If you’ve been around the magazine-based media industry during the last 15 years, chances are pretty good that you’ve met Ryan Dohrn, or even see him deliver one of his patented high-energy keynote addresses.
The ebullient publisher/consultant/media pro and conference operator started out his career in marketing and promotions, and soon took on ever-bigger media-company roles. He’s got deep experience in both B2B and consumer media, but he might be best known for his work at his own boutique consultancy, Brain Swell Media, which focuses on revenue development and sales training.
In recent years, though, Dohrn has raised his profile even more in one sector in particular. For the last three-and-a-half years, he’s been the owner of Niche Media LLC, a company that’s best known for its annual Niche Media conferences.
With the media world coming out of a long pandemic that hit the events industry particularly hard, Fox Tales thought it would be a good moment to get Ryan’s singular perspective on the state of things. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, which was conducted early in May. It’s edited for clarity and brevity.
Fox Tales: How did the pandemic affect your event business?
Ryan Dohrn: The Niche Media Conference took one year off and came back sooner than other events, with 75% of our normal attendance as COVID began to ramp down. We carefully chose airy venues, modified seating, and set the event price to encourage safe attendance. In 2023 we had our biggest event in the company’s history.
Fox Tales: What’s the trajectory of your event in terms of sponsors and attendees?
Dohrn: [Founder] Carl Landau had built a pretty resilient community. Over the last two years, we have seen tremendous growth by following a model of careful ticket pricing, team discounting, lots of networking, tactical event track content, and focusing on the core issues facing Niche Publishers today. Our tactical content, large-scale networking games, and creating a fun experience are the keys to our success. We also pay very close attention to our post-event surveys. Currently, they are coming back with over 91%+ satisfaction ratings.
Fox Tales: Describe the state of niche media overall.
Dohrn: We know that print media is challenged and that smaller publishers may not have the financial resources to grow when times get lean. I am seeing a unique and positive turn in the niche-media publishing community. As digital saturation grows, those publishers that have modified their business models to include targeted digital, video content, sponsored content, specialty pubs, and events are faring much better than others.
Fox Tales: You mentioned that you get 300-plus attendees. I presume it includes sponsors, speakers, attendees, etc. But that’s a very robust number. What do you attribute that to?
Dohrn: Three hundred and fifty media pros joined us in New Orleans. We expect the next event in Chicago to draw a similar audience. At the Niche Media Conference, we limit the event to only 25 sponsors. We do this not only to improve the ROI for the sponsors but also to be sure that the attendee-to-sponsor ratio makes sense for all in attendance. Because we know that so many workers are remote these days, our pricing model encourages team attendance as media companies look for ways to bring their teams together.
Fox Tales: Have the characteristics of niche media changed in the last five or six years? More digital? More print? More consolidation into larger operators?
Dohrn: Everything has changed. Very few niche media companies look the same as they did pre-pandemic. Advertisers are different. Audiences are different. The way we sell media is different. Those companies that are willing to morph and change will survive. But, the idea that print is dead is just not true. Those niche companies that create compelling content and experiences for their audiences will not only survive, but they will also thrive. Print is one of those experiences. If your audience is not embracing your print product, digital may not be to blame.
Fox Tales: Which topics are most in demand for your attendees?
Dohrn: Audience growth, tactical sales training, tech trends, business hacks, and revenue ideas are the most popular topics at our event.
Fox Tales: Which features that came to define the Niche Conference under Carl are most popular? Speed dating? Special events at cool offsite venues? The sort of fun and offbeat themes Carl came up with (cowboys, baseball players, etc.)? The end-of-event raffles? Strong content?
Dohrn: Because I have spoken at every conference since its inception, I have grown up with the brand and event. There are very few things Carl started that do not continue today. We focus the theme of the conference on content rather than the city. We also have found that a four-city rotating schedule allows us to focus our efforts on the event far more than the location. One big thing I did not continue was Carl’s title as the events Grand Poobah. There will only ever be one Grand Poobah, and that’s Carl Landau. We honored Carl with the Niche Lifetime Achievement Award in NOLA.
Fox Tales: Tell us about your relationship with foundational industry players like Fox Associates and how those dynamics—with Fox in particular—are so symbiotic.
Dohrn: We are all trying to do the same thing, help publishers grow their businesses. As a sponsor myself, I have a unique perspective as to what sponsors like Fox need to make the event a win for them. The more I strategize with industry partners like Fox, the more we can all grow together on a shared goal of helping our clients win.