April 24, 2020
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This Is The Time To Start Experimenting

It’s been six weeks since I started social distancing. Those first few weeks, the doom and gloom was hardcore. Everything I read—and admittedly, much of what I wrote—was about how bad things were going to get.

And look… It’s gotten pretty bad. In the United States alone, we’ve crossed 20 million people out of work. The ad business has been gutted for many publishers. Live events are on hold. It’s rough.

However, over the past couple of weeks, the dialogue has started to change a little bit. I am seeing entrepreneurs getting creative again. Even large, pretty rigid media companies are starting to experiment.

Most importantly? People within companies are working together with a tight focus and understanding that if media companies don’t work quickly and efficiently, things may not get better.

I watched one of Digiday’s webinars (paywall) recently with Tribune Publishing’s CMO Mark Campbell and he said something that was really interesting:

I’ve seen a level of communication, coordination and collaboration among all of the units of my company better than I’ve ever seen before. Every other day, we are all on the phone for at least 30 minutes talking about how our respective departments are solving for new problems, new ideas, new solutions, how we’re all working together…

I’m meeting people in production and delivery that I barely knew before. This is something that we have to carry forward because I’m finding that we’re all coming up with ideas and solutions that, frankly, were just good ideas, regardless of the situation we are currently in.

He views this as the most important thing that could come out of the COVID-19 crisis and, I’ll be honest, I think he’s right.

It’s easy to look at this as a time for extreme focus and, in some respects, it is. However, this is also an amazing chance to take an idea that might have otherwise interfered in the business and try it out. The biggest example of that has to do with what Mark Campbell refers to as “the age-old tension between volume and revenue.” Are we trying to get new subscribers or are we trying to create as much inventory as possible for advertising?

Adweek did a piece on Thursday about what’s getting done across media. The author wrote:

Politico created a newsletter within 24 hours; Bloomberg Media built a new digital series; Business Insider launched a new video series; The New York Times created a live blog; and Axios fast tracked an app.

Here at Adweek, on March 2 we created a blog-style tracker, three weeks later we launched a daily livestream, and in the weeks since have started a weekly future-focused video series, two new podcasts, and created additional resources for creatives and marketers.

Is all of it going to work? Of course not. However, what if something does work? The New York Times put its live blog in front of the paywall. What if that results in a surge in subscriptions? Axios’ app is actually pretty nice. Is that a precursor to me paying for news once they’ve collected more data?

There can be opportunity in uncertainty. The best part about this particular situation is that audiences are forgiving. Think about it… A year ago, if we saw a CNN host dialing in from his basement on a Zoom call, we would laugh. But now it’s perfectly acceptable. This lower fidelity production is understandable.

I’ve seen this as well. Colleagues are doing Zoom livestreams and people are incredibly engaged. It doesn’t matter that the background is a messy apartment. The audience is accepting of it.

And that’s the key here. When your audience is comfortable with imperfection, it’s the perfect opportunity to start really experimenting with ideas. What are some possibilities?

I’ll break down three possibilities: video, events and commerce.

Video

I can’t believe I am writing this because video gutted digital media companies, but this might be the perfect time to start experimenting with different video ideas.

What you’re experimenting with here is formats and personalities. You might not know it, but you could have a person on staff that is incredible in front of the camera. Maybe they’re a great interviewer. Or, perhaps they can explain things better than anyone else.

The best part, which I touched on above, is your audience will likely watch irrespective of the quality. It’s less about how good it looks and more about how engaging it is.

I spent some time looking at old Hot Ones episodes (Complex’s chicken wing eating talk show) and if you compare them to current ones, you can see subtle differences in production quality. Sean Evans became a far better interviewer and the special effects related to the spice levels look fancier. Now? Sean may be one of the most enjoyable interviewers I’ve ever seen.

What’s exceptional is how this has ballooned into a huge business. Hot Ones now sells hot sauce (we’ll get to commerce below) and it also has an actual television show. What started as a guy who loved eating hot wings turned into a multi-million dollar business for Complex.

This isn’t just an opportunity for consumer sites, though. While some of the most successful B2B media companies have stayed away from video, this could be a unique opportunity to start experimenting with various ideas. Here’s one that I think is actually really straight forward to execute.

The Atlantic (not B2B, I know, but stick with me) has a series of videos called The Atlantic Argument. A journalist stands in front of a blue background and talks about a story they’ve reported on. They’re short and focused on a single topic. While The Atlantic does some post production, it honestly doesn’t need it. Here’s what I would buy your teams to get started:

  • A separate webcam from their laptop’s
  • A good microphone

And that’s it. Why these two things? The webcam is so that they are not looking down at their laptop, but instead, looking straight ahead. The microphone is simply because I really think people are more forgiving about video quality than audio quality.

Maybe it doesn’t go anywhere and the videos die. Or perhaps, they actually become a great tool for engagement and you may find there are some advertisers that want to underwrite these videos. When that time comes, you can spruce up the production quality. But for now, it’s about trying it out over perfecting it.

Events

There is no denying that we were in a bit of an events bubble before COVID-19. The vast majority of media companies I know were diversifying into events. The majority of those may never return post pandemic.

However, there is a lot to be excited about tvirtual events. The two primary benefits? Your audience can be far larger and you can bring the greatest speakers without ever having to worry about geography. Plus, the margins are significantly greater.

Think about it… You’re not stuck getting a hotel, paying for AV, dealing with those pesky food and beverage minimums, physical build out of stages and sets, paying for travel and the list goes on.

With a virtual event, your costs are basically the online event platform. Suddenly, an event that might have cost you $2 million to put on only costs a fraction of that.

At the same time, with the world able to attend, you can bring far more people into the fold than you normally would. First, there’s no high-priced ticket (some of us event organizers charge 4 figures for a ticket). Second, there’s no travel. That saves time here.

Again, I would experiment with models here. I think there is something to be said about going with very short, hyper-targeted events. Grab people for a couple hours around a single topic and then let them get back to work.

From a monetization perspective, you’re going to wind up with only one or two sponsors per event, unless you’ve figured out a way to build a large-scale conference virtually. And I would absolutely charge for access to these events. Even if it’s just $50 a ticket, I think if you’re getting really focused with the content, people are likely to pay for it.

There’s something else I’ve been thinking a lot about that I haven’t solved yet. In the B2B space, there is something known as a hosted buyer event. Effectively, the attendee’s costs are covered in exchange for having a predetermined number of meetings with sponsors. The attendee saves money and the sponsor gets a more predictable ROI.

Digiday does these a lot. A normal ticket to one of the Digital Publishing Summits costs a couple grand, but because of my willingness to have a bunch of meetings with sponsors, the ticket and hotel is paid for.

It’s harder to do this virtually, though. How can you mandate meetings with sponsors when the cost goes from a couple grand to $50?

I haven’t found a solution for it, but one possibility is to make the meetings a prerequisite to registration. You have the attendee fill out a form requesting access to the event. You then share these profiles with the sponsors and let them pick who they might want to talk to. The attendee then has 1-2 meetings in the hour before the event. For those that complete the meetings, they receive a registration page to access the actual content.

I haven’t tried this out, so it’s purely speculation; however, if your content is exceptional, you could make the argument people might “pay” with their time.

Commerce

Earlier this week, I wrote a bit about how Amazon had effectively gutted media companies by changing the commission from 7% to 3%. I wrote:

I’ll be honest… I never viewed the growth in commerce revenue as the saving grace for diversification as some publishers thought for two connected reasons.

First, diversification is about derisking your revenue profile. However, many publishers took the route of working with the largest player in town, earning large amounts of revenue from a single source. How does that derisk the profile?

Second, these affiliate links are just another form of advertising. Instead of charging on a CPM basis, you’re charging on a cost per acquisition basis. That’s still advertising.

There are some publishers that likely saw less of a hit from this move. BuzzFeed’s Tasty sells its own goods through Walmart. No affiliate commissions there. And Food52 has its own line of kitchen tools, Five Two, that it owns and sells. Again, no affiliate commissions on this. (Quick aside: the dishtowel is the best one I have ever used. It’s ridiculously absorbent. I was not paid to say this.)

Suffice it to say, the audience they both drive to their respective shops earn them revenue irrespective of commissions. That is taking commerce revenue and actually diversifying it.

However, not every site is about food, so what can you do?

The first step is to really start digging into your data to understand what category of goods your readers are buying and, more importantly, what sorts of brands they are purchasing. This is important because before you can start to optimize for what matters most, you need to understand where your audience is spending most of its time shopping.

With this data, you then want to start breaking it up into two buckets. The first bucket is product development, which is, admittedly, rather difficult. You’re literally going to be making things. I won’t even begin to explain how that works because I’ve never done it. However, there are people who specialize in product design. Even better, you have an opportunity to work with your community to define the right products. That’s what Food52 did and there’s a reason why their products are so good.

The other bucket is comprised of the list of the biggest brands that are being sold through your site. Let’s say you run a parenting site and there’s a particular brand of toy that really sells a lot. Historically, you may have been relying on Amazon to drive that business for you. However, this time, reach out to them directly. Show them your numbers and how much business you’ve driven to them. If you think about it, whatever they’re earning, they have to give a decent chunk of that to the retailer—in this case, Amazon—so how happy would the company be to cut out the middle man and sell directly with you? You’ll likely get a higher commission and the brand will also sell more goods.

What if you can’t work out deals with the bigger brands?

Look for other affiliate opportunities. Amazon can get away with cutting rates as sharp as it has because it is Amazon. It has everything. However, by offering everything to publishers, it gave many the chance to be lazy. Write another review, link to another Amazon link, collect some money and move on.

But there are plenty of opportunities out there to earn affiliate deals; it might just require you to start multiple relationships. For example, if you are a food site and can’t produce your own goods, you can always sell Food52. It pays a 9% baseline commission. Or, if you were relying on book sales through Amazon, there is a new ecommerce bookstore called BookShop. It pays 10% to publishers and you can feel good knowing every purchase contributes some money to local bookstores.

All of this takes work, but no rational person ever said media was easy. You’re sitting with a sales team right now that is trying to sell, but failing because ad buys have slowed down. Reallocate some of their time to bring these business development deals in the front door.

Get experimenting…

Video, events and commerce are just three main avenues that I imagine publishers can experiment with over the coming months to identify products that could start to become major opportunities as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But it doesn’t have to be any of these. Maybe you have a reporter that has really wanted to do a newsletter about a specific topic, but it never got prioritized. Could now be the time to experiment with it?

When business is stable, many companies get comfortable and don’t innovate. As I said a few weeks ago, during this crisis, we have to adapt. New business models may evolve. And ultimately, we need to experiment with new ideas. You never know what might become a future line of business.

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