Diversification in Digital Media and Publishing: Part II

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Where are forward thinking publishers looking for sustainable audience growth and revenue?

On 20 September, Bibblio and our friends at Sovrn brought the Future of Media and Publishing meetup back to New York City, getting together a group of future-oriented publishers to discuss how the industry is changing and what they’re doing to adapt. We covered so much ground that we split the write-up of the evening into three parts. The first section features our speaker, Guy LeCharles Gonzalez (Publisher at Writer’s Digest and Director of marketing at F+W Media). Last week we had Part I of the panel discussion, featuring Carey Polis (Digital Director from Bon Appetit), Joe LaFalce (VP, Business Development at POPSUGAR) and Daniel Stedman (CEO & Co-Founder of Brooklyn Magazine and Northside Media), and here's the final set of insights from the evening.

Sharing opinions at the Future of Media and Publishing meetup, New York City
Sharing opinions at the Future of Media and Publishing meetup, New York City

Who’s calling the shots?

Jumping back into the action, Carey had been discussing how it was important to make sure that the editors that they asked to support affiliate promotions were enthusiastic about the products involved. More broadly, Carey said that they don’t try to control their editors when it comes to what they put out e.g. on Instagram, but they encourage them to post Bon Appétit content, and they’d step in if they posted something out of line.

Mads noted that now individuals / editors are becoming stars. In the past, everyone new National Geographic but didn’t know who was taking the pictures, but now that’s switching around, and in some cases people know the individual rather than the brand they work for. He speculated that publishers and media might need to find creative ways to work with talent in the future as the relationship between employer and employee changes.

Leaving money on the historical table?

Mads moved on to suggest that publishers had historically sold the value they created short – only putting ads next to content when all these other opportunities existed. He asked the panel what they thought about that idea.

Carey agreed, but said that this was a function of how the industry had worked before. In the past, editors didn’t have to care as much about making money as they do now. ‘Church and State’, the strict division between editorial staff and the money people, has been dismantled. Her role is a good example of the new hybrid approach. Technically her role is all about content, but she talks to the ad team every day. It used to be enough to wait for the ad team to book the revenue, but times have changed, and good editors are involved in the conversation.

Daniel saw parallels between the situation for publishers and how the ad agency business has changed too. Agencies have launched incredible brands, e.g. air Jordan, but in the past they didn’t get a slice of the real value, and some still have essentially no intellectual property in their creations. They’re really suffering because of that. It’s similar for publishers. They relied on other people with things they wanted to sell advertizing those things on their sites, but times have changed, and now it’s time for them to sell the stuff themselves.

Joe agreed, but wasn’t sure that it was fair to suggest that publishers had sold themselves short – they simply didn’t have to do that much in the past to have very profitable businesses. Crushing it in the industry used to be sitting behind your desk at Time magazine, smoking a few cigarettes, and booking 5 million dollars in ad revenue each year. Now the rules have changed radically without a lot of input from publishers, and they’re trying to play catch-up. There’s no doubt that they’ve been slow to react and that they were resting on their laurels during the rise of digital and social, but that was the way the machine worked. You didn’t need to sell baby books, or have a clothing line, or even a great commercial strategy really.

Leaving legacy

Mads asked to what extent it was an advantage to be digital first and not have to deal with legacy issues?

Joe said that it had been eye-opening for him coming to Popsugar from Time inc. Until the early teens of the 2000s print was still the kingmaker, and for a lot of legacy publishers print is still maybe the biggest revenue driver. It’s far better not to be saddled by a business model that’s increasingly less relevant, but Popsugar is also culturally more nimble and flexible, with a hungrier atmosphere. He’s found it a great experience to transfer to a digital native.

Mads next question was on ethics and the role of media. The ‘Church and State’ separation was traditionally viewed as a good thing, meaning that the editorial team didn’t have to concern themselves, or have their editorial choices influenced, by needing to make money. What’s the downside of the new world?

The audience at the Future of Media and Publishing meetup, New York City
The audience at the Future of Media and Publishing meetup, New York City

Carey said it was important to keep an eye on your moral compass, and Bon Appétit say no to a lot of opportunities even though there’s no longer the ‘Church and State’ demarcation. It’s important to stay close to what editors believe in, or you just damage the product. There’s a constant give and take though. Some publishing and media brands don’t do a good job of maintaining the balance; they acquiesce too easily to revenue pressure and lose a lot of brand value that way. You certainly lose when you’re not equal with your commercial partners and you let one side manipulate the conversation.

Short term vs. long term thinking

Mads wondered if it was fair to say that, as the industry evolves, editorial’s role will be to think about long-term revenue and commercial’s role will be to think about the quarter?

Carey was ambivalent, but said that she thought that making editors responsible for revenue complicates things.

Daniel changed the focus of the statement, saying that it was brand equity, not long-term revenue, that they should be focussing on building. That ultimately drives value and gives the sales team something to sell.

Carey talked about some of the risks of being too keen to increase revenue, especially when a partner doesn’t chime with your audience. Bon Appétit’s style is to advocate working with the farmers’ market and your local farmer because that’s what connects with their audience.

Daniel offered that young people don’t mind being marketed to. They don’t mind advertizers, they don’t mind sponsors, but, they don’t want to be marketed crap. There has to be an organic fit between your product and the partner.

Helping brands make their mark

Mads suggested that it’s actually in the brand’s interest to challenge advertizers – if you challenge them and make them work in line with your brand’s authentic character then advertizers also get the most value from the partnership.

Joe said that Popsugar tackle this question a lot in their content studio. When a brand buys a big native or branded content package, they need to buy into the vision of the team and rely on them to come up with a really strong idea and creative that they know is going to resonate with the audience. They need to trust that the team know how to communicate with Popsugar’s audience on social and their own site.

Brands often have a strong idea of what they want to do, and it’s a delicate dance as Popsugar are ultimately the ones who know how to connect with their audience. The best relationships are the ones where clients recognise that and lean into the authority of Popsugar. The importance of getting that conversation right is reflected in the metric of ‘returning brands’, which is really important for The Bakery.

The panel at the Future of Media and Publishing meetup, New York City
The panel at the Future of Media and Publishing meetup, New York City

Mads asked about demonstrating success in branded content, and what metrics do the panellists show to brands to justify the spend?

Joe said that Popsugar we show partners engagement metrics like video views and time spent with content. As he’d mentioned, the leading metric for themselves is returning brands.

Daniel said that Northside are very focussed on live events, even though Brooklyn magazine is the tentpole for the business, so branded is less of a focus for them. Regarding event spend by partners, In the past events have been measured anecdotally – if the CEO’s 15 year old kid said it was awesome they’ll come back and sponsor again next year. Now they’re hearing “you’re on brand, you’re on message, but we need to measure ROI”. If they’re not driving value to sponsors in a measurable way then they don’t expect them to come back.

Carey said that if the point is to integrate branded content with editorial, then it can’t ever come across in a way that brings advertizing to mind. At Bon Appétit they’re always concentrating on aligning branded content with the editorial packages they’re most excited about.

Changing channels

An audience member asked the panel about how they chose which social channels to concentrate on.

Carey suggested choosing a couple of key platforms to concentrate on: e.g. Bon Appétit are not on Snapchat, they don’t have resources to do everything really well, and that will be true for most businesses. Choose the ones that really identify with your values and go all in.

Joe also emphasized being strategic. Pick a lane and build up brand equity. Popsugar started as pop culture and entertainment, and spent a few years building credibility there before expanding into general lifestyle play. Young brands can get a lot from working with a really well-thought-through strategic partner strategy. They can distribute your content, swap Facebook stories etc. It helps to get your brand and name out there, and legacy brands who are often less adept at these channels can be very willing to partner. Popsugar now have a very big partnership team, and 150 partners in their network. They’re constantly talking to them and swapping stories. This is a great example of a guerrilla tactic to tap into audiences that already exist.

Another audience member questioned the upside of that approach. They had worked with Business Insider and ended up getting only 9,000 unique visits when an article that they shared with BI got 900,000.

Carey’s advice was that you have to expect that you might have some key partnerships, but a lot won’t work. Bon Appétit used to do a lot of social shares featuring partners, but they’ve since scaled back. If you’re not careful then other people get the SEO benefit and you get nothing. It’s partly a process of trial and error, and if you’re serious about it then you should keep trying. Maybe 1/5 does work.

Another audience question was about the split between desktop and mobile. Carey said that their split was about 60/40 mobile, and unsurprizingly a lot more mobile is coming through Instagram, although it’s still far from the majority. She thinks should be thinking about what they can do tech and product wise to support mobile visitors. The role that AMP plays in that isn’t clear - it seems to be a bit up and down. She doesn’t like the way the AMP pages look, and the industry seems to blow hot and cold on it. It’s also currently not very clear how AMP is affecting monetization.

Subscribing to new ideas?

Mads asked Carey about subscription, which has been one of the bigger trends in the shifting publishing and media business model landscape. She said that subscription is not really part of their revenue. Mads suggested that e.g. monthly recipe packages, or some food-based variant on the Michelle Kwan samples box model could resonate with their audience? Did the panel see growth here?

Carey said that they had felt like there are so many recipes freely available on the internet that a paywall wouldn’t work… However the New York Times did put a paywall around their cooking site recently, and now have 100,000 paying subscribers, so there was clearly some room for this approach.

Joe said that Popsugar’s approach to subscription was to base it around a higher level of service. They don’t want to put the main site behind a paywall and take away things they’ve been giving to their audience for free. Advertizing still makes them a lot of money, so there’s no immediate reason to throw up a paywall in any case. For a brand like Popsugar the main opportunity for paywalled content is specific products where it could work, like a fitness video package they’re working on.

As a final thought, Daniel remarked that he wasn’t that fluent in the subject, but he saw blockchain really changing things and allowing much more community stakeholding and ownership of entities. He wasn’t that thrilled about the current media landscape, where media properties largely owned by the ultra-rich. Blockchain is very new technology, and most people hear about it in the form of crypto currency, but he’d love to see its capabilities being used to make membership and e.g. micropayments an easier business model for publishing and media.

That's all from this edition of the Future of Media and Publishing from New York: check out our speaker Guy LeCharles Gonzalez on Enthusiast Media here, and Part I of the panel discussion here. If you'd like to join next time then the link to the meetup group can be found here, and we hope that you've gained some interesting insights!

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