Our 100th episode was recorded live in front of an audience in London on May 2nd. We looked at how publishers can maintain their brand value in a world of distributed content, joined by EMPIRE Editor in Chief Terri White, The Week’s Chief Executive Kerin O’Connor, PinkNews’ Head of Platforms Ellen Stewart, and Bibblio’s founder Mads Holmen.
Chris: So, the format is, we’re going to talk for about 10 minutes. Set the scene for the discussion on what you can do to protect your brand using distributed content. And then we’re going to ask the panel to come up and join us and we’re going to ask them a couple of questions. They all have huge amounts of experience in this field, and then towards the end we’re going to have five minutes for any questions from the audience. So, you will get to appear on the 100th episode of Media Voices, if you so wish.
Esther: Unless your question’s crap and we’ll just edit you out. I’m not joking.
Chris: No, it’s going to go.
Peter: Not even. Has everyone listened to the podcast at some point or another?
Audience: *General noise*
Peter: Woah super fan. We’ve got a couple of super fans actually.
Chris: Well, for everybody that does and for everybody who’s actually in the audience. Thank you so much for coming. We fell into doing the podcast effectively and I don’t think… Well, I certainly didn’t think we were going to get 100 episodes. I thought we’d get about 30 and fizzle out. Was it seven, is the average amount of episodes of podcast will run for until it dies on its arse.
Peter: Pod fade. There’s a technical term for it. Pod fade.
Chris: Yeah. So we wouldn’t have continued it to this point were not for the fact we’ve had some really nice feedback from the audience and we’ve seen those listener numbers steadily tick up. We’re never going to be Coldplay in terms of numbers of streams on Spotify but…
Peter: Fuck no…we are never going to be ColdPlay, ever!
Esther: We have also had some amazing…we couldn’t have done this without our guests, and I know certainly a number of you are in the audience tonight. So, thank you for turning up. I know we had a couple of people take a chance on us early on when me and Chris were at the Media Briefing going, ‘Oh shall we start a podcast?’
Chris: To get out of doing real work.
Esther: Basically! So, for all of the people that committed to that and helped us off our feet, that was great. And obviously now we’re big enough that anybody can come on, so if anybody has Mark Zuckerberg’s number?
Chris: No Jess Ennis.
Esther: Jess Ennis has nothing to do with the media industry!
Peter: She does adverts. She can talk about adverts.
Esther: This is what I have to put up with every week.
Chris: Ok. So I don’t think there’s been a single topic that we’ve spoken about as much over the course of those 100 episodes as: What does distributed content actually offer to publishers? On the one hand, you have the idea that you’re existing where your audience is, but on the other hand you have questions around loss of brand identity, and brand visibility issues. So, do you think that there is a topic that has been as integral to Media Voices as distributed content?
Peter: Well, distributed content is only part it. It’s platforms and everything that that brings with it. So, absolutely not. No. We talk about Facebook every week.
Esther: Because Facebook cock up every week.
Chris: That is true.
Peter: But it’s fundamental to how people get… whether it’s good or bad, we’ve got loads of people to talk about that, but it’s fundamental to getting content out there. So, yeah that’s why we talk about it so much and the only other bigger topic might be revenue. But then we come back to how shit platforms are for getting revenue so…
Chris: And I don’t know about the two of you, but over the course of these 100 episodes I’ve come to the opinion, rightly or wrongly, I’d love to hear if I’m wrong from the guest later on, that there is just no future in which platforms on which you’re doing distributed content ever have your best interests at heart, because after all…so it was Ranj Begley from Readly said that that their product is the publishers. And that effectively, they have the publisher’s best interests at heart because that’s their core product, but for the most part that is not the case for so many platforms. It’s definitely not the case for Facebook.
Esther: OK, so I’ve not been around as long as some people and….
Peter: What the hell do you mean by that?
Chris: Those of us on the young side of the table…
Esther: We’re millennials! I mean, when I started out in this industry I started out on digital editions, which for some of you is more recent. For me, that was the start of the industry. And I can remember Facebook announcing Instant Articles about the same time Apple News announced they were doing this stuff. And I remember thinking, this is amazing, this is the future of publishing. People will be able to publish once, go everywhere. The monetisation models looked great at the time. And so for me, between five, six years ago and now, that has just turned into one massive dumpster fire. I don’t really know where that started… or how it got to this stage.
Chris: I’ll put my hands up, I think we were talking ahead of this saying, five years ago we thought ‘Yeah absolutely, that is definitely the future of this’. I don’t know whether the old side of the table has more of a longitudinal look at what that looked like.
Peter: So, where it started was pure, unadulterated desperation, because people were desperate, I’m going to use this freaking word again, they were desperate to get reach. So, they thought Facebook and Apple News and whoever else was the answer…
Esther: But were they desperate or were they enticed by the promise of global reach?
Peter: They couldn’t have been…so, there’s a man sat right here, and as soon as we get him on the table…be careful how I say that…as soon as he’s sat behind the table, who didn’t do that. And the reason for that, is because he had the foresight or the unadulterated faith in his brand, to not go on to those platforms. Other people were more desperate than that. And some people started there. The likes of LadBible. That’s exactly where they started. That was their whole reason for being.
Chris: But it was more than reach. You mentioned revenue before, and the idea was that it would somehow translate into significant part of..
Peter: Well that’s the desperation. They were desperate for revenue.
Chris: Yeah. And we’re going to hear from Ellen Stewart in a bit who has basically proven you can make money from Snapchat in your case. But there was a DCN report out quite recently, that basically said, well actually that doesn’t necessarily translate to even significant revenue. What we’ve been doing is effectively lining the coffers of these platforms. But based on where we’re seeing publishers place their chips now, are we sort of seeing this course correction back to…
Peter: Yes. Absolutely. But the reason for that is that people have realized that the platforms one, were screwing them, and two, are slowly but surely becoming untrusted by the audience.
Chris: I remember there was a time when we said that you going to be the optimist on the podcast.
Esther: That lasted all about five episodes two years ago. One of the things I do want to pick out when the panel comes up, is are all platforms the same? Because I know that there are examples of people that are seeing great success on Snapchat, but Facebook has screwed them over. Or people that were Facebook-first publishers, and are still actually doing alright on it. There was a NiemanLab report out not that long ago that said, some publishers actually haven’t seen as much of a hit as we’d expected. I think a lot of it does come down to January last year, when Zuckerberg made this great pivot to ‘time well spent’ and he said we’re going to reduce publisher content to a fraction of what it was.
Peter: Time well spent for him would be getting a face job and flying off to secret island somewhere. That would be time well spent.
Chris: I was going to say, what is a face job. I’ve never heard that before. That’s probably some Scottish slang.
Peter: Bawbag. That’s Scottish slang.
Esther: But at the point that Campbell Brown came out and said, we’re going to be holding your hand in a hospice, we don’t care about you and you need to figure out a way to make money without us, I think that was probably the turning point for a lot of people.
Peter: So can I be the optimist now? So, the pain in this is real for a lot of people. But, I think the good news is, that on the other side of the pain, people are rediscovering faith in their own brands. They’re rediscovering faith in their own audiences and connecting with their audiences and actually going back to basics. And that’s a good thing for an old guy like me.
Chris: If we’re diving into Media Voices history then, that is exactly what Adam Tinworth said. He said that the great tragedy is that before distributed content as a strategy came along, a lot of publishers actually had that direct relationship with audiences, and they sort of gave it away in exchange for this reach, which turned out not to be the case. What would you say have been some of the big high profile failures, or rather the occasions in which distributed content has been blamed for publishers malaise?
Esther: BuzzFeed is a pretty big one. They what was it, two months ago I think that their results came out. Although…there’s a lot to unpick around BuzzFeed but I’m trying to keep it on topic. Because I think they’ve actually made more revenue and have a bigger audience than the Guardian, but we’re all celebrating the Guardian. Which is great. The Guardian’s milestones are great but it’s just the expectation, and a lot of what kicked BuzzFeed was that they had this great audience, and they were doing very very well with the reach, but it didn’t meet expectations.
Peter: Has anyone who had an actual real brand been damaged by Facebook changing away from the publishers in the feed?
Esther: I think UniLad and LadBible.
Peter: No. A real brand.
Esther: They are currently the top UK publishers on Facebook. So, they’re definitely a real…
Chris: Time well spent! Well except they had the Daily Mail at the top of the charts as well…
Peter: Oh Jesus wept.
Esther: Again, the Daily Mail are the top online publisher for platform traffic in the UK.
Peter: Just under Fox News.
Chris: Breitbart, the Canary, Fox News, Daily Mail. But I think that we’re in danger of sounding like it was a one and done thing, and that publishers are with their new subscription focus, they’re transitioning away from this. But that’s not the case, because at least one or two have been tempted onto Apple News+. One or two.
Esther: It’s that scale thing isn’t it. The temptation of scale. I’d be curious to see who thinks Apple News+ is actually a good idea.
Chris: We could do a show of hands. Hands up if you think Apple News+ is a good idea for publishers. [One person puts a half hand up]
Esther: Okay. So, we’ve got half a hand in the entire room.
Peter: The scary thing about that though is that Apple doesn’t give a shit. They don’t care. They don’t care what the audience thinks. It’s a gimmick.
Chris: There’s the optimism that we’ve got you on the panel for.
Peter: I slipped again.
Chris: So, I think where we’re coming up on 12 /13 minutes now should we invite the panel here.
Peter: Lets get the experts up.
Chris: Fantastic. So, if we could please introduce Terri [White] from EMPIRE, Ellen [Stewart] coming in from PinkNews, we’ve got Kerin [O’Connor] from The Week and we’ve got Mads [Holmen] from Bibblio. So if you could give a big round of applause.
Chris: Ellen your team is actually seeing success on Snapchat. So, what does success look like for Pink News?
Ellen: First of all, can I just say that I might feel personally attacked because my job title is Head of Platforms. But yeah, platforms are getting a bit of a hard time at he moment. So, a little bit about PinkNews. We are the world’s leading LGBT+ publisher. And pre-Facebook algorithm change, which I feel like I talk about all of the time, we were a huge Facebook publisher, like the majority of our traffic was coming from there. We were doing about 10 million uniques a month, which is pretty big for a niche publication. The algorithm changed and that changed everything essentially. But it did give us the opportunity to look elsewhere, diversify, stop thinking about just pushing links on to Facebook and hoping for the best.
We were given the opportunity to become the first LGBT+ publisher on Snapchat. Since then, we have now seen our audience grow to 30 million uniques plus a month, which is crazy considering what we were doing this time last year. It’s definitely a success that other people can replicate. If you have the tools to be on a platform. However, I think the thing that I’m really conscious of talking about, is the fact that what we’ve learned from being on there has really changed the way we work on every other platform. Obviously I’m wary of becoming dependent on a single entity like we did a bit on Facebook, and so we’ve applied the Snapchat knowledge to our YouTube, our Twitter, the site…
Esther: Does that work? Is that knowledge transitionable? Transitionable, I don’t know if that’s a word…[Peter: Transferable].
Ellen: I think so. The best thing about being on a platform like Snapchat is that the audience data is really instant. So, you can see whether something is performing within 30 minutes of putting it up. You get to do a lot of A/B testing and seeing what content works, what content doesn’t work, what images work, what headlines work. And so, knowing a little bit more about the people we’re targeting has meant that we can be smarter elsewhere.
Chris: And back to the point I made in the start that no matter how laudable PinkNews’ goals are, they will never align completely with what Snapchat wants to do, because they have a different audience in mind. So how collaborative actually is that relationship that you have with Snapchat?
Ellen: Snapchat have an editorial team that monitor what goes out on the platform, but it’s all post-publishing, so you have a trusted relationship with them, but there’s a big gateway to getting on the platform in the first place. You have to basically prove that you’re, for lack of a better word, worthy of being on the platform and if you cross their editorial lines they will call you up on it. We’ve been in breach a few times, because we’ve been a little bit risque, and we have to think about the fact that the majority of their audience is between 13 and 24. So, sometimes you can’t be too saucy.
But we have basically full editorial control of what we publish on there. And they just…their end goal is that more people are consuming content on the platform. And if we’re doing that and staying true to our brand then they’re really happy about it.
Chris: That’s interesting. That idea that you have complete editorial control with something that feels absent elsewhere. Mads, quality control on platforms seems to be a huge issue for publishers, particularly those who are really worried about brand identity and brand visibility there. What can publishers do to really surface their own brand even if they do have complete editorial control?
Mads: Well one of the fundamental challenges with a platform is you don’t know who you’re going to be sitting next to and associated with, right? I think for me is one of the fundamental challenges with platforms. I think even if you have the editorial control, you don’t know what’s before and after and around it and what conversation is going to start etc.
But to almost take it sort of one step before that, I think you can still carry your brand out, right? I actually think in some ways, to flip it 180 degrees, I actually think these platforms and for many publishers can best be viewed as a marketing platform. It is a place where you can go and show your brand, and actually monetize and drive the other parts of the business elsewhere. I would love if publishers more and more thought of these platforms as marketing tools, rather than necessarily the future of their business. It really is what it is, it’s a place to be seen. And then what I think publishing needs to get a lot smarter about is how to convert that into a business on the back of that. But I think there is an opportunity for publishers to sort of ‘take advantage of the platforms’.
Chris: So Peter you made a point earlier that was, has anybody who’s got a really strong brand lost out as a result of this transition to distributed content. We have two very very strong and very well-known historic brands on the table. So, is there anything that you think we can take away from what they’ve learned or any questions you want to ask them about how they’ve done it?
Peter: So what Mads has just said about marketing for me, you both have got…Empire and The Week have approached this from different angles but from I think the same objective, which is to get a message out there and get people buying a print magazine. So The Week, never really had a massive online presence…
Kerin: No we didn’t, well actually we had a website back in 1998. And back then if you read more than three articles you had to register. So I think it would be called a semi-permeable freemium model that allows the consumer to sample the content followed by a payment invitation for some high quality conversion. But back in 1998, we just suddenly thought, you know what, we should just give this away for free, and then we close that down because it was costing £150 a week and we thought it was a bit too much money to spend on this.
And we got on board the automotive online publishing, which was the right decision actually because that was a huge success for Dennis. And then we had what we called a tractor site for years, which was the site we used to sell a subscription, and we called it the tractor site because it looked like a tractor site because it was so clunky. But its job was brilliant because what it did was it sold loads of subscriptions.
So we’ve been selling subscriptions for 15-18 years for digital. We’re really really good at it. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be aligned with content. I’m not fully convinced that content makes that much of a difference to sampling once someone’s made that intent to buy. I think that’s changing now because we’re more sophisticated, [and we’re getting better with our] models and I think that’s where the future will head to, but it’s taking a long time to get there.
Peter: But you’re not actually using content as such, it’s marketing offers?
Kerin: We do use some content. We use bits and pieces…but almost certainly we find these weird things for things like reactivations, we send out people loads of serious [stories], and what they really want is funny stuff.
So you write to them and say, ‘We’ve got this really big amazing Brexit report that summarises everything’. And then you send them a whole load of funny stories about people falling outside of windows, and that sells more subscriptions. So it’s quite hard to know sometimes what the consumer really wants.
Chris: I’d really hoped we can get through this panel without talking about Brexit.
Peter: So here’s here’s the big segue…funny stuff.
Chris: Yeah. Terri, you laughed halfway through that, so…
Terri: Well I just want to go back to something you said actually about this marketing thing. I think it’s the big thing that gets tossed around at publishers right, and I think, sometimes, and we understand at Empire we use it to market our newsstand magazine really aggressively, our digital edition, our podcast, and it’s incredibly effective at that. But I think sometimes the trade off isn’t fair, and I think it gets into the realm of being…bollocks.
I can’t tell you the platform because I will get my face ripped off, but I’m going to tell you a story which speaks to what I’m describing, which is I went for a meeting the platform. We were doing a massive thing on Ready Player One, and we did the only interview with Steven Spielberg anywhere in the world. And we did a big takeover issue, he got Martin Scorsese to write an essay for us, he got Christopher Nolan to write an essay for us. The biggest, most exciting, most fucking remarkable piece of content, magazine craft I’ve ever worked on in my career. Fucking amazing.
We go in to meet this platform, they go ‘This is really great. We think you should give us like, loads of content’. And I was like, ‘Right. So you know, what do we get in return?’ And they went, ‘You get marketing and brand fame.’ And I was like, not being funny – well I am – I mean we’ve been going for 29 years, our brand is robust, our brand is famous. We got Steven Spielberg and we got Martin Scorsese and we got Christopher Nolan because we are EMPIRE. Right. And they were kind of like, ‘Well what we’re offering you…you’re going to be, to what you just said, you’re going to be in the right place. You’re going to be on the platform you should be on’. That’s not meaningful to me. Not meaningful in any way.
And to what you were saying when I walked in, this massive fucking chase for scale which everybody hurtles at, and then you get the scale and what do you do then? I edited Time Out New York, and I took the website from 2.5 million uniques to 9 million uniques within 18 months because that was the target given to me by the CEO. And that was the magic number at which we were going to unlock all this monetisation. And it was going to be amazing. We hit that number, and nothing happened.
That’s the position we’re which is, while we don’t want to be the dinosaurs in the corner – I feel like me and Peter are the dinosaurs in the corner – I think we have to approach it with some level of caution which is saying, publishers and brands need to remember who they are, what their power is, and what they can offer that is intrinsically, inherently theirs.
What EMPIRE can do, nobody else can do in the world, I’m sorry they can’t. So great partnerships that are mutually beneficial, but this kind ‘Oh it’s marketing’, what does that mean, and to your point, the challenge is, how do we make them something meaningful? What does that mean? Where is the money at the end of the line that goes to the bottom line of what we do which makes that trade useful to us, because content, and world exclusive content that nobody else could get or did get in the world, that is the gold at the heart of our brands.
That is what people come to EMPIRE for. If I’m going to give that to a platform, then there better something in it for me.
Esther: So one thing I can spot between the pannellists we’ve got here is that you guys both…a lot of the focus is on the print magazine and the print subscribers, and they’re your most valuable people. [To Ellen:] You guys I think canned the print magazine after two years quite a while back? Before you joined, but your focus is much less…it doesn’t matter if no one subscribes to the print magazine because it’s not a thing. Does that have some influence on how willing as publishers you are to go all in on platforms?
Kerin: Well you know what, I think this thing about, just on Terri’s point, reach is like a drug. [Terri: Yes.] And you sit in these sort of things and people talk about the reach and they say, I’ve got 2 million, 5 million people, and it’s never enough. Because there’s never a magic moment.
There was a newspaper that I heard about, and they had 100 million uniques, and it had taken them 10 years to get there, and they said, ‘Right, we’ve just realised it needs to be a billion’. And you kind of go, well, even if you did get to a billion, they can’t really be your customers, they can’t really be people who are really engaged with you, they can’t actually be people that when they go to sleep at night, think about your brand, it’s like floating down the stream and just sort of saying hello to a tree as it passes past.
That’s how I sort of feel about reach and this idea about being serious about print, the reason I think people like Terri and I are serious about print is because that’s how you make money. So it cost £150 a year to subscribe to The Week. So that means someone’s actually got to send us that cheque, the average length of tenure is about six years. So there are people who’ve been reading it for 23 years. I mean that’s real money. There’s not some sort of ephemeral monetisation that depends on somebody else changing their mind.
And I think some of the ire probably at Facebook here, is they change the rules of monetisation to suit themselves. And that’s a really difficult foundation to run a business on, because you think Mark Zuckerberg has a problem with the press, and then he just changes it, and your business disappears.
Mads: So I think just to jump in, a) I think it’s remarkable that my first comment on the panel might have been mistaken for being positive on that front, I’d like to correct that!
I think you’re very right to say for what we’ve seen, so we have the benefit of working with many different publishers across many different sectors and verticals. The two things that sort of come to me is that for every publisher the answer to how to work with platforms successfully is going to be different. So someone like The Economist have been really successful just retargeting people on Facebook to convert to subscribers.
And actually that’s a really meaningful way of using Facebook, and the reach of Facebook in a way that isn’t that [reach]. But I think to your point, the problem with that reach thing is that, at least in my world, I’m a big believer in this idea of attention economy, and that we’re getting to peak attention. We simply don’t have more available time that isn’t occupied by a screen of some kind. And actually as we hit that, Netflix competes with Facebook, competes with everything else that takes your time. And I think the danger as a publisher is, the more you go down that route, the more you actually have to compete with the people who are better at the attention game than you are, right, because they already have 2 billion.
So actually what we’ve really seen, the areas of publishing now that are most successful are the areas where people have found an audience, be that cross fit or lawyers, or any kind of area where you can actually have something that is unique compared to the big platforms. And that’s an important distinction between, do you go down the entertainment page reach route, versus a diversified but much actually specialized towards a certain audience.
We’re certainly seeing the latter being a lot more successful, and talking to investors quite a bit at the moment, that whole wave of them investing in BuzzFeed and all of those kind of ‘We reach a billion people a month’, I mean those days are gone. Try to go in and pitch a business idea like that today and you’ll get nowhere.
Peter: Ellen, do think that’s why you guys are doing as well as you’re doing because you’re have that clearly…although your content is broad, you have a very clearly defined audience?
Ellen: No definitely. I mean technically we don’t have any competition on Snapchat for example, we’re the sole LGBT publisher on there. Other people cover LGBTQ issues, but we are the people who are the face of it. I know that other people haven’t had the same success that we have on the platform, and they are using it like you said to just build brand awareness, like The Economist do a really great job on Snapchat. They do really interesting VR stuff almost, I don’t know their figures but I imagine that a 13 year old looking at that can’t deny that’s pretty cool. So they might go and seek The Economist out elsewhere.
What has been actually really interesting about the platform and what it’s done for our brand is that it’s really interesting to see how many people take a secondary interaction. So we found people coming from Snapchat to our Twitter, to our Instagram, to my inbox, to tell us what their experience has been of our content. But we do definitely have a niche, and that has been a bit of a win for us.
Chris: I was worried when everyone came to sit that it was going to look like a boys versus girls type situation, but so far it seems like everybody v Ellen situation! PinkNews in the form that it is, and the extent to which it’s grown, is only because you were able to do very clever distribution via some social channels. So for new brands that absolutely does make sense, because you can reach very targeted audiences on these platforms where they already exist.
Ellen: Yeah definitely. I think we were able to be agile. What I think our biggest win has been is that we didn’t just jump in straight away, we were like, ‘Dunno if this is going to work’. When we first launched on the platform, it was literally me, a freelance designer, and a notepad being like, ‘How do you do a snap chat?’ Because I’m actually pretty old for Snapchat!
Then as we started to publish on, the platform we saw a little incremental growth, and we only started publishing two days a week to begin with. Then we moved up to 3, and then 5, then 7, and then we were able to actually bring on permanent members of staff, who’ve also recently been redistributed within the company. And so we have a team of creatives who work across every platform now. People have their specific niche I guess, but everyone who can use a camera, everyone who can design and make illustrations and graphics work across the whole brand.
Peter: Do you think as we all get caught up in the pivot to paywalls, this conversation’s going to change, because people can actually use that reach to drive real revenue on their own properties rather than on the platforms?
Kerin: It still depends on engagement, right? So if you look at the number of ads people have got to see or how many times they’re going to get their content, they’ve got to enjoy your product. Having 10 million people, of which 9,985,000 look at one page a month is not going to translate into an audience of 10,000. Right. So you’ve still got people who really like your content, and they like it sufficiently that they’re willing to have some sort of data exchange with you, whether it’s going to be an email, or some piece of it has to be [in some] stuff.
And one of the things that’s got quite interesting about GDPR is, I think it really transforms the relationships that publishers have to have with their audiences, because we have to find out who these people are, and they have to give us permission to communicate with them. So the regulation is actually making us behave in a better way as publishers, because our products have to become better to get people to give us some information. I think in a way that’s actually quite exciting about GDPR. I feel that the fuss about GDPR has calmed down a lot in the last six months because of more entry into the market, more people talking about data, more money coming back into that sector.
Esther: As soon as somebody get a slapped with a fine, we’ll all be talking about it.
Kerin: The interesting thing is, that if I think about the level of data requests that we have coming in from people for GDPR complaints, it’s really low. We are very very compliant in terms of the way we use our data. Very few people get in touch and ask to see stuff, or come back with any issues. I think it was a bit like the Millennium Bug, it sort of got fanned into this state where everybody had to go and spend a whole lot of money, and the government regulations and all that sort of stuff, but actually it seems to have settled down in terms of those regulationary parts.
Terri: Is it the thing with paywalls, or payment and products and platforms, it’s all about the larger brand ecosystem, right? And it’s probably not as binary as I may be first making it out to be. Any successful brand is going to be a mixture of revenue streams; the old days of a bit of print mag revenue and some print advertising revenue being the ship that sails you down the river is long gone.
We use Amazon Alexa, we do flash briefings in the morning, they’ve been really great for us. The podcast is one of our most successful products. And we have real engagement on social, and I actually think some of the pivoting that Facebook’s done has been interesting in terms of, well at least what they outwardly claim is a drive for true engagement. Because I think there is an ability within some social platforms, we see it more on Twitter for example, Snap isn’t really the EMPIRE audience. We look, but they are just not there.
And I think that’s the key thing is just going where your audience is. That’s the fundamental thing about publishing, whatever the product is, whatever the platform is, where are the audience, and go and find them. So we have an amazing Twitter community. I’ve got people who tweet me every single day who read it and retweet. [Chris: Sorry!] I told you not to do it after midnight!
Esther: I’ve got a question there again. I don’t know the age makeup of your audience, but if you want to get a younger audience or if your audience starts to grow that way, how would your strategy change as your audience changes?
Terri: There was a bit of conversation when I came into EMPIRE, which was just like, ‘Let’s go after women because you’ve got a vagina!’ I think the amazing thing about EMPIRE is, it is a passion brand, and although our key demographic, we’ve got 70% male, the average age is 32, it’s actually come down slightly. But we are bonded by passion. So for me it’s where is the conversation, how can we drive the conversation.
Facebook for us actually can be a really negative place. People really go to town on Facebook, I feel like I have to have a little Xanax before I go on there and see what they said about the latest issue. The way they behave on Instagram is completely different to the way they behave on Twitter.
Our magazine is passion subject, and it’s all about community and it’s all about that shared passion. Social media is a great place to express that, and to iterate that, and to come together with other members of your gang. If you think about what magazine and media brands are meant to be, it’s meant to be the greatest gang in the world right? That you’re part of the club.
So for us, social works really effectively there, but paywalls in terms of…I think just having one paid-for piece of content in the EMPIRE ecosystem which is the magazine, is not a way to build a robust future. Can you charge for certain parts of the podcast? Is there a version of the website that you can charge for a certain scale and premium level of content? And I think all those things have to be on the table.
But to go back to where we started which is, there has to be monetisation at the heart of it. Kerin is absolutely right which is, our print magazine still makes a fuck tonne of money, and that is pretty much where most of our revenue comes from. People – you hear a lot of things to the contrary – people are absolutely still willing to pay for print.
Magnetic have got some really interesting research about actually for millennials, print is still the most trusted medium. All these things about ‘Millennials don’t pay for content,’ they absolutely will. You have to earn the right for them to pay for that content.
Esther: I mean, millennials are in work and earning enough money to pay for content now, it’s Generation Z coming up next?
Peter: If you stop buying avocado toast!
Ellen: I haven’t eaten an avocado in 2 weeks…!
Kerin: Some of this thing is also about the product. I think one of the problems we’ve got in the publishing industry at the moment is, people have lost the ability to launch. People just don’t launch anything.
So we did The Week Junior, we launched it, everybody said ‘This will not work. You shouldn’t look like this. This shouldn’t be serious.’ About a month ago we passed 65,000 individual subscriptions, which is 100 grand a week. That’s five million quid’s worth of income for a magazine that’s only been around for three years now. And to those readers and the retention rate, the take-through through rate is 85 percent, first time renewals is about 92 percent. So this is a whole cohort of children reading this magazine, and loving it, and people are paying for it.
And you think well, it can’t just be about The Week Junior, there must be other ideas that people will start launching that have a similar business model where you come up with an idea, and try and take it out. I feel that’s where the industry probably needs to get back into, is probably less worrying about ‘How could we live on other people’s platforms,’ and more ‘How can we begin to grow some of our own products that might survive on their own rights and generate some cash?’
Chris: Yeah that’s that’s always been your thing right, is building your own property on your own land?
Peter: Yeah I know it’s one of the reasons that Mads and I have talked in the past about that idea of, not going to mention any names, but recommendations that are random as shit and come from nowhere, compared to premium recommendations within an ecosystem.
Chris: You’re talking about Taboola and Outbrain.
Peter: I wasn’t gonna mention any names! Lovely people.
Chris: What have they got on you?
Peter: Adam’s a lovely guy. A really really smart lovely guy. His recommendation engine is [thumbs down].
Chris: John Hammond was a nice guy but then the dinosaurs went all over the island and killed a bunch of people.
Peter: Anyway my point is, the premium content ecosystem, whether that’s within your own content or whether that’s in associated brands is the point of that.
Mads: Yeah. I mean, if you instead just interpret them as an ad network, they’re definitely not the worst ad network. Right? So maybe it’s just that the labelling that’s wrong, it’s really an ad network that brings revenue, and not at all the worst ad network right now. I think you said something very interesting about…there were some clever people who wrote about the mix of six in terms of revenue, can’t remember who it is [Peter puts his hand up].
But the days are gone where you can just print the magazine and that’s kind of your business. And I think you’re right. Launching new ideas that drives revenue in a way that’s relevant to your…we see B2B publishers now that drive 80 percent of their revenue from lead generation. You do whitepapers together with companies, you drive e-mails and actually that’s a perfectly great way of making money. I think there is lots of interesting ideas that can be explored. And I think you’re right, a lot of it comes to whether it’s getting your head just above water enough that you can sort of have a meeting about what can we actually do that isn’t just pumping more content out on some platforms. It is really a strategic question that should be asked and publishers…
Kerin: Just before you think, I don’t want you to think I’m a dinosaur in Jurassic Park, hanging on The Week Junior. The thing about The Week Junior is, all the orders are generated online. So it’s 25 percent social, and then about 45 percent organic, and then PPC. So it is a wholly digital acquisition model. So we don’t do any external [DR] at all. And then we just fan it all on word of mouth and recommendation. So there are ways of using the blend of online and analogue to bring together, and I think finding those hybrid ways of making them work together could be really powerful.
Mads: Do you think you’ve to a certain degree been able to launch it on the back of the main brand too though, literally parents pushing it to their children to a certain degree? I’m Danish so Lego is the thing that comes to mind right, it’s the thing the parents flog to their children because they want them to be those kind of children?
Kerin: I did, that was in the business model, the business model was like that, and then that very quickly disappeared, and it had its own legs. You know I got a cab the other day, and the guys subscribed to The Week Junior but had never heard of The Week. I thought, that’s great. We’ve made it.
Ellen: Well I was just going to say that…because of the kind of content that we produce, we would never charge for our content, because we want it to be accessible to people who might need it. We’re very much a resource as well as a news source, but we do have alternative ‘real world analogue’ interactions that make money. So we have a whole events side of our business, which includes the PinkNews Awards, we do a careers summit, and we’ve been testing the water with some reader events recently, which are paid for things as well. So we want to be able to make money off our readers as well as offering them a service they can access wherever and whenever as well.
Peter: That’s where the Guardian is coming from. That’s their whole motivation of what Esther mistakenly called the ‘begging bowl approach’…
Esther: Do not pin that on me!
Peter: Well Chris and I fully supported them from day one!
Chris: Well you can go back and listen to the archives…
Peter: Terri…you put a lot of effort into the Deadpool YouTube promo. I would assume. Did that make any difference? Can you explain that first of all to the two people in the audience that haven’t seen it…
Terri: We don’t just like doing just a regular magazine. The normal magazine is really good, right. But we always try and innovate either within the print itself, so we did the world’s first video cover for Fantastic Beasts, we did Europe’s first VR cover, and we did the world’s first talking cover last year for Deadpool 2. But we also then do digital pieces of content that are really there to promote the print mag. It’s really hard to see if they actually work.
So we got Ryan Reynolds dressed as Deadpool, to do an infomercial where he flogged EMPIRE. So he’s holding a copy of EMPIRE, and he’s selling it as Deadpool does, so there’s some anal sex jokes in there, there’s some North Korea jokes in there…I did want to play it at a media conference [that I really thought I should have thought about…the CEO in the corner being like…what are you doing?!]
It took something like nine months, so we photographed him for the magazine, we did an in-character interview, we did a Ryan Reynolds out of character interview, and then we did this whole day where we videoed him. Him and the writers of Deadpool scripted it with two of the boys in the EMPIRE office. This went backwards, forwards, back, the amount of resource spent on this video! Eventually they shot it in L.A. and it cost tens and tens of thousands of pounds to produce and edit. We didn’t pay for that, the film studio paid for that. And Ryan Reynolds launched it on his personal YouTube channel, it then went across our YouTube channel, Fox YouTube channel, and it went viral.
It was incredible, it was just brilliantly funny, really characterful, really memorable. Nothing like that had ever been done before and this thing where he’s holding a copy of your magazine in his hand. I mean you literally can’t buy that kind of content. That did do really well for us. The issue sold really really well.
I’m not massively convinced that it had a huge impact to be honest. There’s obviously a fundamental level of awareness, it piques people’s interest. Maybe it’s the thing that’s tipped some of them over the line, I don’t know if that in and of itself made somebody go, ‘£4.99 suddenly seems okay’. I think they fundamentally have an existing relationship with the mag and are kind of halfway there with buying it anyway.
But all the stuff like that which is completely unique and reminds people, for me if you are a legacy brand, and I mean that in a, positive way and you have a certain amount of power, a certain amount of influence, I’m not for hiding your light under a bushel. I think you leverage the fuck out of that, and you remind people who you are, and what you can do. And that’s kind of our equivalent of getting our willy out on the table a little bit.
But those things are really important to us. It reminds people that yes, we are a print magazine that turns 30 years old in July, but we can innovate, and we do exciting things in the digital space, we get incredible access to talent.
But fundamentally I think the question was, is what drives more sales, right? Something like that, or a great cover of the mag. Right? Great cover of the mag every day of the week. Anybody who says otherwise is lying. Fundamentally you have to make that your shop window, when somebody is walking past in Morrisons or wherever, that image, and the ability to stop them within five seconds and convince them that they should part with their hard earned cash, nothing will ever replicate the importance of that cover, ever.
Peter: Shout-out to the colouring in boys and girls!
Chris: This may be too big a question here, but what then is the future of distributed content? And what would it take for you to get fully on board with the idea of putting everything everywhere, would it literally be as much revenue from those platforms?
Kerin: There’s lots. There was one point there which was editorial control, where I was really taken by what you said about your content having to fit within Snap. That’s a really big issue, if you’re a publisher, for someone to come in as your distributor and say, you can’t put that on our platform. So I think there are those issues.
There are also big issues just about how the platforms behave with us. I sometimes sort of feel like the Greek sheep farmers shouting at Zeus on Olympus, trying to get their attention by organising the sheep, and something to happen. Having an equal relationship in the way that we did more in the newsstand, our equality doesn’t really match? Because the amount of money that we could generate for a platform just isn’t big enough. I just can’t really see how we would ever get to that stage.
So EMPIRE and The Week are both good sized brands, but the next level above us this probably the ones who might be able to have those conversations [and] to leverage the newspaper sizes. I don’t think something like The Week would ever get to the size where it could really cut some terms on distributed platforms.
So I think what will happen is we’ll have to have a patchwork quilt of distributed platform approaches. And as the platforms change, we’ll change to where they wish to be. But we will always put our focus into first party data, first party engagement, first party ownership, because that’s how I sleep at night, knowing that I know who my customers are.
Chris: Yeah. Actually there is something I wanted to ask the two of you in particular, is how much pressure do you feel from your wider organisations to grow stats on these platforms though?
Peter: Is that a new thing? Is that different than it was two years ago, or a year ago even?
Terri: Well the only thing I can compare it to, I’ve been at EMPIRE four years in September, before that as I said was at Time Out New York and there was a real desperation to shift that from being seen as a print magazine into a proper multiplatform offering, and the kind of rush for scale. We were doing deals with Facebook, and we were very on the front foot, and there was a lot of pressure to transform the brand overnight.
With Empire there is…the stats, Kerin mentioned earlier in terms of readership, is not dissimilar for us. Our average subscriber has been with us a minimum of 10 years. It’s £64.50 to subscribe to EMPIRE for a year. We have no cheap subscriptions. It’s a real commitment, and that relationship is based on trust, it’s based on love, it’s based on knowing each other inside out. I know the skin, and the bones, and the brains, and the soul of our reader.
So we would never rush into anything because we are about the long term gains of the brand. EMPIRE will still exist in 30 years. I might not be there, but it will still exist and there will be another me. And so the business does the right thing, which is to take the long term view. Any changes, any kind of engagement, any difference in how we present the content and where we present the content is done in a really even-handed way.
Maybe if there was a magic pot of money at the end of it, I’d have a fire under my arse a bit quicker than I have at the moment. But while we make a really handsome amount of money from print, they’re happy for us to kind of work out what suits us.
What you mentioning earlier about you can’t tell what you’re going to be put next to, it’s really important to us. We have incredibly trusted relationships with filmmakers, with studios. If we ended up either on YouTube or on Facebook, or somewhere where there was any kind of questionable alignment, that would be really damaging for our brand. And first and foremost we are about protecting the long term health of the brand.
Mads: If I can jump in, so I think there’s one thing that, it might sound very pedantic but we keep today we’ve kept talking about them as platforms. I prefer the term aggregator, because actually it goes back a little bit, but Microsoft actually came up with this originally, the idea of platform theory. And in their world you only get to call yourself a platform if you deliver more economic value to the people who are participating on the platform than you take away yourself. And by that standard, none of these aggregators are platforms.
Now interestingly enough if you look, and I’m just curious of how things have played out in different media, because if you look at someone like Spotify, 85 percent of their revenue still goes to the people who make the content, right? The number for Facebook is what, I mean a few percent maybe, even Apple’s glorious 50/50 deals, that’s better than than it has been in many cases, but it’s still not, in the sense that you don’t get access to the data etc. It doesn’t feel like a platform still.
I think there is actually an opportunity for someone to come in and build a social media content kind of platform that actually is a platform, because then I think content creators could flock to that. I think it’s very telling, I used to work quite a bit with sort of influencers and YouTubers etc. even YouTubers and Instagrammers were constantly worrying about how to build a business outside the platform, because the platform isn’t really working for them too in the sense of being, yes if you become really big on YouTube you can make enough money off advertising.
But actually, the really successful people on those platforms, are people who’ve built businesses outside of the platform, who’ve actually become entrepreneurs on the back of the audience that they built on those platforms, but the businesses are built outside of the platforms.
Esther: But Spotify yesterday posted, I think it’s the biggest loss in the history of the business even though they’ve just tipped a hundred million subscribers now. Is it ever possible to get that balance where both the platform and the publisher are making money and are happy?
Mads: I mean Facebook posted what, six and a half billion dollars in profit for Q4 so maybe there’s a middle ground!
Esther: Maybe that middle ground is Apple News!
Mads: And of course music and again and movies and TV is very different in the sense that the barriers to entry is much higher than it is in written content in particular. We’ve seen user generated content come in, to a certain degree harder with user generated music.
Peter: I think also what was the basis of that loss? Because as part of that the fact that they’ve got acquisitions, and they’re spending money on content development, its not just not an operating…
Kerin: I think it’s traditional for these people to lose money actually. It’s actually part of the business plan. So if you look at it, the larger the loss the more we are worth. I mean, what’s it worth, 100 billion, something like that, it’s got losses up to 10 billion now. The growth strategy is to lose money.
Audience questions followed the main discussion.
Are you a media journalist or analyst? Join our dedicated email list to get these transcripts direct to your inbox every Monday.
Thanks to Trint for helping with our transcripts. Trint goes beyond automated transcription using AI to provide the world’s most innovative platform for searching, editing, collaborating and getting the most out of your audio and video content. Learn more here on their website, or follow them on Twitter @TrintHQ.