The Digiday Podcast is a weekly show on the big stories and issues that matter to brands, agencies and publishers as they transition to the digital age.
'Retention has been one of our best stories of the year': Bob Cohn on steering The Economist through the crisis
Bob Cohn joined The Economist Group in February after more than a decade at The Atlantic, where he served on both sides of the fence -- as its digital editor and later as its president. As president and managing director, his stated remit was to grow The Economist's global readership and open up new commercial opportunities in North America.
Of course, merely six weeks into the job, the coronavirus pandemic hit. With it came a surge of subscribers as readers looked to the Economist to unpick the impact on the economy, politics, culture and more.
"We did see, for a few months back in the spring, new subscribers coming [in] at about twice the rate that we expected," said Cohn on the Digiday podcast.
Subscriptions and circulation made up around two-thirds (£204 million;$265 million) of the £326 million ($423 million) The Economist Group generated in revenue in the year to Mar. 31 2020. In recent months, pre-pandemic, the company had already shifted its subscription strategy from focusing on acquisition to more of a retention push. The surge in subscribers during the coronavirus crisis created "a kind of urgency" to keep the newly acquired users.
"We were an acquisition machine; we were not focused as diligently as we could on retention," prior to Cohn's arrival, he said. "We came into this year with a determination to be better at that and embrace best practice and go beyond best practice."
Some of the new efforts have involved the creation of subscriber-only digital events (some 27,000 subscribers tuned in to watch a Bill Gates interview,) increasing the price of its introductory offers and exclusive subscriber newsletters. The number of subscribers in The Economist's "highly engaged" category increased 21% last year, Cohn said
Looking ahead, The Economist plans to roll out a new customer experience platform and create more products at a wider price range to tap a more diversified user base.
"Retention has been one of our best stories of the year," Cohn said.
Diversity 'is a commercial imperative now': Brand Advance CEO Chris Kenna
Brand Advance, the three-year-old media network that helps marketers reach diverse audiences, has marked a sharp uptick in business in 2020, according to its CEO and cofounder Chris Kenna. Advertisers spending through Brand Advance's network increased 400% between mid-March through June.
"If Brand Advance was to be formed now everybody would say 'that is the most timely company,'" Kenna said. "The need wouldn't be questioned. Back then, it was questioned. It took a global pandemic for people to actually realize that diversity [should be] a main staple of every media plan."
Kenna has unique bona fides on this front, telling Digiday he was the first Black person born on the U.K.'s the Isle of Man. "I got a certificate for that. I don't remember getting it, obviously," Kenna said.
Diversity has grown into a "commercial imperative" in the last 10 to 15 years, Kenna said. To meet it, he advises companies to create their products and campaigns with diverse consumers in mind from the start, not as an afterthought. He also said that so-called test campaigns for companies to know whether this or that segment is worth reaching often miss the mark.
"I'm not testing being Black, I was born it. And LGBTQ+ people aren't testing being LGBTQ+, they just are. We don't understand why you have to test if we're a good consumer," Kenna said.
'Scale for scale's sake is almost meaningless': Axios CEO Jim VandeHei
For Axios CEO Jim VandeHei, the unquenchable firehose of outrageous news from the Trump White House — and the 2020 presidential election in general — is a distraction.
"My hope is we do very little coverage or analysis after the next debate if there's nothing substantive to say," VandeHei said on the Digiday Podcast (a few days before the president's coronavirus diagnosis would put future debates into question).
He added that Axios won't be "made or broken by whether Trump wins or loses" in November.
For him, the major stories of the 21st century include artificial intelligence, climate change and China's actions on those issues — and in the world at large.
And Axios seems to be proving there is in fact a market for the concise coverage it provides on those issues and more. The company will make a small profit for the third year in a row, VandeHei said. For 2020, he forecasts revenue above the Wall Street Journal's recent estimate of $58 million.
That has made an optimistic CEO out of VandeHei, which is new. "I've been a pessimist about a lot of media for a long time," he said. "What we are seeing are a couple of trends that are really positive for high quality media companies." For one, her said, Google and Facebook have gone from threat to being "a net asset" for companies like Axios as they can bring big audiences and are themselves big sources of a specific kind of advertising.
"Call it corporate image or corporate social responsibility type advertising, which is ads from companies about something other than selling a product," VandeHei said. "It's 'what do we stand for? what are we trying to do as a company as a corporate citizen?' That's a boom market. That market has turned out to be a lot bigger than we had anticipated."
'All taking a chance on each other': Jasper Wang on Defector Media's collective ownership structure
In recent years, unionizing newsrooms has given journalism-focused media companies a bit more say over how their workplaces are run. But Defector Media is something else entirely.
The group of 18 former Deadspin employees — who quit the company after a bitter clash with management last year — have launched the company with a much more collective ownership structure. Like its predecessor, Defector Media focuses on sports and culture.
With a two thirds majority, they have the power to vote out the site's editor-in-chief — or this week's guest on the Digiday Podcast, Defector's vp of revenue and operations, Jasper Wang.
"Is it a little bit more stressful? Sure. But they're all taking a chance on each other, and they're taking a chance on me. So I gotta bet on myself, too," Wang said on the podcast.
"I think probably more executives should feel on their toes and beholden to the experiences that their employees are having."
For now, employees and shareholders are one and the same. Anyone who joins the company will have the same voting rights.
Defector also provides full transparency on how much everyone is making, which "has driven some awkward conversations. But you're just getting that out at the beginning rather than along the way," Wang said.
Beyond its unique housekeeping model, the site is betting on subscriptions. Defector, which launched just this month, had a "dare to dream" target of 30,000 paying members by the end of the year, Wang said, for which they're ahead of schedule.
Part of Wang's calculus is that Deadspin's brand resided not just in the Gawker umbrella that owned it, but in the names of its writers, most of whom are now at Defector.
By the same token that Substack is proving highly remunerative for certain journalists on staff and the Deadspin pedigree should attract subscribers who miss the old site's irreverence and coverage of both sports and politics.
"It was clear that the dedicated following would be there," Wang said.
'One beat in an ongoing movement': BET+ general manager Devin Griffin on the streamer's evolution
BET+ launched a year ago this week, making Black Entertainment Television a competitor in the increasingly crowded video streaming race.
"I think what BET means now to the younger generation is different than what it meant to me 25 years ago," Devin Griffin, the OTT service's general manager, said on the Digiday Podcast.
"At the time I was plugged into BET, there were very few images of Black people on television outside of what was happening Thursday night on NBC, and besides sports," he said.
BET helped change that when it was founded in 1980. Fast forward 40 years and market research conducted in the lead up to launching BET+ found that there's still a lot of unmet demand for stories centering on Black experiences and characters.
"Black consumers watch more long-form video content than anybody else across American society. There's a really big appetite there," Griffin, who previously worked at Netflix, said.
That isn't to say that Black viewers are the only target audience. Griffin said that non-Black viewers are tuning in, too.
BET+ is a standalone offering separate from the BET channel, though both are owned by ViacomCBS. It costs $10 a month and carries more than 2,000 hours of programming, including original programming such as "things that come from the BET 'legacy library,' things that come from VH1, TV Land, Comedy Central, other brands across the ViacomCBS family," Griffin said.
Fortune CEO Alan Murray on taking the conference business to a larger audience (and with a higher price tag)
There is a finite number of CEOs who can tune into Fortune’s CEO Initiative virtual conference. And there are only 50 leaders who can be on Fortune’s World’s 50 Greatest Leaders list. Those communities are limited.
But communities drive revenue. And there is an entire untapped grouping of emerging and aspirational leaders that Fortune has identified who can benefit from the information it has cultivated over years of conferences and coverage — and would be willing to pay to gain access.
"In the Time Inc. era, we only had the extremes of the funnel," said Fortune CEO Alan Murray. "We had all the free content, and then we had these very expensive, $15,000 executive conferences, and we had nothing in between. One year later, we have a paywall and subscription level," he said on the Digiday Podcast.
On October 5, Fortune is launching an online learning platform and community called Fortune Connect that will target mid-tier, vp and senior manager executives in a highly monetized way. The membership to Connect is priced at $2,500 per year per person, with an option for companies with 50 or more approved employees to have an enterprise discount.