My Experiments with online media
This is my second post here on medium, and what motivates me to write this one is (A) John Oliver’s latest, and loosely related video on the state of global journalism (watch it here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bq2_wSsDwkQ) and (B) the encouraging response I received on my first post regarding deep discounting. I appreciate the fact how people might choose to disagree with me till the time they keep an open mind.
So before writing about online media and content marketing in India, let me first qualify myself as a semi-authority on the subject. I recently exited a startup in the online media space. It is a small, kick-ass company called Economy Decoded (http://economydecoded.com/). The team of writers is great, and that is the capacity I joined this company in. It was the time I wanted to let my hair down, and do well in college, so it seemed like a perfect place. Three articles later, I realized that writing is not the thing for me ( hope you don’t agree with that sentiment). So I started my journey leading the business operations for ED. I talked to the co-founders (both literature majors), who asked me if I could lead their business teams, and that is how it happened for me. Suddenly, I found myself thrust in a position where I had the unique challenge of helping ED make its first rupee of money. The arrangement we had was that the co-founders (Juhi and Dhairya) would have complete editorial control, and I would work the products side. What made the job even more difficult was the strict moral compasses these two held. I respect them for the values these two stand for, but that made my job significantly difficult because we weren’t doing stories like ‘ How to kiss a guy in 12 different ways!’. We also weren’t doing stories with questionable journalistic pedigree, like ‘ Look at the man who eats electricity’ (wtf Huff post!).
The mandate for writers was simple. Write stories that matter. Keep it witty and humorous. Keep it short. So a typical ED story would be ‘Why should you start investing in mutual funds in your 20s’. ED also had a unique motto : ‘Taking everything down to the T’. That meant that the mutual fund story won’t end here. We will take it a layer deeper. We will tell them how to invest in MFs, what factors should they keep in mind, etc. This fun experiment got serious over time, and before I knew, I was crashing at Dhairya’s place, meeting people on different ends of the city, while making sure we are doing content that pleases our readers and our sponsors.
So the main stream of revenue for online media companies like ED, HuffPost, ScoopWhoop, etc. is the content marketing we do. The realization on those efforts was a direct function of our outreach, which was a direct function of our content. So if we were doing content that people liked, we would reach out to more people, and if we reached out to more people, we will get more money. As simple as it sounds, you have to do content people read. In that sense, you have to find a niche for yourself, while you are starting up. The niche for ED was urban, college-going youth that consumed most of its content on mobile devices and usually read us while waiting at coffee shops, in metro, in college during classes. This segmentation was done post-hoc, once I had two years of data with me. (ED had been operational for two years before I joined, and it still hadn’t made any money!) So the first key take-away was
“Data will guide you home!”
While loosely defined here, data would mean what are they reading, where are they reading it, for how long are they reading it, are they reading just one article at a time, or are they hopping between those articles. One another important discovery was, where are your readers reaching you out from. Is it your daily newsletter? or is it your facebook page? your twitter feed? What was really encouraging was, people were logging into ED daily from their email newsletter. That meant they were waiting for us to deliver content, just like you do with a traditional newspaper. Contrast this with a ScoopWhoop that click-baits people through facebook by selling sensational headlines.
The second part of my data analytics was, what kind of stories do people prefer to read and what segments did that writing work for. What we realized was that with online media people preferred reading articles that were written in first person and epistolary formats (which explains the rise of “open-letters” and Do-it-yourself articles). I attribute that to the fierce sense of privacy and belonging that people associate with their online spaces, accelerated by customized news feeds and recommendations. Another distinction we need to draw here is how ED was different from an established magazine like ‘The Times’ or ‘The Washington Post’. For that matter, we were also very different from journalism companies like ‘The Vice’ and ‘The Vox’. In an ideal situation, these companies would want people to buy their copies digitally. We were in the marketing business. Our focus was on giving what the readers wanted, and giving it fast. Tying it up to our niche, they wanted mature news, helpful content in a readable, easy to consume way.
And thus began the task of re-designing the user experience. Website redesigned, broken into tiles and pieces that would make our mobile site easy to scroll through. App taken offline where you just needed to download content once in the morning and read it through the day. These boosted our readership numbers as most of our readers were in-transit who needed a non-data-guzzling option.
Another challenge was marrying journalistic-blogging expectations with marketable content. Our readers read us for a reason, and our writers wrote for us for a reason. If we let those values evaporate, ED would have ceased to exist. So that’s when we realized we will need to come up with segments which we could exclusively monetize and separate those from our high quality journalistic articles. And that’s where the game began.
We started a segment called ‘Liv’ED It’, wherein we would review tech apps and other products in our own unique style. One of our first few customers were Tinder and Happn. We would title stories under the section as ‘Liv’ED It: Tinder’. This helped our readers realize that this was sponsored, yet unbiased content. Often people in the media industry feel obliged to favor their paying customers by going lax on integrity. We couldn’t compromise on that. Slow growth was acceptable, becoming a Scoopwhoop was not.
Further our data showed us that people wanted to know people around them. That explains the success of pages like Humans of New York and its other derivatives. We leveraged that, but for a different target audience. We would get local bands struggling to find gigs, artists, comedians, etc. We opened our video tool for them on an open source platform and allowed them to instantly reach out our audience for a small, subscription fee. We would do feature stories on the hit stories, but that open source platform really made us a tech firm, more than anything else.
As a final revenue stream, we did the conventional content marketing wherein we made listicles and sold spots on those to interested companies. This would mean that if we did an article like ‘5 things to do if not an MBA’, we would sell the five spots. Again, a bone of contention was balancing integrity with commercial success. We simply could not auction the spots off. WE had to vet these out personally and then ask for money. The reversed value chain process sure ate into our revenues, but helped us maintain our readers trust.
It was a great experience for me. The results were even better. But for any company or organization my key takeaway would be to decide on a core set of values, and never compromise. Remain flexible operationally, but ideologically solid. That’s what made our readers trust us. That is what made our advertisers realize the potential with us. And that’s what got us the business.