Building brands and effective organizations means obsessing about details

This week marks a first: TRB is carrying its first sponsor. You’ll see a sponsor message from Mediaocean over the next few weeks. My hope is to make sponsor messages worthwhile and from companies doing interesting things. Please let me know your thoughts. So, before we get to my ode to consistency, here’s a quick message from Mediaocean.

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Consistency > flashes of brilliance

In early Digiday, we switched email service providers to Sailthru, at the time a hot new ESP with new features. One that got buzz: horizon time, allowing a publisher to set a window during which an algorithm would determine the best time to send to individual users based on their habits. But I declined to use it, instead opting to continue sending our daily email at the same time, every day, betting on consistency over optimization.

Consistency is underrated. That’s because consistency is often confused with boring repetition. After all, we hear constantly of “thinking outside the box” and how we must “move fast and break things.” We are trained to focus on hits and flashes of brilliance vs consistent, quality execution. Consistency -- in design, writing, processes, etc -- conveys both a respect for your audience/community but also a humility most brands need in understanding that for most people the world does not revolve around their brands.

Building consistency externally, I found, meant first building consistency internally in our own way of operating. I drew a lot on the lessons of decades of running, including training for marathons and ultramarathons. Many non-runners can’t wrap their heads around running 50-odd miles over 10-plus hours. How? The boring answer: training.

  1. You get better at running by running. Volume matters. To run far, you need to consistently run.
  2. Successful training is really about developing habits. Running needs to become like brushing your teeth. It’s just something you do.
  3. Appreciate the training process rather than simply the goal race.
  4. Adapt your plan when things go wrong with injuries, weather, life.
  5. Incremental improvement is how you progress, and it takes longer than you would imagine.

Consistency ties all that together. The publishing brands I admire the most -- The Economist, Axios, The Financial Times -- are remarkably consistent across all aspects of their products, whether magazines, newsletters, podcasts or video. Being consistent as an individual is hard -- we have good days and bad days -- but it’s infinitely more complex across organizations. Here’s what I found critical:

Set cornerstone habits. Organizations need habits. We wanted to build the habit of dependability, which meant taking seriously being on time and, less successfully, hitting deadlines. Dependability is the greatest ability.

Reward consistency in the work process vs outcomes. We tend to overrate outcomes and gloss over the process that led to them. You can have a good outcome with a flawed process and vice versa. Focusing on consistency in the process is better in the long run since results will inevitably have variability.

Hire for dependability. Producing a great piece and then disappearing for weeks won’t cut it. Going narrow and deep and mastering an area like advertising technology or connected TV requires a different mindset than that of the reporter wanting to win Cool Kid of Twitter.

Embrace details. Big ideas and strategy are only steps in achieving results. The details matter, so build a culture that obsesses over details, whether that’s properly aligned banner ad or events run on time.

Rely on playbooks. Home cooking is about tweaking and going by feel. That’s what makes it fun. In the kitchen, it’s about recipes to ensure consistent quality.

The subs slump is coming

A publishing executive sent in some good feedback to last week’s newsletter, and they have given me permission to excerpt it here. Please send in thoughts (and whether you’re OK with me including them in future issues).

I personally think the publishing world is way over their skis on subscriptions right now and there will be a painful reckoning there. I feel like a lot of the enthusiasm comes from a backlash towards a tough ad market over the last few years, but I think the truth is that consumers will be way harder to manage as customers than advertisers. Once a consumer decides to cancel a subscription they are probably gone forever (or until the publisher does something radically different). If an advertiser doesn't run with you for a quarter or two, there is a fairly good chance they come back at some point in the future as long as you are still doing a good job with the property. They will change CMOs or agencies or something and decide to take a fresh look at you. I don't see that happening with consumers and subscriptions. Churn is the key metric to watch with all of these subscription/SAAS businesses and my guess is that number is going to grow quickly in the near future and create some real crises. I heard a good analysis recently that pointed out that if you 'only' churn 8% of your subs a month, you will basically turn over your entire sub base in a year (8 * 12 = 96%). And then where do you go get new ones? How much TAM is there out there for you? Maybe not as much as you think. And is there a chance to win these people back? Probably not right away. I understand that the CFOs/Investors/finance guys love these SAAS/subscription businesses, but I get the sense they don't follow their churn rates closely and understand the implications.

The era of the moderator

My career as a moderator stretches back an infamous Silicon Alley Breakfast session in the basement of a Chinese restaurant in downtown Manhattan in the early 2000s. (Pat Keane, Action Networks CEO, can back me up on this one.) Since then, I’ve been a moderator hundreds of times. It’s a role I didn’t initially embrace since I don’t enjoy public speaking, like most non-psychopaths, but I knew it would be good for my career in the long run. And it was.

The role of moderator is, for the most part, thankless. I always compared it to the holder on extra points: You only mention the holder when he screws up. (This is why star quarterbacks since Tony Romo’s disastrous fumble in the 2007 playoffs give the holder duties to the backup or the punter. No upside.) For the most part, the moderator is there to put others in positions to succeed. As once poignantly said to me by my podcast producer, “You are not the value proposition.”)

Perhaps selfishly, I think the role of the moderator is finally getting its due. Imagine the shit show Clubhouse would be without moderators. Niche media is premised on putting brands at the center of communities. That is accomplished through good moderating. The keys:

Be prepared. The prerequisite to good moderating is knowing the subject matter, participants and what the audience will find valuable.

Be present. There is nothing worse than a moderator working through a list of prepared questions and clearly not listening to the answers and going from there. This is jazz, not classical music.

Be politely fair. Interrupting people is rude, but you a moderator needs to enforce good behavior. That means cutting off the mansplainers without being an asshole about it.

Be focused on the audience. Be assured that most group discussions suck. The bar is very low. Make sure the audience takes away at least a few things that will help them.

Be yourself. If you like to tell jokes, tell them. It’s fine to be nervous -- it means you take it seriously and only the lazy don’t get nervous -- but put that aside in order to have your personality come through.

Bonus: Among her many duties, Shareen Pathak oversaw our events programming group, and she was our best moderator and host of events. Here’s her tip for those new to moderating:

A moderator doesn't work for the panel or the speakers. They work for the audience. The best moderators are ones who are able to catch people out when they're obviously not telling the truth. So when a panelist or speaker claims they "always knew AI was going to be a bust," asking why then, their company spent a million dollars on AI (as long as you know it did) is the kind of difficult question moderators rarely ask because they don't want to come off as rude, or catch people in a lie. Go for it and ask the difficult question. And if you do it in a smart, friendly way, they won't even hate you (much) for it. My second tip is for those who may like to indulge in wearing a dress: Always ask if you'll be seated, and if so, on what kind of chair. Knowing the physical set up is the first step to preparation

Things to check out

On Friday at noonEST, I’m taking part in a group discussion at the Newmark School of Journalism’s Redefining Entrepreneurship event. The event is free -- sign up here.

Digiday alum Ross Benes has published his second book, “Rural Rebellion,” which chronicles how Nebraska went from Midwestern mild politics to red meat conservatism. Check it out.

Interesting job: LinkedIn (?!) is amping up its service for creators and has established a new role of “head of community.” LinkedIn EIC Dan Roth explains the role.

On the running theme, I did a presentation a few years back about why you should run an ultramarathon.

If you made it this far, thanks. Please consider sharing The Rebooting with a friend or colleague who would find it valuable. Also, thanks again to Mediaocean for the support.