Getting out of your comfort zone

Brands need to expand beyond what they're best at doing

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I decided to take the plunge and host The Rebooting’s first Clubhouse room. Join me, former president of The Hustle Adam Ryan and former Digiday Media managing director of editorial product Shareen Pathak on Thursday, March 25, at 4pmET for a discussion on adapting the traditional church and state division between the editorial and sales teams. This week, I wrote about the need to get out of comfort zones and the neverending Substack debate. As always, please consider forwarding this newsletter along to those who might find it valuable -- and reach out with any feedback.

Comfort zones

One of the big balancing acts for people and organizations is this: How do you embrace focus and going narrow and deep while also not getting stuck in your comfort zone? Most of us fairly early on in our careers determine we are neither Michelangelo nor Elon Musk. That means making the most of what we have, narrowing in on what we’re best at and, ideally, mastering it. And yet we all know people who never evolved. They seem stuck in a different era. They’re in their comfort zones.

As a reporter, I worried I’d be a commodity to be replaced by someone younger and cheaper. So I tried to evolve. I hated public speaking, but I said yes to every moderating offer. I volunteered to blog when many of my colleagues were hung up on how they were “magazine writers.” I figured out editing, tried podcasting, and recognized video wasn’t a great fit for me. In launching new brands, I got comfortable with having editorial teams focused on completely new areas like fashion, beauty and commerce.

This same dynamic plays out in companies. When an organization masters something, whether it’s newsletters or events or breaking news, it develops a comfort zone in doing that. At Digiday, our DNA was as an events company. The company executed hundreds of events. Doing an event was like brushing teeth. But staying in that comfort zone would be a mistake. It’s why we built an editorial function, expanded from newsletters and a site into podcasting and even a magazine. All that made it actually more difficult to execute on what our core capability was. To some degree, it would seem to fly in the face of the mantra to focus.

Yet discomfort is where growth takes place. Launching a magazine was an idea hatched as a lark. Figuring out how to do it, and on a comparable level, was incredibly hard. I don’t think we ever got truly great at it -- the skills were different, but the bigger issue was the workflow ran contrary to what we’d built up to do our core products -- but the act of moving beyond what we had a lot of practice doing was vitally important to the brand.

Some brands don’t get there. They remain good at what they were always good at, no more and no less. But the most impressive brands show that they can master new areas and get outside of their comfort zones. If they succeed, they’re far stronger because of it. Some examples.

Barstool Sports moving from a written blogs to a podcast and video network. The brand was very good at blogging and easily could have stayed in that lane. Instead it built a powerful multimedia brand.

Business Insider shifting from aggregation to original content. I remember being on vacation reading Nich Carlson’s long opus about Marissa Mayer. It struck me then that BI was making the move outsize of aggregation to become a full-fledged media brand with original reporting at its core.

Complex Networks making several pivots, from magazine to ad network to dot-com to a franchises model. Complex has continued to evolve and never stayed in one place.

We will see the same process repeated with the newest media brands. What today are newsletters will expand and grow beyond what they’re currently doing. This isn’t to say people or brands should try to do it all, only that to grow, you need to master new skills.

Overthinking Substack

For a newsletter platform, Substack has a lot of drama. That says a lot about the current state of media and the endless meta criticism engulfing it. After all, I am pretty sure more people have read about Teen Vogue in the past month than actually read Teen Vogue.

Substack has been swept up in the media maelstrom, with its advance practices policed and progressive credentials checked and rechecked. It’s a lot for what is a basic publishing technology tool, basically an email authoring tool with some built-in ways to bill readers. But this is media, which means every tech tool must face the is-it-a-publisher crucible. And of course, Substack is not, it’s a publishing tool. The best commentary on this comes from newsletter demi-god Ben Thompson, who points that Substack Pro is an advance system that ends up not a very good deal with the most popular Substack writers. Most shouldn’t have taken the advance, but journalists are risk averse so an advance provides some measure of assurance.

The bigger question for Substack is whether it can build a middle class. The most popular Substack writers will inevitably defect from the platform. The 10% cut Substack takes is simply too much for the basic services it provides to writers. Rival platforms keep popping up that offer a similar to superior set of tools with lower fees -- and without the weird aspects like the inability to support any business model that isn’t subscriptions. I’d argue Substack should point Pro to creating this middle class rather than subsidize angsty stars who would find success no matter what. Advances can help a new group take the leap.

Meanwhile, The New York Times is issuing new rules for reporters publishing their own newsletters. Basically, the Times doesn’t want reporters to have personal newsletters, paid or free. This is part of an ongoing reset of the relationship between media companies and their staffers. The Times is a unique institution. It can afford to issue such hard-and-fast rules -- reporters are to discuss the matter with a supervisor for an exemption -- while other publishers will tread more lightly. Having a newsletter on the side is the 2021 version of the Go To Hell fund we were encouraged to build up in journalism school. The idea is those savings allow a journalist to quit if forced by their employer to do something unethical. Having a newsletter list is probably more valuable long term.

To me, these are skirmishes as the media business recalibrates the power dynamics between the institution and those creating value as journalists and content creators. The pendulum is swinging to the latter group, but the former will make sure it doesn’t go too far. After all, the value of The New York Times or Washington Post as an imprimatur is consequential -- as is the reputation risk these brands have if their employees take their moonlighting into problematic areas, as seen with NYT columnist’s David Brooks taking cash from Facebook through his ties to an Aspen Institute project.

Every publication will figure out where the balance lies, although the NYT is on the extreme end as far as the brand halo it gives individuals. It’s quite common to have restrictions on outside work. If you draw a paycheck and benefits, the reasonable expectation employers will insist is that you devote your professional energies to your job. That said, the line is fuzzy. After all, Twitter opened many journalists’ eyes to the power of amassing individual distribution outside their employer. While The Times is likely OK with Maggie Haberman’s tweets, it would likely not be crazy about a weekly Maggie Haberman Substack.

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.

Rethinking the church and state paradigm

At the old Digiday offices, we were literally split in half. Upon entering our offices on the 9th floor of One Liberty Plaza, you would turn left and end up in “editorial” and right to end in “sales.” This was very old school, and a change from our loft-like offices where we were all, more or less, in the same open room. And of course, it was a misnomer.

The “editorial side” was actually editorial, multimedia, memberships, design, events programming and product. We had reporters sitting there but also customer service people. The “business side” included marketing and events operations. And thanks to subscriptions, a substantial portion of “business” took place on what was called the “editorial side.”

Needless to say, the church and state divide needs to be rethought. I found over my career the divide to be not as extreme. Journalists are more attuned to the realities of the business than ever before. Reporters and editors I would interview would ask questions about the business in ways I wouldn’t have early in my career. We weren’t creating art. We discussed numbers -- not just audience but revenue -- and that’s because it was a business. I never liked the idea of there being two sides. To me, there was one team, only with different players who played different positions.

As the product of many media companies moves from being the audience to the actual content, we’ll see a further shifting of this already outdated paradigm. Adam Ryan, the former president of The Hustle, is joining me on Clubhouse I’m hosting to discuss a more productive way to think of the age-old edit-sales divide. We’ll be joined by Shareen Pathak, my former colleague who as our managing director of editorial products served as the needed bridge between sides. We’re going to have the discussion at 4pmET tomorrow, Thursday. Please join us.

Other things to check out

The measurement conundrum for journalism continues. As I wrote last week, any system that blindly follows metrics is obviously flawed, but the kneejerk reaction against all forms of measurement is equally misguided. Fortune is in the midst of its own fight over what to measure. The biggest issue would seem that article counts and pageviews are poor metrics to guide a strategy of building a premium brand.

Elizabeth Spiers has the best take on the Teen Vogue meltdown. This was a staff revolt because management didn’t sufficiently consult them when bringing in an editor with an extremely thin resume for the job. I’ve been at a publication when an editor was installed that didn’t have the confidence of the staff. Back then, we just swallowed it; times change.