In the early days of the dot-com revolution, traditional media companies moved online. In retrospect, the move was a straightforward one as it tapped into a new revenue stream and was not, at the time, a hyper-competitive space. The internet was very much a one-screen experience, with portals like AOL, Yahoo and MSN driving a lot of unique visits to publishers.
But the barriers to competition have come down significantly. Factors like cost and the FCC have been all but alleviated and new, disruptive publishers are emerging regularly and chipping away at the readership of the incumbents. Speaking at the Digital Publishing Innovation Summit this July, Jonathan Meyers, SVP of Strategy and Operations at CNBC, discussed how the television network built a sustainable audience growth strategy without diluting the core brand.
Meyer is a modern SVP in every sense - ‘data has to rule everything’ - and he is acutely aware of the pitfalls in building a digital audience. One of the key tenets of Meyer’s presentation was that audience growth needs to be achieved in the right way. Indeed, to ‘blindly chase scale’ is tempting for new brands or sub-brands, and plenty of publishers will snatch at audiences for short term gain. Meyer gave the audience insight into CNBC’s policy on audience growth, and discussed the things to avoid to ensure sustainability in the long term.
First, publishers should avoid commoditized content. Search any breaking news on Twitter or other social media and you’ll see the same article essentially repurposed, often with the same headline or the same image. It can be tempting to push out 24/7, immediate breaking news; it will grow an audience in the short term. Unless you have the resources to put out quality content at speed, though, you’ll find yourself among the indistinguishable rabble, which will negatively impact your brand.
The elusive viral hit is, also, something of a poisoned chalice. In a reference to Buzzfeed’s Facebook Live experiment in which two employees strapped rubber bands to a watermelon until it burst, Meyer explained that CNBC are not in the business of ‘exploding watermelons,’ a stunt that’s become seen as a marker of the lack of real value in some viral content. But Meyer insists that the argument here all comes down to tone. If frivolous viral content is your brand, then pursue it - Buzzfeed’s content spans from serious, engaged editorial work to entertainment and it’s a model that works well. But, if your brand is built on the notion of quality, intelligent content then ‘contorting your brand to win viral audience is not going to bring you new audience long term, it’s going to distract your core audience from what your brand mandate is.’
One of the key things to remember is to focus on your strengths. Meyer explains how CNBC identified their key strength to be in finance - which is then broken up into content for different groups, from personal savers to professional investors. The company does make content for multiple different channels, but this content is and always should be, native. This doesn’t mean your company has to create a plethora of different versions of the same story or content to fit different sites and demographics, but putting something that works on your site on Instagram won’t necessarily work.
And with these essentials in mind, Meyer identifies the three integral facets in creating scale. Companies should build recognisable brands (and sub-brands) to grow reach, pursue disciplined programming to grow consumption of content and invest in sustainable growth to grow loyalty and aid monetization. Tone is essential to sustainability - it is better to offer something valuable to few than offering nothing to many. A honed tone grows loyalty, and is how you turn unique visits into regular engagement long term. CNBC positioned itself as an authority on all things finance, and reach 50 million digital monthly users as a result.
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