Q&A on Growth Strategies for Public Media

“Publicly funded media has a unique opportunity at a time when trust in private media is at an all-time low.”

In advance of the Public Media Development and Marketing Conference (PMDMC) 2018, Merrill Wasser, the Managing Director of Strategy and Growth at Atlantic 57, shares thoughts on the biggest questions facing leaders of public media today. She draws from Atlantic 57’s work developing strategic plans for public media and learnings from The Atlantic’s own digital transformation.

Let’s start by looking at the media landscape. Between 2016 and 2017, public radio added 1 million new listeners and public television added 1.2 million viewers, but it’s unclear how long this trend will last given the growth of digital and on-demand platforms.

What does this mean for public media?

The increase in broadcast audiences has been helpful for organizations whose revenue streams are still highly dependent on traditional broadcast underwriting. It provides some financial breathing room, because an increase in broadcast audiences typically translates to additional underwriting revenue.

But these traditional revenue streams have finite growth potential, so it’s important for organizations to be proactive about growing audiences and opportunities across other platforms to ensure their long-term financial sustainability.

More broadly, this trend captures the moment public media finds itself in right now, a moment of both tremendous threat and tremendous opportunity. On the one hand, the landscape is shifting dramatically and competition has increased. On the other hand, publicly funded media has a unique opportunity at a time when trust in private media is at an all-time low. Brands that are able to build upon their public connection and reach audiences across channels can become leaders in their markets.

Public media organizations aim to serve the public, but it seems public media still reaches only a segment of the broader population. The majority of NPR listeners have a higher household income than the U.S. median and 60 percent are between 35 and 64 years old — although this is beginning to shift.

How can public media organizations navigate the challenge of serving existing audiences while also reaching new and diverse audiences?

We hear this question often from public media leaders: How can we reach new audiences without alienating our core? It doesn’t have to be either-or. Many brands serve different audience segments without choosing one over the other. 
These brands invest in building a nuanced understanding of their existing and aspirational audiences. They dig beyond hard demographics — like age and gender — to understand motivations, values, and perceptions. We refer to this as understanding “soft identities.”
Focus on your audiences’ soft identities, and you will most likely see the barriers between them — new and old, Millennial or Baby Boomer — start to dissolve. You’ll discover commonalities in their needs, self-conceptions, and perceptions of their world.

Once you understand what your audiences have in common, you can develop offerings that speak to all of them. You’ll also have more time to tailor different messages, platforms, and experiences to specific audience segments.

When it comes to serving these audiences, many newsrooms are making the shift from “format first” to “story first.” Can you explain what this means?

As publishers, we tend to default to the format we know best, whether that’s print, TV, or radio. This is what we call a “format-first” approach. 
 A “story-first” approach, on the other hand, is more deliberate: We think first about the idea at the heart of a story and second about which formats and platforms will best tell that story. It’s a way of ensuring content doesn’t feel redundant or forced across different platforms.
Most organizations know they need to adopt a multi-platform mindset, but they have a hard time figuring out exactly how. Organizations that make the leap do so by making a few critical adjustments to their team working rhythms. They invite more collaboration, encourage a spirit of experimentation, and develop their teams’ digital skill set. Many also shift attention away from sheer volume of content creation toward smarter content distribution and resurfacing.

Fortunately, none of these adjustments necessarily require huge expenditures on new staff.

In 2017, only 22 percent of local media leaders strongly agreed that their teams and leaders were aligned on their digital strategy.

How should organizations be thinking about aligning stakeholders on a shared perspective on digital?

The people who create a digital strategy aren’t the only ones who have to implement it. Its success or failure lies in the broader team’s ability to operationalize the same vision. So it’s critical that you create a shared understanding of your strategy across the entire organization — not just its leadership and board.
Start by considering why your stakeholders are hesitant about your new digital focus. We’ve found that digital investment can spark concerns about mission “scope creep” at local media organizations. Or, sometimes there are doubts about the merits of digital because of the scale required to directly monetize a digital presence.

I would argue that a digital presence has become table stakes. Today’s audiences are inherently multi-platform users, and it’s hard to stay relevant without meeting them where they are. And while some organizations may not achieve the scale to directly monetize their digital offering, overall revenue growth is tied to an organization’s ability to provide value to audiences.

This doesn’t mean organizations have to be on every digital platform. But, they do need to be aligned on how they are using specific platforms and how those platforms tie into their overall strategy in a manner that feels attainable and authentic.

When it comes to monetizing engagement across channels, how can public media brands adapt their revenue models to fit the current media landscape?

It’s important to understand some of the current shifts in revenue sources. 
We’re seeing a shift away from basic ad inventory and toward sponsorship offerings. Underwriters want to create meaningful relationships with audiences, built upon compelling ideas and experiences. This means event sponsorships, bundling of multi-platform underwriting packages, and sponsorship of special initiatives like an entire podcast season or editorial series. 
We are also seeing a shift toward enhanced membership offerings and benefits. As advertising aggregators like Facebook prove to be unreliable sources of revenue for brands, media companies are developing their own membership offerings and premium products. Here at The Atlantic, we launched our paid Masthead membership, which connects our greatest fans with our journalists and fellow readers.

This shift toward membership is both good news and bad news. On the one hand, public media is ahead of the game. It has been offering memberships for decades. On the other hand, as more and more brands enter the membership space, public media needs to find new ways to create value for members. This might include exclusive or early access to content, the ability to inform what’s covered, progress reports on reporting projects, or a number of other ideas.

What is one step that public media organizations could take today to develop stronger relationships with their audiences?

Create opportunities to listen. Invite input from your audiences and respond to them. 
The foundation for growth is truly built on an organization’s ability to understand its audiences and foster authentic connections within its community. We’ve seen brands increasingly pull back the curtain on their journalism, engage in two-way conversations on social media, and start discussions with their community at in-person events.

That ongoing publisher-reader conversation can help organizations keep their content relevant. This, in turn, cultivates a deep loyalty that can inspire audiences to support your journalism.

We’ve developed growth strategies for many public media clients at Atlantic 57. Connect with Merrill directly or watch her deliver the keynote at PMDMC 2018. You can also sign up for Atlantic 57’s weekly newsletter, the Digital Trends Index, to follow our updates on the latest media trends.

An abbreviated version of this interview was published in a Current newsletter as content sponsored by Atlantic 57.