [00:19:32]

Thank you.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:19:33]

Thank you everyone for joining us.  You can subscribe to this podcast on all major podcast platforms.  Stay tuned for our next episode.