Advice for building a media brand

There's no one way, but some principles apply to most

This week, I decided to go over some common pieces of advice I’ve given over the past several months talking to people building new media brands. Reminder: Audience development is always the hardest part of getting a new publication off the ground. Building from scratch has been an interesting experience. On that note, please share The Rebooting with a friend or colleague who would find it valuable.

Advice for building a media brand

The Duomo of Milan took six centuries to build. Good things take time....

Since October, I’ve spoken to lots of people building media brands, all at various stages. The most interesting conversations are with those in the earliest stages, whether that’s a newsletter or a full-blown new publication in a hot area. I do believe that new media brands will emerge from this plague year, some solo creators, others fronting commerce business or as part of smaller collectives. Every model is different, but some of the lessons from the early days apply.

Everyone needs reps. One of the more exciting aspects to the newsletter boom is new content creators flexing their writing muscles. One of the realities of writing is it takes the proverbial 10,000 hours. You simply get better at it by doing it again and again and again.

Optimize to consistency. On a recent Clubhouse I did, Polina Marinova Pompliano of The Profile counseled that consistency is everything -- and how you build trust with an audience. If you say you’re going to publish weekly, you better do it every week. And ideally send it at the same time. Randomness isn’t the way to establish a habit.

Ruts are normal. We will hear more about “creator burnout” this year. Part of that is this weird time we’re going through where therapy-speak is everywhere, and we are all sharing our trauma and triggers and toxic experiences. But the reality is we all have bad days, even bad weeks and months. As Rishad Tobaccowala once told me, “Large organizations cover up for our individual deficiencies. They let us have bad days.” The same applies to growth. I’ve never experienced straight line growth in anything, so that could be me or it could be normal that growth is jagged.

Mostly ignore competition. For the first couple years at Digiday, I didn’t read Adweek, Ad Age or other industry publications regularly, partly because I was simply overwhelmed with what needed to be done but mostly because I didn’t want to have what those places were doing affect what we were doing. There’s an old saying that if you focus on the horse ahead of you the view doesn’t change. Better to spend that energy focusing on what you’re doing.

Say no by default. This is a hard one. We all want to be liked and be friendly -- well, most of us. But our own focus is the scarcest of resources. I said no to just about every partnership request. There are times to be very open to lots of possibilities -- I’m in this mode currently -- but there are others when you’ve committed to simply focus 100% of the work of the product and business.

Look for quick wins. Lots of people want to focus on grand plans, BHAGs and vision. But the reality is everything takes a long time and a lot of work, with plenty of setbacks. Everyone loves a big splashy launch event; nobody shows up to celebrate maintenance projects. On the product side, we started a Quick Wins system to make sure we made incremental improvements to our products as a regular course. The goal was to make sure these small advancements didn’t get stuck in the queue behind the big projects that tend to get more attention. The same is true for growing a newsletter or any business.

Don’t confuse tactics for strategy. It’s normal to gravitate to tactics. And in truth, tactics are what delivers a strategy. But a series of tactics doesn’t make for a strategy. The strategy has to guide everything. I still do not believe you can growth hack your way to having a sustainable brand.

Find white spaces. One way to differentiate is to find areas that are not covered as much as they should be. There are topics that are ignored for a variety of reasons. They can be too complicated, too sensitive, too difficult or simply too “foreign” for the people who often run newsrooms.

Be biased to action. Whiteboarding will only get you so far. You need to put new things in front of your audience regularly in order to gain feedback. The rub is you can’t just randomly throw things against the wall because you’ll confuse your audience. Instead, better to have a hypothesis and prove or disprove it based on what happens.

Use your disadvantages to your advantage. If you’re one person, use that that to establish a personal tie to your audience that faceless brands cannot. Being smaller also means you can do projects others with bigger infrastructures cannot. If the established brand in the space has a $30,000 minimum for campaigns, do more for a lower cost.

Why now is the time for omnichannel advertising

We’re experiencing a set of changes in digital advertising that will mark a definitive break from how it took place in its first 25 years, argued Joanna O’Connell, principal analyst at Forrester Research and guest speaker at yesterday’s The Omnichannel Imperative virtual event, hosted by Mediaocean.

“The reality is that advertising does in fact have value, and not value just for brands,” she said. “Publishers use ad revenue to fund content creation and free and low-cost access to content. The advertising contract provides value for consumers, who can use it to get access to content.”

Here are the principles to define omnichannel advertising going forward:

  • Customer centricity. Across the broader economy the companies that understand (and respond to) customers the best are winning. Advertising needs to catch up.
  • Less data. From GDPR to CCPA to browser changes to customers making use of privacy controls, the quarter decade “Wild West” of data use in digital advertising is ending.
  • Gated communities. The open Web is giving way to a world of gated communities in which there is greater control over the consumer experience and the use of consumer data.
  • Digital identity in flux. There is no one replacement to the third-party cookie. The digital advertising ecosystem will instead need to get comfortable with several different solutions, all with upsides and downsides.

“Mastering omnichannel is not a simple thing,” O’Connell noted.  “It takes a commitment across many dimensions.”

Watch video of Joanna’s session and others from The Omnichannel Imperative here.

Other things to check out

Congrats to Web Smith for building 2PM for the past five years. He posted the highs and lows; it’s worth reading.

Substack’s latest funding round continues the newsletter craze. My hope is this funding goes toward helping writers with audience development and discovery. Without these, I don’t see many sticking around.

Axios Tampa Bay, one of the first of Axios’ local newsletters, said it crossed 50,000 subscribers in its first 10 weeks. This is a good start in a market where the top local paper claims 560,000 subscribers. As Jed Williams noted, this growth was helped by not starting from scratch: Axios had seeded the publication with 15,000 signups. Audience growth is the hardest nut to crack.