One needs no further evidence than the horrific connotations associated among media circles with terms like “pivot” and “restructuring” to know that legacy media’s transition to digital publishing has, by and large, been anything but graceful.
But with careful planning, strategic agility, and an influx of new talent, two formerly print-centric publishers are out to prove that old dogs can indeed be taught new tricks.
ALM Media, which houses about three-dozen brands serving various legal and financial sectors, recognized that, while several of its titles were market leaders within their own niche, the company’s digital operation was missing opportunities to better facilitate cross-brand awareness among readers.
“It was not easy to create a content path for a reader who might be, say, an energy industry M&A attorney in California,” president of media Jay tells Folio:. “If Texas Lawyer is covering the energy industry, and the New York Law Journal is covering capital markets and M&A, we had difficulty pulling together content from those different brands for a particular professional.”
The solution meant taking the painful but necessary step of migrating much of the company’s digital operation to a unified CMS, a process that culminated in the October launch of the new Law.com, a hub from which users can access content from across much of ALM’s portfolio of brands. But it wasn’t enough to simply start pushing content out onto the new site; the transition necessitated a new way of thinking about digital development.
“Product development people and computer engineers really want to be in the business of problem solving. That’s what they do best,” says Kirsch. “If you put them in that position where they can just solve a user’s problem, you get much better work from them. Before, they just kind of took orders, and didn’t really have the authority to push back. Now they have a responsibility to not just say yes to everything.”
This benefits the organization as a whole, Kirsch says, because it prevents departments like sales and editorial—whose goals may sometimes run at odds with one another—from dictating competing initiatives from the product team. Rather, the new approach allows the product team to develop solutions that meet both departments’ objectives. Kirsch likens it to moving “from project development to product development,” viewing digital development as a continuum rather than a series of one-off tasks.
Similarly, Trusted Media Brands, publisher of consumer-facing titles like Reader’s Digest, The Family Handyman, and Taste of Home, knew that in order to better access the millennial audiences that both it and its advertisers desired to reach, the company needed to invest significantly in its digital operation.
“Our digital team was very lean, far too lean to do the kinds of things we needed to grow revenue,” says chief digital officer Vince Errico.
Like at ALM, Errico says TMB saw a need to move beyond simply chasing scale and focus on driving deeper engagement with highly targeted audience segments. To address the shortfall, TMB added more than 30 members to its digital team over the course of 2017, who primarily brought expertise in digital content creation and data analysis.
“I doubt any publisher can just work on a pure volume play anymore,” Errico continues. “With these new digitally-focused content creators, we’re able to go broad and deep in very specific areas to attract very specific kinds of audiences that we know are interesting to our advertisers.”
Errico cites millennial moms as an example of one of these specific segments.
“With Taste of Home, we looked at characteristics of millennial moms we already had and the kind of content they wanted, and then created more of that content specifically for them. We did that across all of our titles to similarly dive deeper with those audiences.”
The result was 20-percent growth in digital traffic across the company’s portfolio, and a 13-percent jump in digital ad revenue over 2016. Errico describes a two-pronged strategy, aimed at both boosting advertising but also diversifying the revenue mix by getting readers to buy products from the company directly—subscriptions, but also other products like The Family Handyman‘s DIY University e-learning courses or seasonal gift boxes from Taste of Home.
“We know that if that audience is buying one of our own products, they’re much more receptive and much more likely to buy one of our advertisers’ clients as well,” says Errico.
Investing in Intelligence
ALM’s approach involved investing significantly in its business intelligence operation—by Kirsch’s estimate, about three-quarters of that team was hired over the past year—which works across the company to turn ALM’s immense amount of audience data from noise into insights.
“They’re not just a report generation team spitting out Excel documents every couple of hours and emailing them around,” he says. “I want them to empower the entire organization to use data to do their jobs in more efficient ways.”
From a revenue standpoint, that means being able to identify audience segments who share specific topics of interest with advertisers.
“We are able to tell you the size of our audience for a specific topic in pretty fine detail, including the level of engagement and how frequently people are reading this content,” Kirsch continues. “That’s a compelling story, that will result in a few new ad products we’re going to launch this year as well.”
Errico says that data will likewise continue to drive TMB’s new product development and advertising opportunities going forward, adding that the company’s scale allows it bring new products to market very quickly.
“We’re doing a lot more data analysis,” he says. “Looking at trends and being able to gather that data and make sense of it and come up with creative products based on the data around those audiences.”
The Cultural Aspect
With even the best-laid plans, a systemic change in the way a company operates can only succeed as far as leadership’s ability to manage that change internally. And while shifting to an entirely new CMS isn’t fun for any publisher, the end of February will see ALM migrate a further handful of brands under the new Law.com domain, a change that will eliminate two other large content management systems completely.
“Rather than framing that as if we’re saving all of this money and cutting costs and now we’re going to have a smaller team, what it really means is that we’ve now moved 3,500 engineering hours from maintenance to innovation, and that gets people excited,” Kirsch says. “It stops them from being worried that their job is becoming redundant, and get’s them excited that they no longer have to worry about constantly fixing a leaky faucet. Instead can focus on designing a brand new kitchen.”
Kirsch says there’s been some handwringing involved in the switch, but that ultimately those who have made the move over to Law.com are happy with the new storytelling tools at their disposal.
Even with new teams and operations in place, however, both Kirsch and Errico seem to agree that their operations will need to remain nimble in order to keep the businesses sustainable going forward.
At TMB, experimenting with audio—specifically, integrations with smart speakers like Amazon Echo or Google Home—native advertising solutions (particularly on mobile), and video will be major priorities for the digital team in the year ahead.
“I’d really call last year our year of video testing,” Errico says. “We did a lot of different kinds, different lengths, for different device types and formats. This year, we’re going to focus a lot more on taking the pieces that we learned from and worked well for us and expanding on those.”
Kirsch argues that diversification is paramount, because relying on any one revenue stream is simply not going to be tenable in the future, but that the reader and the user experience need to come first, particularly for companies with large subscriber bases like ALM’s.
“I think that we are probably much more conservative with the types of digital creative that we’ll accept than some other firms, because we’re really focused on making sure that our load times stay low and that we’re not disrupting people with in-banner video and things like that,” he says. “But I do think that when you have a growing community of subscribers, that’s nothing but attractive to a group of marketers who want to reach a specific audience.”