A Giant, Multi-Dimensional Chess Game: Publishing in the Age of Platforms
Authenticity and reader service remain paramount at the second annual PubTech Connect conference.
Like its inaugural edition last year, speakers at the 2nd annual PubTech Connect conference—as the name implies, focused on the intersection of book publishing and technology—featured a formidable contingent of both new and legacy media representatives eager to share the ways their companies are finding readers and driving new business in an increasingly digitized world.
It seems a well-established consensus that trust and brand recognition will be media’s life preserver amid a rising tide of fake news and shifting consumption habits, but speakers at PubTech (organized by Publishers Weekly and NYU’s SPS Center for Publishing) particularly emphasized that protecting your brand means listening to what your audience wants, even if it runs against your own expectations.
Vox Media publisher Melissa Bell, on a morning panel focused on innovation, described her company’s content strategy as “a giant multidimensional chess game” to determine which types of articles or videos resonate with different audiences on different channels.
“We’re using data to check our own assumptions,” she said.
When Refinery29 debuted its first podcast, “Strong Opinions Loosely Held,” in early 2016, host (and R29 exec producer) Elisa Kreisinger told attendees the concept originated as a video series. But research into the interests and wants of the brand’s core users revealed, among numerous other insights, that what R29’s audience really wanted was a podcast.
Two seasons, four million downloads, and a Shorty Award later, “Strong Opinions Loosely Held” has recently debuted its own video series on Facebook Watch, and provided Refinery29 with a lesson on the importance of giving readers what they ask for.
“Sometimes user research doesn’t bring you the answers you want,” said Kreisinger, cautioning attendees not to jump into video for video’s sake, but to examine their own resources, see what their competitors are doing poorly, and seriously examine the potential ROI.
“Fast, cheap, and good,” she added. “You can have two of them.”
Protecting the Brand
Keith Grossman, Bloomberg Media’s chief revenue officer, echoed that sentiment on the following panel, asserting that the damaging that “bad, cheap video” can do to a media brand far outweighs the downside of cheaply produced audio content.
Hayley Romer, publisher of The Atlantic (a 160-year-old brand, Grossman duly noted), agreed, saying that while it’s important for brands to expand into new environments, particularly digital ones, that expansion must happen in a way that feels authentic and natural to the brand’s identity.
“It’s not that we don’t see value in Snapchat’s platform or its user base,” said Romer, giving an example. “We just haven’t figured out the way The Atlantic can be itself on Snapchat yet.”
That panel was introduced by NYU marketing professor and longtime publishing exec Jane Grenier, who outlined her three marketing trends for publishers to watch in 2018:
- “Publishing in the internet of everything,” — particularly salient to marketers, Grenier said, is the ways voice search requests (to Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, or Google’s assistant, among others) differ from those typed into search engines.
- “Speak human to me” — with a reference to Europe’s looming GDPR regulation, which will require marketers to lay bare the ways their collecting and processing user data in clear and transparent terms.
- “Marketing in a post-advertising world” — the decline of interruptive advertising and the rise of story-driven marketing.
That contextual framework led to a conversation, during Grossman’s panel, about the importance of a diversified approach and the perils of basing one’s business strategy too heavily on one distribution channel or another.
“Anyone who wanted to be rational about it knew that this moment would one day come,” declared Grossman, referencing Facebook’s recent decision to de-prioritize content from publishers, which was swiftly followed by the shuttering of several Facebook-heavy new media brands.
These potentially competing priorities—embracing a multi-channel content strategy while also remaining focused on a core mission and a unified brand voice—yields a narrow path for publishers to traverse, a feeling Axios media reporter Sara Fischer seemed to evoke on an afternoon panel when she stated that assignment editing is the most difficult thing about publishing today.
“You can’t rely solely on tech platforms for your business model,” added Fischer, before noting that we’re now seeing the manifold consequences of platforms being allowed to innovate without any regulation.
Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Platform?
Media’s reckoning with the modern platform landscape took center stage on the conference’s closing keynote, in which Wired senior writer Jessi Hempel interviewed Ben Lerer, CEO of Group Nine Media (NowThis, Thrillist, and The Dodo, among others).
Lerer agreed with Rupert Murdoch’s recent assertion that Facebook ought to be writing publishers checks in exchange for distributing their content to its users, and predicted that it will indeed happen—the first of many assertions that perked up the late-afternoon crowd.
The discussion quickly returned to Facebook’s News Feed shakeup, with Hempel referencing (without directly naming the company) LittleThings’ abrupt closure last month, which its CEO said was directly caused by Facebook’s tweak to its algorithm.
“It happened because they ran out of money in February,” Lerer replied.
Lerer said Group Nine, which itself has achieved tremendous scale by leveraging Facebook, Snapchat, and YouTube, among others, is working around those platforms’ changes “beautifully.”
“They didn’t de-prioritize media content. They de-prioritized memes and fake news.” Lerer continued, not to put too fine a point on things. “If your business is based on hacking the algorithm, you’re going to go out of business when there’s a tweak to that algorithm.”
Brand, trust, and quality are still what matters most, he added.
Things got interesting in the Q&A portion when one attendee (prefaced by an apology for the tough question) pressed Lerer on the fact that several ostensibly thriving, VC-funded new media startups, including his own, have undergone layoffs in the past year.
Lerer said such contractions are “just a part of growing up as a media company,” and noted that Group Nine and others like Buzzfeed spent their early history expanding and hiring at breakneck pace, and the eventual need to budget and reevaluate what worked and what didn’t was a natural part of the process.
Hempel jumped in to pivot the discussion toward the ways companies can support employees when layoffs in the media industry have seemingly become the rule as much as the exception.
Lerer acknowledged that while there remain a lot of kinks to work out in the distributed content model, it’s important to recognize that media companies aren’t here just to build sustainable businesses, but thriving ones.
“If the foundation of your company isn’t to create lasting brands and trusted content, why bother going into publishing at all?”
Highlights from the second annual PubTech Connect ranged far wider than we have space to do justice here, including discussions featuring the New York Times Book Review editor Pamela Paul as well as NYT assistant editor Sam Dolnick, Food52 CEO Amanda Hesser, Andrew Brown of Google Play Books, Penguin Random House marketing VP Kristin Hassler, and numerous others from across the media and book publishing space.
For more from PubTech Connect, click here.