October 17, 2020
Members Only

Would Your Readers Miss You If Your Publication Disappeared Tomorrow?

The internet has made so much possible around the world. Billions of people have access to content now that might not have in the past. And it is easier than ever to launch a media company. We live in a time of content abundance.

However, with that ease and abundance has come an unfortunate side effect. When you can make money doing something easier than ever before, you’re going to do more of it.

Unfortunately, the game changed when content publication became easy. The number of stories written about a topic skyrocketed. Consider a piece of news about the President. Two decades ago, there would have been far fewer stories published on it than there are today.

That’s not to say I’m against the proliferation of internet media, of course. I am, after all, building an entire newsletter on growing digital media companies. However, we have to call a spade a spade. When there is an abundance of something, it tends to result in a commoditization of it.

I was having a conversation with Dotdash’s Neil Vogel (next week’s podcast guest) and one of the things he said to me really stuck with me. I’ll paraphrase, but it was effectively: “When we set out to create a piece of content, we look to create the best piece of content. The internet does not need another average piece of content.”

Have truer words ever been uttered? And yet, the internet is full of bad content.

I was having a conversation with a writer earlier this week who had come from one of these “more is better” media companies. And she said, “I had a quota of 5 articles per day that had to be hit every single day.”

Five articles per day… I write a twice-weekly newsletter and that’s about all I can do. I can’t imagine writing five articles a day and keeping up any semblance of quality.

I understand why this was the strategy, though. The strategy of the last 10-15 years on the internet was that more is better. The only way to achieve scale is to create as much content as humanly possible so that you are blanketing your audience with possibilities.

But it does present an interesting question that I’ve been mulling over. If you are putting out a ton of average content, does it actually matter? Or, said another way…

Would we miss you if you were gone?

Look at your browser history and the sites that you have visited over the past 24-48 hours. If you consume content like I do, it’s likely that there are dozens of different sites that you really have no recollection of ever visiting.

For most of us, this is the case. We randomly find nuggets of information in various places around the internet, but don’t form any sort of lasting relationship with that brand.

In many cases, this is what media has become. It has not been about building a relationship with the user. It’s all about getting as many people to consume the content rather than caring who those people are.

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, did it make a sound? If an average media company dies on the internet and no one remembers it, did it ever really matter?

“Of course it matters!” people will say. And I expect that to be the immediate reaction. Why, though? Why does it matter if an average media company dies when there are so many other average media companies out there still?

Now… If a great media company dies, we’d remember it. Imagine if The New York Times shuttered. That would send shockwaves through a lot of people’s lives. They would notice something different. I know I would.

But it’s not just The Times. There are plenty of these companies where their readers have grown dependent on what they produce. And, more importantly, they miss you when you don’t give them what they have grown to expect.

Consider this tweet from Union Square Venture’s Andy Weissman:

When you are consistent, people expect you to continue doing that. That forms a habit. Once you become part of someone’s habit, you become more important to their day-to-day.

The way your publication is remembered is by forming a habit with the reader. And that necessitates creating great content. Don’t be the 10th to cover the same story. Be the first to cover a different story in a unique way.

This conversation informs business success

Why is The New York Times hoovering up all news paying readers and the rest of the country’s newspapers are struggling?

Why did The Information get so many people to pay for tech news when there were so many other tech sites?

Why is [insert your pub of choice] doing so well when others are likely struggling despite covering the same topic?

In all cases, these publications have differentiated themselves in such a way that what they publish actually matters. They have figured out what their audience actually needs and are then able to provide exactly that. And they do it by creating great content.

Whenever I talk to a publisher thinking about launching a subscription, the first things I ask is: what sets you apart from others in your industry? Most of the time, they don’t have a clear cut answer. They say something about the number of articles they publish or, to sound fancier, the “comprehensiveness of their coverage.”

Anyone that has built a successful subscription product knows that it’s not about the amount of content you put out. Instead, the gauge of a good subscription product is how impactful the content is to the reader irrespective of quantity.

But let’s be clear here… This isn’t just a subscription conversation. It’s also about ads.

With the abundance of internet media, advertising has become a race to the bottom, right? Advertisers don’t actually care about the content the ads are shown against; they just chase the reader around the internet.

If that’s the case, why can so many great digital media companies charge premiums on their advertising? Readers that have formed a habit with a specific publication form a deeper relationship with said pub. As an advertiser, I want to target those types of readers that trust what they see on that site.

It’s not about scale in this case; rather, it’s about finding the right people to put my message in front of.

Consider this…

LiveIntent, one of the only programmatic newsletter ad opportunities, wrote a blog post in 2016 about increasing revenue. In it, they used a CPM of $1.25 as an example. Throw two tags in the newsletter, they say, and you’ll earn an RPO (revenue per thousand opens) of $2.50. Wow.

Without naming names, I know of newsletter companies on both the consumer and B2B sides that are charging $30-$60 CPMs. When I ran an ad in my newsletter, the CPM was close to $100.

The difference is that LiveIntent is promising scale with no care about habit or loyalty and these other newsletter companies are promising loyalty with scale. Subtle, but fundamental to success.

Be memorable…

The vast majority of what I write about at A Media Operator is about building sustainable digital media businesses. A big part of that is being remembered. Because if you’re remembered, it means that you have a relationship with your reader. That’s the core of any great, successful, profitable media company.


Thanks for reading today’s newsletter. If you have thoughts, please share them with me. And as always, thank you for being a member. Have a great weekend!

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