When Smithsonian magazine launched in 1970, its prime directive was straightforward – bring in money.
“The magazine was launched for commercial purposes, to bring in revenue, as the private enterprise leg of the non-profit institution,” writes Jessica Patterson in FIPP, who explains that the magazine joined other commercial ventures like their gift shops, the Smithsonian Channel, and Smithsonian Journeys travel content.
“Over the course of its lifetime, Smithsonian magazine has been spectacularly successful,” said Editor-in-Chief Michael Caruso. “We’ve contributed almost a billion dollars to the larger non-profit.”
Caruso noted that in the changing media landscape, the magazine wasn’t generating profits to the extent it had in decades past. So they looked to live events as an alternative revenue source – and they’ve found a sweet spot.
“Live events [are] something we’ve moved into very heavily,” Caruso told Patterson. “And what’s great about it, is we’ve been able to use the resources and the authority of the Smithsonian and Smithsonian magazine to enter this new realm.”
Their American Ingenuity Awards are celebrated each December at a gala in Washington D.C., with big name honorees like Elon Musk and John Legend. Future Con has become an established part of Washington’s Awesome Con event, a massive pop culture experience. Finally, there’s Museum Day, with free admission to thousands of museums across all 50 states, sponsored by big names like Microsoft.
As Patterson explains, the brand’s success with events is about meeting their audience where they are – whether that’s online, at a museum, or reading a magazine.
“Though we’re a national museum network and the magazine goes all over the country, we are physically mostly in Washington DC, these platforms help us reach outside of our city,” Caruso said. “People have so many more digital and virtual experiences these days, I think they’re craving that live experience more and more.”
Their success with these events stems from Caruso’s creative and nimble approach – and he’s not afraid to borrow the best ideas from others. For brands looking to leverage their own titles into the world of events, he offers some sage advice to get started.
“You’ve got to steal and adapt from people who are doing things well,” he said.