Without Events, 92Y Finds New Business Opportunity in Distinctive Digital Programming

New York cultural institution has drawn more than $2 million in revenue with range of online experiences

92Y transitioned to a fully online business model in March. 92Y
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The 92nd Street Y, the 146-year-old arts and cultural institution on New York’s Upper East Side, annually draws 300,000 visitors and holds more than 2,000 ticketed live events, talks and classes with talent ranging from A-list actors to Nobel laureates. 

As the pandemic in March closed its venue and made in-person events unsafe indefinitely, the organization was forced to explore unknown territory by going fully digital. Five months later, 92Y is finding success with its new business model. The organization has made more than $2 million in revenue from digital programming, which has included more than 1,000 ticketed or free, sponsored online events and classes.

In conversation with Adweek, 92Y CEO Seth Pinsky revealed the organization’s best practices for navigating a digital pivot, the programming his in-house team curates and produces to reach new audiences daily, and why digital will be a part of the institution’s programming even when physical events return. 

Unique and timely content for everyone, everywhere

Since 92Y went online, the institution’s events have included talks with novelists Roxane Gay and Zadie Smith; performances by classical musicians such as pianist Jonathan Biss, a conversation with actress Anna Deavere Smith on developing emotional capacity as an artist; a roundtable with Netflix’s Queer Eye cast on how to be vocally anti-racist; and a conversation with Harlem-based chef Marcus Samuelsson about the pandemic’s impact on the New York restaurant industry

Pinsky said online programming has expanded the institution’s reach outside of the tri-state area to 3.5 million viewers in more than 150 countries since March. He also said 60% of those who’ve purchased tickets for events previously had never attended a 92Y event.

“We began finding viewers from all over the world, not just people who could buy a ticket and sit in a seat in our Upper East Side home. There was this enormous demand that was untapped that we were able to fill,” Pinsky said. “For me, at least personally, that was the moment I realized that what we were doing was the right strategy. You can’t minimize the fact that we’re in a crisis, but we viewed this as a crisis that also presented an opportunity.”

Talking with, not to, an audience

At the beginning of quarantine, Pinsky said the venue initially used videoconferencing platforms Zoom and Microsoft Teams to replicate classes 92Y used to host in person. To stand out in the virtual space, he said his team quickly realized that having actual conversations with remote attendees was key to standing out.

“When you go online, you start to compete with an infinite pool of competitive content on YouTube. If you are running a ceramics class at the 92Y, there are probably 30 other ceramics lessons you can find on YouTube that are highly produced,” Pinsky said. “What we learned is that in a YouTube video, the instructor talks to you. We could create programs where the instructor talks with you. Interactivity was something we learned early on was important.”

The institution has since launched ticketed, interactive learning series including an architectural history of New York with New York University historian Francis Morrone; a class exploring films about racism in America, with guests like film director Dee Rees; and a Hamilton-inspired hip-hop dance class for kids. 

The future of 92Y programming

While 92Y has been able to function as a digital institution, it hasn’t been without struggles. The organization was forced to furlough or cut pay for many of its 300 full-time employees. Pinsky noted that while its initial revenue and viewership numbers are a “source of pride,” they haven’t reached a level to function as a sustainable business. 

ian.zelaya@adweek.com Ian Zelaya is an Adweek reporter covering how brands engage with consumers in the modern world, ranging from experiential marketing and social media to email marketing and customer experience.