In the mid-eighties, traditional journalism and media was in its golden age. Outlets were blissfully unaware that the Internet would soon arrive to turn the industry on its head. The decades that followed have been spent in a constant state of trial and error, brewing up approaches to successfully adapt to this new, digital frontier. For a long time now, one of the most prevalent tactics has been to obsess over driving traffic — any traffic — without filter or importance being placed on who’s actually behind the eyeballs. Impressions have reigned supreme.
Then, the pandemic struck, and once again, media companies found themselves back at the drawing board. With the world on pause and people stuck at home in front of screens, they were reminded that the cornerstone of their business is the audience. And not just a sea of misaligned impressions they happened to pull into their net, but the targeted, niche groups whose characteristics make them prime to engage with their companies’ content. Video channels began producing for specific interests and needs. Digital channels started focusing on understanding who actually reads their content.
The industry finally understood what many of us have been saying for years: Media needs to care about the people behind the clicks. Success is more than simply web traffic.
A Return to the Industry’s Roots
Focusing on the audience isn’t a new concept for media companies, it’s a return to the industry’s roots. The history of media has always been building an audience in one place and then leveraging it to make money in other places. Martha Stewart is a good example. She first wrote cookbooks, magazine articles, and newspaper columns. Based on their success, she made appearances on several talk shows, and then started a magazine, followed by her own TV show based on that magazine. Later still, she moved into consumer products. Another example: ESPN started as a cable TV station, and then moved to print, digital, and now live events like the X Games.
The one truth that is the linchpin of the Maslow hierarchy of media is the deep understanding of your audience. Everything you ultimately build is on top of that foundation. However, what’s different today is that success requires using data to measure and respond to the audience.
Shifting from Web Traffic to Subscriber Mentality
Instead of focusing on driving as many people to the website as possible, media companies have shifted their focus to the subscriber, which can refer to either a free subscriber or someone who pays to read the content. Everything that a media company produces ultimately begins with the subscriber – create a community, sell research or online learning, hold events.
When you write for a specific audience, you do more than drive traffic. You actually build a community. Caring about the individual reading your content almost always helps the media company succeed. It’s intuitive, really. But it’s a tough mindset shift to make when we’ve all been conditioned to care about people only in terms of how they equate to dollars or stack up against metrics on a page. I’m happy to say that I think the media industry is actually in a positive place for the first time in a while, and I feel optimistic about the future. But there is still more work to be done as an industry to continue in the right direction.
To move your audience from individuals who visit the site to read a specific piece of content to loyal subscribers, you must know a lot about them. This means that media companies must have access to data in a breadth and volume that wasn’t needed, or available, in the past. Without the ability to fully understand their subscribers, a media company will quickly lag behind – and lose subscribers to competitors.
We can’t talk about data without talking about privacy, especially the regulatory issues. Large companies such as Apple are now emphasizing privacy, which gives a leg up to media companies that really focus on audience and quality. As data becomes harder to get due to privacy, especially data on very specific premier audiences, those with granted, transparent access to that data will benefit the most.
Using Data to Drive Media Decisions
Media outlets of all types rushed to create pandemic-related coverage. But there are very specific factors that different people care about within the very broad topic of the pandemic. While CFOs focused on PPP loans, HR executives wanted to find out if it was legal to enforce employees to get COVID-19 testing, as well as get information regarding remote working regulations.
I’ve seen firsthand how many media companies keep the same definition of their audience’s needs over time. To deliver what people care about right now, your picture of your audience needs to be as real-time as possible as their needs change and evolve, both short-term and over time. For a more consumer-focused example, remember how many people started baking bread during the pandemic? There was a new need for more baking content. A media company with these readers needs more information to make the right decision, such as providing more articles about bread or launching a new bread-focused publication.
Last spring, we worked with one of our Industry Dive clients who wanted to reach CFOs – so they needed to know what topics CFOs cared about. Because we have 11 million people in our audience across a wide range of industries, we shared that when the PPP loans came out in April, that was the top priority for CFOs. But by late May, CFOs were already on to reading about other topics. By segmenting our audiences, we go further and break down the reading habits of CFOs across different industries.
studioID — Combining Data and Content
While we were looking to build out the content studio arm of Industry Dive, our chairman connected me with Shafqat Islam, the CEO of NewsCred. Shafqat led the efforts to build out a phenomenal content studio and the platform to support it. Because we were looking to create a breakout content studio and NewsCred was looking to focus on the software side of their business, the merger was a natural fit. Industry Dive acquired the content portion in late July and rebranded it to studioID. We combined NewsCred’s deep relationships with brands and incredible content talent with Industry Dive’s wide audiences and data insight to build studioID, which focuses on connecting brand to demand (the balance and cohesion of long and short term marketing activities).
We thought obsessively about what was required to build a studio that has the insights needed to deliver on its promise to its subscribers. You need world class strategy, tailored content created based on first-party data, and a distribution channel to highly targeted, valuable audiences. And the only way you can get all these pieces in one place is by doing what we have done – combining a media company with a content studio.
The future of media is both simple and complex. And we are excited about being a part of the future by building our business based on creating content that audiences truly care about.