Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe
Esther: What have you done since joining MIT to evolve its offering and bring it to new audiences?
Elizabeth: So I joined MIT in 2015. I had been at the Economist in the UK actually, before that, and had moved back to the US for family reasons. And it was a legacy publication, and when the opportunity came to join Tech Review, as Chief Operating Officer, which is how I started here, I wasn’t quite sure.
When I was at the Economist, I wasn’t really on the traditional media side, I was more on the business to business side, I wasn’t on the consumer side. So I was curious about what the opportunity here would look like.
That’s quite a change in culture as well.
Oh, it was totally, it was completely different in ways that both good and, you know, perhaps more challenging. So it was clear that there was something really valuable here, that there was a brand that there was a reputation for producing good technology-related content, but that it was not getting anywhere close to the kind of attention and audience that it needed, because it was operating from a very print perspective still.
So the first thing we did was build the events business. They had built an events brand, for a number of years they had an events brand, but it really hadn’t gotten the kind of attention and investment that it needed and demanded.
And so it was clear that we had a lot more mileage that we could get out of events. I realised that that was clearly a product that worked and that was special, but that needed to be really thought about differently from a commercial standpoint.
So we built that right away, and started to invest in doing more branded events, Technology Review, MTech branded events. And that has proven to be quite a successful part of the business model development.
But we also began to think about how to build the digital audience. When I started, there wasn’t even any social media editorial work going on. So we needed to get a social media presence going, we needed to build a digital newsletter strategy. And now we have quite a few digital newsletters that go out every day and every week to our readers and that bring really engaged loyal readers back to our site on a regular basis.
We also needed to do a redesign. So this took a little bit longer. This didn’t happen until I became CEO. But we then did a website redesign so that we have a feed on our site.
And then we also redesigned the print magazine, in order that we could have thematic print magazines. We publish six times a year, and a thematic approach means that when you are having that immersive, what they call at the Economist ‘lean back experience’, that you are fully immersed in the topic of that theme.
Rather than trying to have print be kind of a less interactive, less engaging, less up to date and current version of what is on the website, we instead said, ‘All right, let’s make this actually play to the strengths of print,’ which is that when you’re reading print, your immersive, you’re sitting back, you’ve decided, time now for me to really understand what’s going on with technology and China, or what’s going on with technology and politics, or whatever the topic may be for that thematic issue. And then that, of course, is complemented by the constant more news-driven cadence of the digital website experience.
And then, the other things we’ve done, we’ve done quite a lot that you can’t see, that’s sort of more behind the scenes, things having to do with our tech stack and whatnot. But another thing that was sort of visible to the world was, we did some experimentation in podcasts to figure out well, how would this work for Tech Review? What’s a good way of manifesting this audio and where where should we really kind of make some bets?
So, a lot of different sort of levels to our transformation, and it has been extremely exciting.
And has that managed to bring a different or a younger audience to you?
Absolutely, yeah. So as you probably expect, a print audience is an older audience than in digital. So by virtue of growing our digital audience, we are of course attracting a whole lot more people to the brand overall, which is good in all kinds of ways you might imagine.
And did that older audience get on board with some of the changes in print, because that’s often where publishers hit issues with redesigns is that their older audience switch off?
Yeah, I mean, it’s a challenge for sure. An entirely print audience is hard to make sense, business-wise of today, and so what we are really trying to do is get people who only experience us in print to, at the very least have a newsletter, a digital newsletter that enables them to see what they aren’t getting by not seeing us more frequently, digitally.
And that’s a process, there’s all kinds of things having to do with the channel by which you reach a print audience, you’ve got to then figure out well, how am I going to connect with them in order to in order to encourage them to engage with us digitally. You’ve got to do things like get email addresses and whatnot.
So that’s a process that’s, you know, I mean, we’ve got a ways to go yet there. But people who are traditional print readers, who also have begun to experience us digitally, we see that they are much stickier, that their renewal rate, the renewal rate for that cohort is higher than folks who didn’t experience us digitally at all.
That makes it clear what we need to do and obviously, there’s a set of steps that we’re taking to make that happen.
I suppose you got to think in terms of the future as well, you can’t just be keeping old people happy!
No, that’s right. I think again, if you’re only experiencing us in print, then having a themed issue approach might be hard. Because you might say, ‘Well, I don’t really care about, you know, longevity, and that was one out of my six issues. So I’m not sure if the value is there in the subscription.’
But if you’re experiencing us in all the ways that you can, then you understand that this is a themed, immersive, almost more of a book experience that you’re getting out of print that complements the steady, all topics, both news-driven, and more feature-led digital product that we also offer besides.
So it’s really an important part of telling the value proposition story to people who are trying to decide how they want to experience us.
A lot of the stuff you cover on your website is that intersection of science and technology. That can be quite challenging to cover, because you’ve probably got audiences ranging from complete experts to people who just have a passing interest. So how do you strike that balance between getting content that appeals to the experts, the experts don’t find too basic, but also that can be understood by passing members of the public?
We’re very clear that we’re not writing for the experts. We are interviewing the experts, we expect that they will be amongst the readers of our articles. But we’re not an academic – although we’re owned by an academic institution – we are not an academic publication.
And so what we’re trying to do is make technology and science accessible to a broader audience. What that means in practical terms is that if you are a tech expert, or you’re an academic who’s deeply immersed in AI, or deeply immersed in biomedicine or whatever it might be, you yourself might not find our article to be groundbreaking. But it will tell the story of the kinds of things that you do on a day to day basis in a way that your family members or your neighbours would understand and find interesting.
And so, although the people who are the experts themselves won’t necessarily find anything new in the themes, in the content that’s associated with their areas of expertise, they will also know if there’s anything that’s stupid in it, that doesn’t make any sense, right?
We’re aware that they’ll read it, but they will read it with a different understanding of what it’s trying to do. And they’ll share it, they’ll pass it on to people who they want to better understand, help to better understand their topic areas, and they will tell us if they think it’s rubbish.
So what we’re aware of is that they are amongst the people who read it, but it’s not about trying to break new news, for instance, in these fields, as far as an expert is concerned. It’s about trying to explain the developments that are happening in these fields to a broader audience.
But we’re always very aware of the importance of maintaining the credibility, that is a huge part of the value that we bring.
That area, that intersection, it’s a field that’s become quite crowded, I’m thinking in particular, the last three to four years. You’ve got brands like WIRED that are very well known. So what do you do at Technology Review to stand out? What’s different?
Yeah, it’s a thing we think about, talk about all the time. And when I was trying to decide, for instance, if I wanted to join this company four years ago, I was asking myself the same question. There’s a couple things.
So Technology Review is the first ever technology publication. It was established in 1899 when publishing about technology was not a thing.
Technology was barely a thing!
Exactly. So we’ve got a legacy, and a reputation. But there are no guarantees associated with that. You have to stay relevant. You have to stay connected with where audiences are going. You have to understand what makes you special to those audiences. And it isn’t necessarily what made you special a decade or more ago.
So we’re very cognisant of what other tech publications are out there doing. And you’re right, it is a crowded field. And what we’re trying to be very clear about is that we’re looking at a technology as it impacts the way we all live and work. And we’re doing that from a place of authority, influence and established expertise. And that place is quite simply MIT.
So we’re very aware that we carry the letters MIT, and we carry the reputation that comes with that. And we lean in to the authority and the credibility that that gives us, even as we’re aware that we have to kind of earn it every day.
It’s quite an interesting place to be because our intention is to own the category, to be the established brand in technology media. We’re not there now. But that’s a part of our path. That’s where we’re heading.
I suppose that’s where that word legacy has a more positive connotation if you’re talking about credibility.
That’s right. And it’s also quite interesting Esther, we could talk another time about the importance of maintaining independence, because we are owned by MIT but we’re independent from MIT. It’s important that we lean into the advantages that it gives us, while not being about publishing on MIT per se, we publish about what’s going on it at Stanford, or other universities, or the private sector.
What we publish is not specific to what’s happening around us, geographically around us, but rather what’s happening in the ecosystem, at the centre of which are institutions like MIT.
You mentioned earlier you’d experimented a bit with podcasts this year. Can you talk a bit about that, what you’ve learned and what you’re planning for next year?
Yeah, it’s great, we’d learned a lot. So we launched it as an experiment. We did a podcast that lives on, it called Business Lab or shorten to BLab. And it was about trying to test out…we had some interest from some sponsors, and we wanted to test out what would it really require to build an audience? What would it really require to do a whole bunch of connecting with editorial, connecting with sponsorship, what was the magnitude of the ask?
And so I hosted it, which was not I think, not ideal, it made a lot of sense for a bunch of reasons, kind of boring inside reasons. But ultimately I’ve got another job. And I think one of the big things we realised is, how important it was going to be to have someone who thought every day in audio terms about how to tell stories, and how to bring out noises and voices and ambient sound, and all that kind of cool stuff that makes podcasts such a special medium.
But we did learn that the audiences would come, that the sponsors would come, that it was really easy to find ideas for episodes and things we could create. I mean, we had way more ideas than we ended up doing anything with.
That’s always a good starting point!
Yeah. And we understood that we were very much sort of scratching the surface. And so what we learned out of that, and that pretty much was entirely focused, we only really did that in 2019 and I believe we launched it in the beginning of the calendar year.
So now we’ve made two hires, we’ve hired someone who was previously at Wall Street Journal and built the Future of Everything brand, including the podcast. She’s quite actively working on building out something, which I won’t say much more about.
And then we also hired somebody who’s been a long time…had formerly worked here, began to develop a podcast himself and has a popular podcast in the science space, to do another podcast as much more concentrated on a little bit of sort of behind the scenes at Tech Review, how we operate, how we get stories, how we connect with the scholars in our field, with leaders in our field. So there’s a whole bunch of interesting things that he’s working on too.
Those two podcasts will take flight in early 2020.
You’ve talked a bit about some of the changes you’ve made over the past five years, what are you doing to ensure MIT Technology Review is ready for the next five years?
Yeah, I mean, as I said, there’s no guarantee that I mean, I mentioned I was at the Economist before I came here. And it’s an amazing place and amazing experience, and it’s, I think, a very clear lesson of success in the past is no guarantee of success in the future.
What we’ve done quite a bit of, and I mentioned also sort of behind the scenes stuff, is a lot of investing in tools. So we’ve rebuilt our tech stack. That’s not an investment. I felt like I wanted…I didn’t want to make that investment. But we had to have tools that were up to the job of being a digital media company in 2019 and beyond. And so we needed to have tools that would give us insights so we can take decisions.
Was that easy to get everybody else on board with?
Eventually, yeah, I mean, I think the challenge was transforming the business from a legacy print publication to a digital media brand, is something that a lot of people say they are excited about doing, and I genuinely believe them. But when it actually plays out and when it actually occurs, and it means what you’re doing has to change from this to that, it’s not always easy.
And so in particular, a lot of the technology investments, we really needed to wait until I had the right person to lead that operation, that part of the business. And then once I had the right person, it all kind of came together, much, much more quickly and with greater confidence after his arrival.
But I mean, the point was that if we really want to stay relevant, and we really need to think about the next five years in the future of media, and all that good stuff, we had to have tools to enable us to see. We had to have the visibility on what is our audience doing when they hit our site, where are they coming from, how much time are they spending on these stories versus those stories, what are they doing after they’ve read these stories versus those stories, can we play around with different ways of directing them to recirculate on this site from different kinds of stories and see what kind of impact those kinds of modifications would make? So all that is now possible at last, but it took quite some time.
The other part of it is that, looking ahead, we are also looking at evolving the business model to complement the journalism with other kinds of media products. So again, we’re aware that that obviously advertising in digital media doesn’t have a massive future for the business, and particularly for a publication of our size, or of our sort of specificity. We’re looking at building reader supported revenue.
And so that’s again about understanding when people hit our site, and they hit the subscribe button and they carry through the transaction, what was their experience before they got to that point? And how do we replicate that with more of our audience? And similarly, once they’re our subscriber, how do we nurture them and keep them engaged so that they renew?
But even so, you build up all that and you still need to kind of figure out well, where is really going to be some additional sources of stability? We’re spending a lot of time thinking about B2B media, and what the opportunities might look like for Technology Review, to build out some more business oriented product.
Are you optimistic about our future with technology, or do you share concerns that experts have said about AI taking over humanity and things like that?
I have to say, I’m not worried about AI taking over humanity. I do have worries about the future of humanity! But I’m not sure that I would attribute my concerns to AI per se. I mean, I’m much more worried about the climate crisis, for instance, and we are publishing a lot about technologies that will help us adapt to climate change, since climate changes is an inarguable reality. So I would say I’m more concerned about those sorts of threats.
And also because I think technology will be a path to, again, adaptation, I feel more of an optimism there. In terms of worries about what is the future of AI? I mean I’ve been in too many conversations with too many genius, brilliant people about the steps in the consciousness that they’re applying to the way AI is being developed and deployed to think that it’s all going to go, you know, down the tragic path. I mean, I think, in human history, we’ve often said this. And I think that we will, in this context, I think we will take the right decisions to control the threat side of things. At least that’s what I’m hoping!
But I do want to see us do things like apply it to the big thorny challenges like disease, like hunger, like as I said, climate. That’s probably the way most people are really thinking about it, rather than, you know, the machines taking over.