The CNN Scenario

Consider the following case: Your continuing professional education program, in conjunction with an array of stakeholders (sponsoring department, course director, CPE committee, commercial supporter, parent organization), decides to launch a new seminar--How to Brand Sand. A launch date is set six months in the future. During the intervening months, objectives are refined, content adjusted, and faculty secured. Marketing kicks into high gear, writing and editing copy; renting mailing lists; and designing, printing, and mailing promotional pieces. Registration systems are put in place, meeting space is secured, and budgets are revised.

Producing a conference is very much like producing a Broadway play. The cast, crew, and other stakeholders must work hard if the curtain is to go up on time and to a packed house. On Broadway, the motto has long been, "The show must go on." But what about the CPE-Way?

Should the Show Go On? The vignette continues: A month before curtain call, the producers take stock.While content is coming together nicely, there has not been a rush at the box office, and revenues are down. A painful decision is at hand: to proceed or not? A break-even analysis is conducted. There are the sunken costs (largely marketing), as well as indirect and opportunity costs to factor into the equation. There is also the reputation and positioning of the provider to consider. What will be the consequences of canceling a program on those who have already registered--and their employers? Will they ever register for another program offered by the provider? Will course directors commit to developing further programs? Will commercial supporters invest again?

Conversely, there are issues to consider with an undersubscribed seminar. What impact will modest attendance have on the sponsor's reputation? What impact will it have on the quality of the learning experience and on networking opportunities? Will commercial supporters pull their resources for breach of contract (not delivering the number and range of participants as stated), or will industry elect not to invest in your activities in the future?

An Alternative? A challenging problem indeed, which appears to be a case of selecting the better of two evils. However, there is another way: Watch CNN. The alternative to this stark go/no-go option revolves around "getting a bigger bang for your buck"--also known as derivatives, spin-offs, line extensions, or as I prefer, related extensions. The concept is very simple: Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Rather, consider doing what CNN has done--diversify your portfolio by leveraging your blue-chip products.

The CNN News Group has taken its CNN news and "cut and pasted it" to create a wide range of related extensions. These include cable/satellite television networks such as CNN Headline News, CNNfn, CNN/SI, CNN en Espanol, and CNN International. It has also created three private TV networks--Airport Network, Better Health, and the College Television Network. To this it has added Web sites, Internet mailing lists and services, pagers, radio networks, syndicated news services, transcripts, and more. It even has extended its product by allowing visitors to tour (for a fee) the Atlanta studio headquarters.

CNN, the flagship news station, is an expensive, labor-intensive operation (much like a Broadway play or CPE seminar). And it has leveraged this investment as well as any organization. If it doesn't get the desired return one way, it gets it another--reaching 70 million homes in the U.S and 100 million abroad. Talk about market penetration!

CPE would do well to consider using related extensions to expand our market. In my next column, I will explore the concept of diversification. In the meantime, I will be watching, listening, and logging on to CNN, all the while remembering the Latin origins of the word "seminar," the seed, and the many ways it might grow.