Creating your modern media growth playbook

    Last updated: July 9, 2024

    Editor’s note: This interview was adapted from our June 2024 webinar with Jacob Donnelly, Sean Griffey, Robert Dippell and Arisicielle Novicio. We’ve edited their quotes for length and clarity. Check out the full recording here. 

    Media and publishing leaders have a dozen (or so) levers to drive and transform their businesses. But as business models shift, how can you choose the right levers at the right time, and execute in the face of changing audience needs?

    So we partnered with Jacob Donnelly of A Media Operator to talk to some of the media industry’s leading operators. In this conversation, Jacob talked to Sean Griffey, CEO of Industry Dive; Robert Dippell, COO of Morning Brew; and Ariscielle Novicio, CTO of New York Post, about how they’re: 

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    • Executing strategies that center audiences without sacrificing advertising performance or revenue 
    • Steering their companies through the race to first-party data.
    • Re-imagining product portfolios to serve both commercial and audience customers. 
    • Using technology to reach their goals 

    Here’s a snapshot of their conversation. But we covered a lot of ground, so we recommend checking out the recording to hear the full conversation. 

    Donnelly: I have heard that engagement with newsletters has gotten weaker over time, especially with the proliferation. Do you still think that newsletters are an absolute core part of any media playbook in 2024? 

    Griffey attributes some of this to the natural dropoff newsletters will experience once they hit a certain age. 

    “Everyone’s newsletter when you launch, it gets 50 some percent open rates in the first couple months and five years down the line it’s not going to be 50%, right? Unless you’re really disciplined about list hygiene, you’re going to see the natural degradation,” he adds. Email remains one of the few channels that give you direct access to your audience. And media companies can’t overlook that.  

    “Thinking about push vs. pull, thinking about products you own and thinking about things that generate first party data,” Griffey says, “There’s not much better than email right now despite all of the warts that it does have, and it’s still something that I’d be building around.” 

    Lower barriers to entry have given some newer creators unrealistic expectations of success, Dippell adds. But newsletters are still viable for top creators. 

    “It’s never easier to build a newsletter. There’s a lot of competition, so there’s a lot of people not doing it very well,” Dippell says. “People that are newer into the newsletter game probably have unreal expectations of what they see at launch is going to sustain and it’s hard, but I think that you can definitely still have it be a huge part of your strategy. It certainly is here.”

    But he cautions against relying on any single channel for survival, including newsletters. 

    “Morning Brew is unique in that while it’s still our most important flagship product, we also in the same breath don’t want people to think that we’re just a newsletter, and that’s really important,” he adds. 

    “You cannot be dependent on any one venue, especially newsletters, and you have to be finding other ways of generating first-party data and action upon it and monetizing your audience and giving topical content to your audience. If you’re relying on it, then that’s going to be a tough place over the next few years.”

    Apple recently announced that they’re starting to put these new folders in their email platform where newsletters will go into their own specific folder. Have any of you started thinking about building out a response to that? And this is a viewer question. 

    It’s too early to tell, Griffey says. But more generally, companies need to develop valuable content that their audience will seek out, rather than trying to hack their way to success on each individual platform. 

    “We’re going to need to see and play with it a bit,” Griffey says. “…I think the number one thing you do on this is actually produce something really important that someone’s going to want to find and read.” 

    “If you create something great, that problem’s going to take care of itself because your audience is going to want to do it. But obviously there’ll be some sort of tactics and trips as operators will want to do to put our products in the best light. It’s too early to tell, at least for me.”

    Can you talk about why first-party data was so important to get right and how it’s helping you grow that business? 

    First-party data gave Morning Brew the hyper-specific information they needed to deliver the segmented, vertical-specific content their audience expects. 

    We cannot dial down into that topical strategy without knowing more about ’em. And we’ve done a great job since we started that project,” Dippell says. “Now we’re trying to go a couple of levels deeper with subtopics that we think there’s a huge opportunity to build an event around or a specific podcast around or a sub publication around.” 

    Originally, Novicio and her team only used first-party data to mitigate privacy concerns. Now they’re using it to improve their targeting and deliver the personalized, customer-centric experiences their audience expects. 

    “The more I know about my user base, the better I am at targeting them with experiences that have value to them. So we’re really focused on being more consumer-centric, much more so than we have been in the past. So right now it’s like one-to-one. We want to own the relationship with that consumer.”

    Now that you have the data, what strategies or tactics are you employing to deepen audience engagement? 

    “For our newsletters, we’re focusing on making sure we’re giving the right kind of content value or experience value to our consumers,” Novicio says. 

    “We have a long list of newsletters that we’re cleaning up, so that’s one. And then we started to delve into subscriptions with our Sports+ membership and we’re refining that program as well.”

    “So that’s a test into subscription to own the users, and then we have the personalization journeys that almost everyone is talking about at this point.” 

    What are the most important first party data points to capture for B2B publications, besides the obvious “job role” and “revenue” fields? What are some of the really important ones that you just have to have? 

    There’s no one right answer. Data points need to be specific to each person’s industry, Dippell says. 

    “The hard answer is you should actually look to collect nuanced first party data points by vertical,” he says. “So if you’re asking the same exact questions to HR versus cybersecurity, you’re missing out on some really important data points.”

    Another way to think about it: Imagine the kind of content that’ll continue to engage your core audience. Then think backwards — identify what information will help you create that content, then collect the data points you need to get that information. 

    “How would I use certain data points unique to this industry to either provide them content that helps them more? Or be able to speak to an advertiser about drilling down to that level that makes them more excited to work with us?” Dippell says. 

    Organizations should agree on some standard data points to inform base-level targeting, then collect more vertical-specific metrics to inform more individual targeting, he adds. 

    “Then you need to decide what your base level data points are going to be and hopefully have some consistency across the whole portfolio so that you can kind of expand and construct.”

    “If you have somebody who wants to go across everything horizontally, you have some common points to do that, but then you can also go deep within a certain vertical and serve them.” 

    For Griffey, the question isn’t what data points you should prioritize. It’s how to maintain your data integrity and quality as you expand into more verticals and generate more hyper-specific data. 

    “The real trick isn’t what demographic do you want, but how are we going to structure the data and how are we going to be able to use those structures long term? I would spend as much time on that as I would thinking about the exact field I need.” 

    Tell us how the audience data on your sites or email can help you either create better experiences for your audiences or increase monetization opportunities. 

    “At the end of the day, we’ve talking a lot about audiences here,” Griffey says. “For me at least, the revenue all comes from marketers, and so we think a lot about what is the marketer’s journey and what are their buckets of money and how can we serve them.” 

    “The audience data is a foundation that allows us to serve ’em in different ways. It gives you behavioral data combined with the demographic data gives you real signals that you can build products around.”

    That means you can’t slap the same 6-question form on all your sites, target your audience by job title, and hope for the best. Your data set needs to adapt and evolve alongside your audience and their needs. 

    Most likely, they’ll become more and more detailed data as your audience becomes more sophisticated and knowledgeable. 

    “That’s an evolution that you ultimately take in some of these verticals. The marketers are getting more and more sophisticated. What they want is going to get more and more sophisticated,” Griffey adds. 

    Once you’ve got that kind of specific data, you can give your readers the missing information they need to improve their lives and drive ROI. And that’s how you become indispensable.

     “The first party data is the one thing we have that they don’t have. They have names, they have all this other stuff, but they don’t have relationships and they don’t have the data that comes with relationships,” Griffey says. “So we take all of that and then think, how can we serve ’em?” 

    How have you reimagined and evolved the product portfolios to serve both the audiences but also your commercial customers? 

    Dippell’s team has used their first-party data to create segmented, topical content and ad products, especially in their B2B business. 

    They roll out different website content, podcasts, and events covering the vertical, each targeted at audiences with different knowledge levels, seniority and willingness to pay. 

    This gives them more flexibility for advertisers while engaging audiences on a deeper level. 

    So how does this look in practice? 

    “So for cybersecurity, we could have a sub-publication that is all about cybersecurity, targeted to people that have identified that they really care about that,” Dippell says. “We could also use one of our writers to put out a podcast to talk about that. And then we have a half day event in the fall.”

    “That’s a cybersecurity event for our IT brew brand as a package that could be a really meaningful sponsorship for one person.”

    So we’re gathering all this first party data, behavioral information and intent signals. Does brand marketing still have a place in the advertising stack?

    Done well, brand marketing helps you spark an emotional connection with your audience and drive staying power. That’s a huge advantage, especially during downturns, Griffey says.

    “In uncertain economic times, it’s easy to cut the brand budgets, and at least in our business, you see people gravitate towards bottom-funnel efforts. They’re trying to make their numbers and the rest, and so they switch over. But you do that at your own peril eventually. There’s a real role for it.” 

    Brand and performance marketing don’t need to be mutually exclusive, Dippell says. 

    “I think that’s where we tend to be shortsighted — thinking that our client’s objectives are branding or performance and that these two things are completely separate,” he adds. “The more overall branding that is paired with performance efforts, the better that performance will be.” 

    For Novicio, brand marketing’s an investment in the future. “We’re doubling down not just for the audience that we have today, but really to capture the audience for the future wherever we’re meeting that, right?” 

    “It could be on social media, it could be on newsletters, it could be on some other platform, on our platform. It’s really, really critical for us now that people really know who we are, what we stand for, and who we want to be in the future.” 

    Are there critical technology parts of the business that you couldn’t run your business without? 

    “For a publisher like us, the ESP and CDP vendors we pick are critically important, and if you can combine that into one even better,” Griffey says. 

    “For us, it’s the ESP and how it processes data. And then what’s the CDP and what capabilities that we have within the tech stack.” 

    You also need to choose tools that support your stated goals and help your team do their best work, he adds. 

    “Where you invest your money in a technology is certainly a signal to your teams about what you care about,” Griffey says. “And you can say that you care about something. But if you don’t back it up with investments and technologies that allow them to do that, they’re going to decide that you don’t actually care about it.” 

    But the right platform won’t do what it says it does. They’ll partner with you to help you achieve your use cases and reach your growth goals. 

    “If you talk about CDPs and ESPs solely from a tech capability perspective, without thinking about the strength of that business you’re partnering with long-term, then for me at least, it doesn’t quite work,” Novicio says. “It’s super, super important to me.”  

    Implementing new tech takes months or years — and requires a big lift from an already busy team. How can you secure buy-in for new tech and smooth the implementation process? 

    It’s on leaders to communicate the purpose of each technology. Tell your team why you’re buying the tool, how it’ll contribute to your audience development goals, and what’s required for the implementation and execution process. 

    “You’ve got to contextualize for your teams why the hell you’re buying this technology and what we’re going to do with it,” Dippell says. “A lot of times, we get excited and run at buying new tech or building new things and they’re very exciting,” Dippell says. 

    “You get so much more internal support and you also orient your people to have lots of meetings that you’re not a part of where they collectively know what we’re working towards and why all this work they’re doing is so important over the months it takes to do migrations and data cleanups and product roadmap meetings, etc.” 

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