Building sustainable media brands take time
This week, I wrote about how growing a new publishing brand is different now. Perhaps it’s just preference, but I’m not a big believer in the aggro marketing tactics that have too often come ahead of the quality of the actual product. Seems like putting the cart before the horse. Instead, I’d rather focus on creating something worthwhile for all 7,000 of you who get this newsletter. Along those lines, if you find The Rebooting valuable, please share it with a colleague, friend, family member, even enemy. If you’re interested in sponsoring The Rebooting, check out the sales kit and get in touch: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Back in 2007, at what would come to be the height of the media business before the fall, Condé Nast launched an ambitious new glossy business title that would give the titans of industry the glam treatment usually afforded movie stars and musicians. Two years and $100 million later, Portfolio was gone. It lasted barely longer than the time spent planning the launch.
Of course, Portfolio belongs in a media time capsule, the last gasp of the kinds of big bets expected by publishers like Conde Nast. With 85 employees at the time of it closure and a penchant for spendthrift ways like paying $30,000 to rent an elephant for a photo shoot, Portfolio was part of the “go big or go home” methods of launching new publishing brands, a bookend to an period that arguably kicked off with the Talk magazine launch in 1999; it ended up burning through an estimated $70 million in two years.
Starting a new publishing brand now is obviously a far different proposition. There are still those pursuing a go big or go home strategy. Semafor is looking to raise up to $30 million for its global news brand and plan to lose $50 million before breaking even. But for the most part, the venture capital-fueled era of big-scale launches are out. The slow burn of organic growth rather than splashy launches are now preferred. Nobody wants to be the next Quibi. It took Barstool 13 years to get to 5 million users.
Building sustainable media brands takes time. The pageview era gave us many brands that racked up big numbers but were hollow. Nobody needed them. The shift to niche media, to what I like to call primary-engagement media, means a new launch playbook is needed that can get publications sustainably profitable very quickly with a lean media approach. And it needs to rely far more on the strength of the content itself to drive organic growth as opposed to the types of distribution tactics – SEO, social, buying email lists, running ads, offering people coffee mugs for referrals – that would be prioritized in pageview media.
Just as generals tend to fight the last war, so too do media operators. I’ve noticed a divide between those on the marketing and sales sides – even if they want to call themselves “product people” – and those on the editorial side. Intuitively, most writers know that the biggest long-term growth lever is improving the quality of the content. There are innumerable newsletter outfits angling to become “the next Morning Brew.” That means copying their playbook that leaned not just on email but also on turbocharging distribution through smart use of referrals and use of Facebook, Instagram and other ad platforms.
Morning Brew is a remarkable success story, made possible by a good idea (business news for young people), great execution and perfect timing (cheap ads, less focus on email). The thing about most breakout hits is they’re unique and largely dependent on the circumstances. Trying to reverse engineer the next Morning Brew is a fool’s errand. Raising money to buy lists and then buy ads to build those lists is a shortcut.
The most powerful new group of publishing brands will be built around people, focused on direct connections and not pageviews, and increasingly community driven. (Morning Brew itself is building a roster of business-focused creators.) You don’t have to be a web3 evangelist to see the possibilities for brands to have community-driven growth mechanisms that are driven first and foremost on the connection the community has to each other and therefore the brand. You can’t buy that through targeted ads, running giveaways and contests, and mining Wikipedia for yet another mindless thread.
In next week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, I spoke with Cherie Hu, founder of Water and Music, a brand at the intersection of music, business and technology. Water and Music was born in large part by both happenstance and Cherie reading signals from the music community that there was a need that fit what her passion is. This more organic approach is the way to create truly valuable brands instead of the genetically modified brands of the past. Troy Young has mapped this out in a far more structured way: Publishing brands will start with community and talent, not distribution.
There are many ways to build publishing businesses, and I don’t pretend to be expert in growth hacking. My experience is that growth takes twice as long as you think and is twice as hard. The biggest advantage you can give yourself is to devote as much of your energy, resources and focus to the actual content itself rather than the sugar high of piling up big follower and subscriber numbers that are likely more quantity than quality. The old publishing playbook was to have enough wheat to allow for plausible deniability that most of the bushel is chaff.
In the long run, there is a big difference between building an email list organically and buying a bunch of distribution through ads. It takes at least a year, usually two, for a publication to find its legs. I never try to pass judgment until year two because it simply takes time for publications to sort out what exactly they are. Few come out of the gates as fully formed products. It’s similar to watching the first season of Seinfeld and see the show trying to figure itself out. Buying growth risks covering up weaknesses in the product you’d otherwise fix. You simply cannot growth hack your way to quality.
I’m not the first to say this, but Morning Brew could end up being Business Insider’s Instagram acquisition. Timing is everything, and Insider’s Tk acquisition came at the right time as Morning Brew was ready to scale.
Podcasting as an ad medium defies conventional thinking. It’s very hand crafted for the most part, barely targeted, poor analytics and reliant on hacks like discount codes to understand effectiveness. Yet podcast ads are commanding CPMs far in excess of display ads and on par with streaming ads. The reason is podcasts are more personal and a prime example of primary engagement media.
Sick of doomscrolling on Twitter? Mediagazer is a good alternative to keep up with all the media news you need. I rely on it daily – and one of my goals for this year is to get The Rebooting on the Mediagazer Leaderboard. (Sponsored)
Axios covered how Ukrayinska Pravda is staying afloat thanks to the help of programmatic ad tech that allows UP to monetize foreign audiences. Consider donating money to fundraising efforts to allow independent media in Ukraine to survive.
A good sign of the reaction against algorithmic feed media is the rise of “finishable” news products. The Financial Times’ new FT Edit app, similar to The Economist’s Espresso app, is updated once a day with only eight articles, priced far lower than the heft full subscription packages it offers and aimed at the FT’s social audience that has more loose ties to the brand.
Spoke with Launch Angle’s Keith Hernandez about building The Rebooting and what I hope to accomplish with it.
I’m heading to London next month to speak at the PPA Festival on May 19. Looking forward to getting back to London for the first time since Covid started. Shoot me a note if you’re around and would like to meet up: email@example.com.
Thanks again for reading. Please hit reply and tell me a publisher you see building a sustainable business and why they impress you.
Really enjoyed this issue - felt very wholesome in a way I can't quite define. Good insights.
Appreciate this commentary, Brian - it's a hard row to hoe for some and only works in certain categories, but for so many, I think it's right to ensure you're hitting the market with a clear, focused proposition before chasing pure scale.