It’s a brave new world. As the media companies experiment with quickly-advancing technology amid the duopoly of Google and Facebook, tight competition antiquates the notion that only “content is king.” In the meantime, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, consumer faith in four pillars — NGOs, business, media and government — fell since last year, with the trust in press falling the most.
But challenge also presents opportunity. Through careful planning and innovation, Digital Content Next (DCN) CEO Jason Kint believes that DCN’s members are in a unique position to find success. The key? Building and sustaining trust — not just in news, but also in brands. As Kint pointed out during DCN’s members-only Next: Summit, held Jan. 19-20 in New Orleans, it is “universally understood” that trust arises under conditions of uncertainty and vulnerability.
“I believe that there’s never been a better opportunity to create trust with consumers and advertisers,” Kint said.
Over two days, amid a backdrop of the French Quarter in the Crescent City, Summit speakers urged focusing on brand, product and shared community-centric experiences to allow companies to survive, and even thrive, amid shifting media sands. This theme continued, from the kickoff by Harvard Business School professor Bharat Anand, who explained how connectivity promotes loyalty during digital change, to a closing session about how to manage a subscription business amid wide-spread content distribution on third-party platforms with Kinsey Wilson, Editor for Innovation and Strategy at The New York Times.
DCN member-company executives from around the globe reflected on how to retain and build consumer loyalty by marrying “customer first” mentality with smart, technology-driven strategy. Here are three key takeaways:
1. Embrace change — even if it means being radically different. So-called “best practices” may be antiquated and dangerous to follow. In the current environment, it can pay off to establish a unique identity.
Steve Cook, Contributing Editor of CMO.com, said time today is more valuable than money. To appeal to clients, companies need to have brands or services that are “excellent,” usually because “they’ve managed to differentiate themselves.”
Publisher of Vox Media, Melissa Bell, challenged the audience to embrace fluid business models. For Vox, that meant softening the barrier between revenue and editorial teams to create premium — and enjoyable — advertising as part of the full package. “We think of ourselves as publishers,” she said. “We need to think of ourselves as in a conversation with people. How do we hear from them what they need from us?”
Justin Smith, the CEO of Bloomberg Media Group, said it’s essential to be gutsy when building digital-first brands amid change. As a vertically-integrated company that uses media to drive value to its core business, Bloomberg’s role has been that of “big disruptor” and “innovator” in the industry. But for success to happen, Bloomberg had to be open to failure. Whenever an employee “tries and fails,” Smith added, Michael Bloomberg himself will go to the department and “pat the person on the back.”
2. Dare to examine paid subscription. Don’t be afraid to demand more for higher quality.
Nearly 77 million people are expected to use ad-blockers by the end of 2017. Yet, the majority of digital media revenue still comes from advertising: a sign that companies need to focus on user experience and leverage quality. “We must find a way to use our brands as wellsprings for new revenue opportunities,” Kint said. “We can’t be beholden to the advertising market.”
According to Wilson from The New York Times, by its nature quality journalism “has always, in some form, been subsidized.” Testing a “leaky” paywall can both generate revenue and be flexible enough to drive conversation on social platforms.
Financial Times CEO John Ridding said his company is always examining ways to reduce reliance on advertising. The key? Superior content that readers trust. “Some information isn’t as worthy as others,” Ridding said. “I think the internet is a liberating force for inclusion and access, but at same time there has to be a role for quality information, which costs money.”
Marta Tellado, the CEO of Consumer Reports, underscored that even an older, paid-subscription company can become relevant in today’s market with some effort. “You have to reintroduce yourself,” Tellado said about their focus on reinvention. “We have to show up where consumers are.”
3. Diversify. Creativity can be harnessed to drive additional revenue.
Maya Draisin, the associated publisher of WIRED Media Group, said the company has invested in live events, branded content with Netflix, executive membership and a promotional t-shirt collection to help drive revenue. “We look at everything.”
President of The Atlantic Bob Cohn said that, in addition to digital, print and video, the company has launched highly-successful live event and consulting businesses, fast-growing ventures that help individuals connect and organizations “strategize digital thinking.” He advised directing business ventures into “open space” as you would a game of ultimate Frisbee: “Where is the audience going and where is business going?” he challenged. “Send the disk in that direction.”
And, rather than taking a digital-first, or mobile-first approach, Cohn said that The Atlantic is “audience-first.”
In a similar vein, Viacom EVP Ross Martin said that they take a “fans first” approach, which has motivated unique promotional techniques. One example? Turning Airbnb into a native advertising platform with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles experience. Martin showed a three-year-old’s reaction a “Ninja Turtles lair” they created to look like turtles digs in the movie set. The child’s face was lit up, eyes wide: delight personified. “Do you call that marketing?” quipped Martin. “I don’t know what you call it.”
Ultimately, all of the DCN Next: Summit’s major themes circled back to that audience relationship and, above all, maintaining their trust. “Sometimes called consumers or audiences…for us, fans are the north star,” Martin said. And that mindset is a healthy one that should guide this industry forward.