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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

For Group Nine Media president Christa Carone, brand equity is good business

May 29, 2019 | By Michelle Manafy, Editorial Director – DCN @michellemanafy

I recently connected with Christa Carone, who joined Group Nine Media as president in 2017, at the Collision Conference in Toronto, Canada. Carone, who came to the media side of the industry after leadership roles on the marketing and agency side, oversees Group Nine’s sales and marketing teams as well as its data insights group. Group Nine is a digital media holding company comprised of four popular digitally-native media brands Thrillist, The Dodo, Seeker, and NowThis. Carone and I discussed revenue and distribution diversification, content strategy, and building a business based on brand equity.

Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Michelle Manafy: Tell me a little bit about your content distribution strategy and why you are all-in on social.

Christa Carone is President of Group Nine Media. Prior, Carone spent 17 years at Xerox Corporation, most recently serving as CMO.

Christa Carone: Well, I’d say we’re all-in on omni channel—and that includes social. Right now, we’re distributing content on over 20 different platforms. That includes Amazon Prime, Pluto, Roku, and distribution deals with networks literally around the world. So, our approach to being completely agnostic on distribution is that we want to bring our content to all of the different places where people are spending their time. And we want that to be a pretty frictionless experience. Instead of spending a ton of money to get you to come to my website, I want to bring our storytelling to the place where you are already hanging out.

Michelle Manafy: Truly connecting with audiences at scale almost sounds like almost an oxymoron to me. What do you think?

Christa Carone: You can debate that content is king and distribution is queen and whether they have an equal seat at the table. But that’s really kind of how I look at it. When both are working together extremely well, you are able to build successful brands like The Dodo, NowThis, Thrillist, and Seeker. It’s like really honing-in on higher value content. We’re building lifetime value of the content, what’s going to keep an audience interested, and remain totally agnostic on the distribution strategy.

Michelle Manafy: The trick, of course, is the monetization. The other side of a distributed model is fragmentation. So, talk to me a little bit about how managing all of those channels ties into an overarching strategy.

Christa Carone: The beauty of our strategy is diversification. I often say that if Facebook sneezes, we don’t want to catch a cold. Just like in any industry, you don’t want to be overly dependent on one particular revenue stream. It’s business 101. Media is no different than any other type of business. So, that’s why we’ve been so focused on building audiences across a number of different channels. We’re building audience on TikTok right now. The monetization strategy there is nascent. But it’s going to come. IGTV is another great example. We produce great content for IGTV and put it on IGTV pre-revenue. But I have no doubt at all that Facebook is going to open up monetization opportunities there. And I want to have established an audience when it does.

Michelle Manafy: You mentioned diversification and that every company should be focused on diversified revenue. I take it that Group Nine that’s been baked in from the start.

Christa Carone: Keep in mind that we’re two years old. So, we’ve had the benefit of learning from a lot of traditional companies. And I often say: We’re not pivoting to anything. Some of our brands were born into video so there wasn’t a pivot to video. And the business model was already established. Some of our brands were social first. NowThis, in particular, was born as a social-first distributed brand. We didn’t pivot our business model from taking audience from owned and operated to distributing through external platforms.

Thrillist is the oldest of our brands and it has such a loyal audience. So, we are looking at diversification around where we can take the Thrillist brand and make it more of a whole-lifestyle brand.

Overall, our focus is on lifetime value for the content. So, if we’re bringing in revenue with licensing, great. Bringing in revenue from the syndication model, great. If we’re bringing in revenue by production deals with OTT content providers, like a Netflix, that’s perfect. And if we are continuing to bring in a healthy amount of revenue from advertising, wonderful. And increasingly we’re thinking about how we can tap into other revenue streams like commerce and events.

Michelle Manafy: Could you tell me a little bit about your commerce strategy?

Christa Carone: Our approach to commerce is really looking at brands like The Dodo and Thrillist and saying there’s intellectual property here. There’s a maniacally loyal fanbase. Can we be licensing The Dodo into product? The Dodo clearly has enough brand equity to be producing large scale consumer and canine events. Thrillist has been a friend to people for a long time. It is your recommendation action for food and beverage and travel. So, our ability to take that brand equity and bring it into commerce is already built in. And stay tuned: We will definitely be doing some more on that later this year and we just hired a head of ecommerce.

Michelle Manafy: So, you mentioned that maniacal audience, that loyal audience. What’s the Group Nine secret? Because, as publishers, that audience relationship is what differentiates us from the platforms.

Christa Carone: It’s such a credit to our editorial teams. They know how weave a great narrative and tell an amazing story. It sounds simple but I’m always amazed … A great example is from NowThis. Many people are familiar with the NowThis video about Beto O’Rourke that went viral. The raw footage of that video was already posted on Twitter. It already lived on the Internet someplace. The NowThis team found it and was able to put it through their storytelling lens. They said how can we construct it in such a way that viewers are compelled to watch the entire piece? There is an art to it. There is a narrative that was built in through the use of text on the screen, through the use of effective editing so that we as the viewer were compelled to watch it from start to finish. That is the secret sauce that really exists within our editorial teams and applies to how we produce content across all of our brands.

I would say the other massive factor for us is that scale matters. We have such amazing insights that we’re able to glean from the consumption of our videos that informs how we produce content. Based on our scale, our data team is looking at 115,000 views of our content every minute. Every minute. We’ve built a very sophisticated data engine that is able to pull in insights for things like the right color for the text on the screen, the right size of font, the number of words that should be on your screen, the fact that videos about dogs have three times longer watch time than videos around cats. So, the editorial team can say maybe that dog video should be three and a half minutes but maybe that cat videos should just be two or something along those lines. You’re able to really start to use these signals to inform your storytelling.

Michelle Manafy: So, what’s your growth plan?

Christa Carone: Our business is really becoming much more analogous to a TV buy. What I mean by that is that we have access to sell all of the pre-roll against all of Group Nine content across all of the major platforms. So, you have a television commercial and you are in, say, an auto company and the pet owner is really interesting to you. You can come to us and have 100 percent share of voice across all Dodo content on Facebook, on Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat. You can buy our pre-roll on our channels and transact that directly through Group Nine instead of the platforms. Brands are responsive to it because of the importance of brand safety. When you have the brand safety conversation with a marketer, you need to be able to say here’s the right audience and it is against premium, brand safe content. It’s fascinating to me that we’re having more conversations with TV buyers who are shifting that investment from linear to wherever they can get eyeballs.

Michelle Manafy: I’m finding the distinction between television and all digital video is increasingly blurred, particularly for buyers.

Christa Carone: Completely. I think we have to redefine what TV means. So, TV is not a device anymore. When the linear players, the cable players start talking about TV everywhere, we’re in that boat. It includes YouTube, it can arguably be IGTV, it could be lean-back viewing on Facebook… It can be TikTok. How define TV going forward is going to be interesting.

Michelle Manafy: Talk to me about how you’re innovating and how the industry needs to innovate.

Christa Carone: Maybe for some media companies, diversification is innovative. It’s different at Group Nine because we were born that way. We’ve learned so much from how past companies have run that we know what we need to do as a media company. I feel like innovation is really coming through how companies are able to scale intellectual property.

Michelle Manafy: Your background is marketing. How does that impact your leadership and view of your organization?

Christa Carone: I mean that’s been such an advantage coming into a company like Group Nine. What I’m able to tap into is the perspective of a marketer and think of everything we’re doing from the perspective of the client. Will an advertiser really buy into this? I come from companies with significant brand equity so I’m a massive believer in intellectual property and that’s what appeals to me about Group Nine. these aren’t four media companies. These are four brands. So: How can we look at building brand equity that isn’t just about one particular revenue stream? That has been super helpful to me to bring more of an innovative marketing approach to building brands.

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