With the proliferation of device technology, social media, and various content platforms, it’s easy to forget the dynamics that are impacting content itself. We’ve clearly learned that you can’t simply rinse and repeat print content onto other platforms, and yet the audience now expects content to be anywhere and everywhere they want to access it.
Here FOLIO: has convened another one of its patented roundtables to discuss the current state and future of content production. What we’ve learned is the audience and the data that emerges from its behavior are having a huge impact on content production and its economics. From social media to mobile to the Web, the way an audience interacts with content drives everything from topics to pricing.
FOLIO: Give us a sense of how your content production and distribution have changed in the last few years. What were they like then compared to what they’re like now? What’s driving that change?
Robyn Peterson: Mashable is purely digital, we don’t have any print business as everybody knows, but there’s still an evolution taking place. The evolution, and we accomplished this in 2011, is moving from being a blog to actually becoming a media company. And in 2012 we’re going to move from being a media company to being a platform.
In 2011, we had a newsroom of bloggers, which was great. We generated a lot of content, we covered a lot of different topics, but we weren’t an organized newsroom. By bringing in more experienced journalists, trying to structure out a newsroom, solidifying beats, we were able to do a couple of things: Create a more rigorous editorial process, which is necessary as the company matures, and we’re evolving as the conversation on social networks evolves.
Eric Lundquist: We’re b-to-b. For us it’s much more about adding a horizontal layer of social networking throughout the whole organization—throughout the CMS—and I call it ‘getting by with a little of help from our friends.’ We recognize that the conversations taking place outside have a real influence on what people are reading, and it will be more so than coming in through traditional SEO or via newsletters, so we’re adding in that layer of social networking and meanwhile looking at the new platforms. I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s the biggest change that I’ve ever seen—in terms of who the audience is, what the content we’re producing for the audience is, how the audience is coming into our media platforms, and the platforms that we’re pushing our content out to.
Warren Bimblick: Penton is a large b-to-b media company serving 17 different industries which have nothing to do with each other. We put it all together through acquisitions of companies over the years. I guess where we are is we tried to put in place standardized systems to enable what I call ‘surround sound.’ The financial advisors in one vertical want their content in a whole different way than IT developers in another, and there are different life stages and cycles in the process.
The one thing that I think may be a little controversial is we talk about social media when in fact the b-to-b controlled circulation model is all about a social community. What it really is about is finding 47,262 people who all qualify and about whom you know tons of information and you give them content in the way they want it, which means asking them. And for some reason yet again the industry is going out to Facebook and LinkedIn, when in fact we own these communities.
My soapbox right now is to keep the communities to ourselves, because we are the qualified people to run them. That said, if I were 30 years younger and an editor, I would be checking every day to see who is following me. It is fascinating what you can use social media for. Not just for pushing content out but for product research, and so on.
Peterson: One trend that I’m seeing, and not just at Mashable, is thinking about the editorial strategy following the same process as online software development, where you launch quickly and iterate because you have the data streams coming back. All the data exhaust is there—if you can try and understand it. We’re starting to do that—we’ll play with new beats, launch articles, and just see how the community reacts.
Richard Tofel: We are obviously in a different kind of business because we are A) a nonprofit, and B) a mission-driven organization. Our goal is for our content to make change through journalistic means. I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said, but what these trends mean for us is a number of different things.
Barriers to entry are continuing to fall. I think we’re trying to do two things at the same time: To publish content today with impact. And a lot of the time that involves publishing it through partners, which we’ve done with 90 different partners to date. The other is to build a platform to do it ourselves. And the reason to do that is because of those 90 partners, four have already gone out of business—and they won’t be the last four. The number of places that are receptive to publishing the kinds of stories that we are interested in doing is actually falling.
For us data is another topic, what we call news applications, which is an increasingly big part of how we do our work. And that has lots of implications not only for how we do it, but how we can set up situations so that other people can amplify it.
Lewis Dvorkin: We are building a new economic model for journalism and that new economic model has to do with how we create content, which is based on the notion that we believe in what we call the ‘content continuum,’ that there are professionals who create content, there are marketers who create content and there are audience members who create content.
We are fast becoming a platform that enables all three of those constituencies to publish content in a fully transparent manner on Forbes.com.
At the same time, we have built up an incentive-based contributor force of about 850 people creating content on Forbes.com. We have ten marketers from Dell to SAP to Microsoft to Merryl Lynch creating content on Forbes.com. And at the moment our audience members also participate, but in the future there will be even more significant ways for them to participate. So we’re changing our model and it has dramatically increased our traffic: If you look at Omniture, in the year we’re up 75 percent to about 30 million monthly uniques.
I believe that the Web is about quality and quantity. We produced almost 100,000 posts last year, and that’s a significant amount of content. We’re working to build the systems to monitor that, to traffic that, to do the things we need to do.
Steve Palm: NewBay is a b-to-b enthusiast publisher, for lack of a better term. Our mission in life is to cover the waterfront in our five vertical markets. We have a lot of brands and we have a lot of different media. And I think that I would sum up our focus in three ways. One is to create content that’s interesting to the five audiences we serve. Second is to put that content in whatever form of media that the audience likes. Our audience continues to like print. We get good results both in terms of circ and advertising in print. But we have expanded it into everything that’s been talked about here including social media. And three, most importantly, we’re looking hard at understanding what content works best in what type of media. We’re trying to create a 360-degree conversation, and I think that we’ve made progress, but we’re far from being proficient at it.
FOLIO: How does the platform impact the kind of content you create?
Dvorkin: We assign stories that are only for the magazine. The Web wants a lot of things. One of the things it wants is reporting. And that’s why you’re seeing Mashable, Buzzfeed, Gawker, whomever, deciding yes it’s about aggregation and viral, but it’s also about fresh reporting. There are many different things that work on the Web. Perspective, analysis, but pure reporting in print can work very well online if there’s good, deep reporting.
Tofel: I think you’re going to treat reporting differently when it moves up into the mobile space. You’re not going to read a long article on a small device.
Dvorkin: That’s another misnomer. I’m a maniac when it comes to this. We have so many tools that look at screen depth and everything. Whenever we have a story that is 10 or 12 paragraphs and is paginated, the single most clicked on link on that first page is page two.
Tofel: I’m just saying I think mobile is tricky at the moment, maybe permanently. But on the tablet I actually agree. We do a lot of long-form on the tablet. I think the tablet is the best friend long-form has had in a very long time. It is a heck of a lot easier to read a 2,000-word piece on a tablet than it was in a newspaper.
FOLIO: Is anyone experimenting with pricing and bundling?
Palm: We’re in the early days of it still, but fundamentally we’ve decided we’re not going to bundle print and the facsimile digital edition together because why would you read both? They’re the exact same piece. So we’re separating those two, but we are bundling within the vertical markets we serve. So if you’re a guitar player we will bundle 3 or 4 guitar magazines together so you can buy a library on a monthly basis. And we think that’s an interesting, high value for the audience, an idea that we can create some cost value that differentiates from our traditional newsstand model.
Lundquist: I think the bundle now needs to include events, both face to face and digital. I have this audience, here are some offers that we should make to them, events, research, and so on. That’s the bundle more so than any one platform.
I think whatever platform they want to come in on you should be able to offer them content on that platform, you shouldn’t force them to go somewhere else.
FOLIO: How are you balancing resource allocation?
Bimblick: I don’t think it’s a balance. In our company most of our revenue comes from advertising. So it’s about developing an advertising and marketing services model. It used to be in all of our businesses we made money selling ads, but we were selling empty inventory. It didn’t matter whether they put a picture of their CEO or their kid on the page. We took whatever it was.
Today, for better or worse, you have to be thinking about that. You have to create channels that someone will spend money to sponsor. But you can’t replace $80,000 worth of advertising with $30 CPMs, it just doesn’t work. But that’s what we’ve been doing the last ten years and now it’s getting even worse.
Tofel: With these businesses that have a footprint in print and most of the income is from print, you have a very tricky task of running these hybrid companies at this point.
People have had their foot on the brake on the transition to digital ever since 1995. They’ve wanted digital to the extent that they could control it, they’ve wanted it to go slower, they’ve needed it to go slower, because of [the fear that everyone would prefer digital more than print].
Now they’re lifting their foot slowly off the brake, and the question is at what point do you have to move your foot off the brake and onto the gas in print? And the reason is because print is a classic nineteenth century economies of scale business. So as print circulation shrinks in b-to-c, everyone’s experiencing the economics of it deteriorating more and more rapidly.
So there comes a point at which you’ve got to take your foot off the brake and I suspect there will come a point where people will want to floor it on the accelerator. But we’re not there yet.
Lundquist: This was the first year that digital advertising exceeded print, it’s still pretty close to half and half. But I think print is still a very favored medium for lots of people. Especially advertisers. It’s still a very good medium in b-to-b to renew the audience, renew the database. All of us in this business really have to be looking at it all the time and seeing just where you are on that accelerator.
FOLIO: Is print as a model set in stone, or can it be played with as well?
Dvorkin: There are new models for content creation that are needed in print as well. As we have grown our contributor base in digital we are doing the same in print.
First of all, I don’t believe in a combination. There are print editors and there are digital people and there are differences. We are now extending the contributor model into print. We’ve signed up four or five people and they write a certain number of articles for the magazine during the year at a certain price. If they continue reporting that particular article in the digital space, they are incentivized and they will make more money off that same article that they wrote in print by extending the audience for it on Forbes.com. As we all know, there’s so much content that’s left on the cutting room floor from the print piece.
So if they continue to keep reporting that story out and they’re driving uniques to their content they will make more money in addition to what they made for the print story.
Palm: I wish we could break the word print down in different ways. Print for a large consumer magazine or a newspaper is very different from what I see print being for b-to-b or enthusiast magazines.
In the markets we serve, there is still huge value around branding and product awareness.
Bimblick: I think the tools are there for print to reinvent. If you think about direct marketing, the catalog that you get from William Sonoma or whomever, it is targeted to you. In magazines we still tend to send the same thing to everyone. We could create versioned editions, basically using the catalog technology. That’s where I think you’re going to see more innovation. If you can actually print to create more customized, sponsored types of editions I think that’s where print can look at reinventing itself.
FOLIO: Robyn, talk a bit more about Mashable’s next move to become a platform, what did you mean by that?
Peterson: Right now if you rewind the clock a little bit to October of last year on Mashable all content was created by internal reporters. In November we introduced something called the Mashable Publisher Platform where we started to partner with quite a few different publishers and some folks on the editorial team to curate their content and build social identities for those publishers. It drives quite a few social referrals to either their site or their presence off-site, whether on Facebook or Twitter. It’s a nice symbiotic relationship that we’ve formed. Since launching it, we’ve had a lot of interest in expanding it. You’re going to see us start to expand that as we start to grow our editorial team.
If you look at our audience from a product mindset, the audience that comes to Mashable tends to be the ‘town crier persona’ where they go to one town and learn all the news and then go to the next town and scream it out.
The Mashable audience comes to Mashable to find out what to share, goes to another site like CNN and they’re just sharing all over the place. It’s a very interesting audience and we’re just trying to think through how we can get them to contribute because if we can solve that riddle we’ve all of a sudden figured out what’s going to share and what’s breaking—what’s going to accelerate around the Internet.
Dvorkin: We’ve built some very customized publishing tools that our staffers and contributors can create text and photo galleries. We’re providing them with the assets and they just grab it and drop it in there. One of the things in scaling the audience in 2012 in many ways for us is about scaling the forum. And in doing that we’re going to be unleashing features in the next five or six months that reward users as not only contributors, but for desired behaviors. How many times do I come to the site? How many contributors do I follow? How many of my comments got approved?
As we reward people for these desired behaviors they will become a different kind of reader that will be able to contribute content as well as go beyond the notion of simply commenting.
FOLIO: How are you filtering all this, who is watching this content come in and managing that, how are you organizing this and keeping it facilitated?
Dvorkin: We pick contributors like we would pick an employee. You vet them, you watch for their credentials and what they do. And just like an employee they sometimes disappoint you. And then you take steps. So we’re building management systems to make sure we pick the right people and trim the wrong people. We have monitoring processes going on all day long through a producer team—spreadsheets that keeps tabs on things. And we are building these systems. They are far from perfect.
Tofel: And I think you know your brands and you trust in those brands and whatever new platforms you bring in, whatever new media concepts you bring in, you have a set of standards. You don’t want to have people distrust you. You want to maintain that trust, maintain that brand. It’s a messy process sometimes.
Dvorkin: I call it tricky. And some things don’t work and we have processes for removing posts and hiding them by putting them into private cues until they are resolved by our staff. The Web is a very forgiving place if you do the right things to correct what’s incorrect. If you don’t, then it’s not very forgiving.
Peterson: And it’s more than just thinking about new ways of input into the content process. We were all kind of talking about how we write to different media and platforms. One thing we do at Mashable that’s a slightly different conversation is we envision which social networks this may trend on before we write it, before they’re assigned, and we think through that first. We’re writing this to LinkedIn, we’re writing to Facebook, to Twitter. We think through the stories from the very beginning with that in mind. Our audience is as much offsite as it is onsite. And in fact you have to do a much better job of selling offsite to get them onsite.
FOLIO: Do you measure the results of that?
Peterson: We do. We’ve seen for instance on some of our more jobs-oriented pieces that 80 percent of the traffic in that channel is coming from LinkedIn. I’m not saying that’s what drives the editorial process, but we think through that for our key distribution channels up front so we can take it into consideration as things are built in.
Dvorkin: When you talk about filtering contributors, filtering users is important too in terms of their commentary. We have a system where there is no user comment that loads on the page unless a contributor has approved that comment. We have a very rewarding conversation. The contributor or one of our producers must approve the comment.
That is a great thing because you get the contributor engaged In the community. They transact with the community and know what’s going on.
And if you want to see the comment cesspool, you click a tab that says ‘All Comments’ and they can see them all. But you have to seek that out. If you just want a conversation that is filtered out and curated it’s there for you. You have the option of seeing everything. But we’re only loading on the page those comments that have been filtered and approved.
FOLIO: So we talked a little bit about mobile eventually gaining traction. What are the opportunities in mobile?
Lundquist: There’s a lot more data coming in just from your standard website—who is coming into the page, how they came in, how many pages they viewed, how long they stayed on. I think you’re going to have the same amount of stuff on what platforms they’re coming in from, what preferences they have. To try to manage that is going to require a level of analysis that I don’t think exists in many industries.
Tofel: On the flip side I think there’s a tremendous editorial opportunity. The ability to do stories that then empower other stories is extraordinary. It extends to users but also to other content providers.
Something we’ve had a lot of success with is we created a database called Dollars for Doctors. It includes most of the data about payments from the pharmaceutical companies to individual physicians. We’ve had literally millions of people look up their own doctors, and that’s quite significant. But in some ways, what I think is even more interesting is we’ve had 120 different news organizations use the data, because it’s searchable, to do their own stories. It ranges from huge metro newspapers and regional websites to individual Patch or other similarly-sized community sites. And I think that is a metaphor for a whole different kind of journalism that you can do on a large level and then lead others to quite intentionally at a disaggregated level.
Bimblick: I think in the b-to-b space the tablet has become your portable desk, your portable office. We have to become something more than something they go to every so often. It may be that our content has to be incorporated into other tools that they’re using.
A lot of b-to-b companies have had data businesses that they bought for one reason or another and they kind of sat over there on the other side from the content operation. I think those are going to start converging or at least talking to each other and I think the tablet is going to be one of the key things that is going to drive that.
Lundquist: I really thought that with the rise of marketing as a service it would be something editorial could learn from and create communities of interest around more narrow topics of interest than we’d normally cover.
This process of lead nurturing and lead management, where they start to know not just a broad audience but where individuals in that audience are in that whole buying process. I think there’s really something to learn from that. Are we still too much into the one-size-fits-all category? Or should we start thinking about narrower messages?
Tofel: I think one thing that we have to keep our eye on is what’s our plan for the next recession? We’re moving into solid growth and that’s great and hopefully that goes on for a very long time. But we’ve had two recessions since the digital revolution began and people were completely surprised by both of them. What are we going to do in the third recession of the digital age, and how do we get smarter about it and less surprised about it than we were by the first two?
We must assume we have no more than 2-4 years before advertising is going to go down. I don’t want us to take your eye off the ball for all of the wonderful things we have planned for this year, but I do want to spend a little bit of time thinking through a plan and how are we diversifying away from advertising and what’s our insurance policy?
Bimblick: And it can’t just be, ‘Oh gee, we’ll cut every fourth editor,’ because by the way, now we have to create more content than we ever did before.