Earlier this year, the Institute for Media Strategies organised an Executive Media Innovation Tour to New York. It brought together more than 20 CEOs, editors-in-chief, commercial directors, and digital executives in workshops at the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, NYC Media Lab, Quartz, and Calkins Media, among others.
This is what we learned.
1. The future belongs to those who understand their customers.
This key message emerged over and over again in all our discussions. Only those who understand their customers and their needs can come out on top in the increasingly difficult competition for the attention and loyalty of the consumer.
In the process, it also put the spotlight on what “understanding” now means. At one time, publishers could make blithe assumptions about their audience. Now they have to analyse them continuously, with ever more elaborate data concepts and ever more precise interpretation of them.
“Customer segmentation works,” said Suzi Watford, managing director of the WSJ, who pointed out the necessity of systematically monitoring customers and analysing their behaviour so as not to lose them. “The transaction is just the starting line, not the finishing line. It is, so to speak, a never-ending transaction.”
2. Digital business models are possible (but a science unto themselves).
Traditional brands such as the WSJ, as well as those like Quartz and Gizmodo, have proven that, 20 years into the era of online media, it can be a money-maker. Underlying assumptions are having to be torn up as we go, and the effort and complexity are enormous.
But, for example, the WSJ recently recorded more online subscribers than print subscribers. In its aim to push that figure from more than two million to the goal of three million subscribers, the brand is redesigning its paywall to allow agile response. It’s also promoting its premium “membership for the ambitious.”
Gizmodo responded to revenue loss from adblocking by targeting members of the popular themed communities (online gaming, gadgets, and sports) with “deals of the day” in partnership with Amazon. The approach now yields a quarter of Gizmodo’s revenue.
3. Data is the key.
“Media is data,” said Justin Hendrix of the New York City Media Lab.
Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, calls the BuzzFeed model a “data-driven advertising agency.” She warned traditional media not to fall behind in the data race. Her mantra is: “As long as you do not fully understand the behaviour of your customers, you will not be able to develop any new products.” Those who develop digital products based on a gut feeling and not on a comprehensive pool of data are flying blindly and can only fail.
Data is key to more than marketing. It also underpins the new journalism. “We want to make articles from data and turn data into infographics,” noted Francesco Marconi of AP. “We work with data from real-time events. We analyse social media to predict topics and trends, and use data tools such as NewsWhip to measure the performance of our news content with our customers.”
4. Content is between creativity and algorithms.
Content has always been, and remains to this day, the driver of media business models. Whether it is Gizmodo’s verticals, Quartz’s news for young decision-makers, or mic.com’s entertaining video clips, targeted content and powerful storytelling lose none of their drawing power.
“We follow the so-called wave approach,” Watford said. “We know exactly how we have to market and sell content. Every day we produce several hundred pieces of content. A big share of these are specially promoted each week in an attempt to acquire digital subscribers.”
Here, too, the same rules apply: Only innovation and the joy of experimentation guarantee the attention and loyalty of the user. The successful platforms are constantly trying out something new. That can take the form of Quartz’s conversational news app or “Trump’s America” at mic.com. It could be a new target group newsletter, a podcast format, or an Instagram channel that gets to the heart of the users and unexpectedly becomes a success. The key is to think broader, experiment, and be prepared to act on learnings.
This brings us to our fifth point.
5. Innovation means thinking the unthinkable and trying the impossible.
“Get going. Move fast. Break silos.” That’s how WSJ’s chief innovation officer Edward Roussel sums up his programme, neatly channelling the Facebook ethos for the world of publishing. The publication was long seen as essentially conservative, but publishing now has to reinvent itself. Daily. Fortunately, it has never been easier.
Thinking the unthinkable, embracing the crazy ideas emerging from R&D, and attempting the impossible have become the stock in trade of successful publishers — because they can. “It has never been easier to try and test something new. Young target groups and new platforms are quite forgiving,” said Jonathan Keegan from Columbia University, describing the new paradigm.