Putting audience first

Aligning interests matters

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Putting audience first

The unwinding of a large swathe of the previous era of digital publishing – the cuts will continue until margins improve – obscures a shift already underway that will guide the retooled survivors and the new players that inevitably emerge as markets change. The "sprouts of hope" in publishing are all focused on specific audience segments.

Publishing is a strange business because embedded within it is the contradictory needs to satisfy the needs of an audience and customers that are usually different. Add to that the need to cater to the algorithmic gods that determine distribution, and you have a messy business. It’s no surprise that the billionaire tech geniuses are regularly humbled when they swagger into the media business, only to find it is the perfect way to make a massive fortune smaller. 

The essential challenge is aligning interests. The travails at many publishers speak to that misalignment, and rarely do these publishers fail because they focused too much on the audience. I used to say you could see internal dysfunction at publishers based on how complicated their navigation was. The sub-nave to a sub-nav speaks to nobody having the juice to make a call. Now it’s the baffling Battle of the Overlays on pages, where the audience sits helplessly as various departments duel with come-ons to sign up for a newsletter, turn on notifications, take a subscription, accept cookies, attend an event and so on.

It seems fairly obvious that a safe bet to make is to focus first and foremost on audience needs and work backwards. The catch is it’s incredibly difficult to pull off in many categories. It involves making tradeoffs like any decision.

What does an audience-first publishing business look like?

Be somewhere people go rather than wind up. Models dependent on traffic are difficult to reform. There’s a tension between operating the old business – getting people to webpages to make money off ads around and often covering content – and building a new business focused on specific audiences. This is what the pivot to niche is about. The shift to controllable distribution through newsletters and podcasts, the probably misbegotten hopes to revive the homepage habit, pining for RSS to stave off the enshittification and excitement on unscalable plays like events all speak to this. The catch: The humbers will be smaller, and that’s more than an ego hit in an opaque market where many brands traded on the size of audiences that were mostly engineered through random traffic.

Realize that business model is destiny. The New York Times is singularly overrated as a case study for the path forward. It has been the shining success case for years now, and i’ve noticed that pretty much nobody has managed to reverse engineer its success. That said, there are clear lessons in how it took the leap in decisively shifting its business model to be a focused squarely on audience – and a smaller one of mostly urban progressives – and building a suite of products geared  for various segments. It has sacrificed breadth for depth.

Have the right capital structure. Vice’s descent into bankruptcy was paved with an unwieldy and impossible corporate structure. The flowchart of its various entities and sub-entities was reminiscent of WeWork and FTX. The new crop of publishing businesses that are fitfully emerging will have cleaner structures, owned by a person making the product or a group of people directly involved in the business. The most successful publishing enterprises I’ve seen have been built that way, taking just enough capital as needed, to get to whatever constitutes escape velocity in a smallish industry. Private equity is often painted with too broad of a brush. A notable success case like Industry Dive was mostly bootstrapped until a PE deal fueled its growth to a big exit. But the demise of Deadspin validates the decision of its staff to leave behind the PE-backed G/O Media and set off on their own with Defector, which is growing and profitable. 404 media, founded by Vice-owned Motherboard veterans,  is unlikely to repeat the mistakes of where they left.

Talk to the audience. If legacy media relied too much on gut and instinct, digital media has swung the pendulum too far in the direction of optimization. The inevitable result is busineses run around dashboards. This becomes needed at a certain scale, but one of the best parts of the pivot to events is that it is a forcing function to come in close contact with your real audience. Talking to the people you’re making things for will uncover insights into their needs that you will not torture out of Excel spreadsheets, Google Analytics or QuickBooks. Listening to the market doesn’t mean blindly following whatever someone told you on the train. But listen enough and patterns emerge that I don’t believe you can get by just poring over data.

Skip the shortcuts. The last era of consumer media was marked by a series of growth hacks in order to secure distribution, whether that was SEO or distributed media tactics on Facebook. Intentional audiences and habits are far more durable. The tradeoff – and there is always a tradeoff, and anybody who says there isn’t is a passive-income grifter who will likely try to sell you some kind of online course – is it will take a lot longer than you expect or would like. 

On this week’s episode of The Rebooting Show, I discuss audience-first publishing strategies with Matt Cronin, a  founding partner at House of Kaizen, a consultancy that works with publishers and other companies on recurring revenue growth.

House of Kaizen, which is a sponsoring partner of The Rebooting, uses research-backed experiments to foster audience-first engagement. This allows clients to turn total reader revenue into cumulative gains.

We discuss how publishers can become truly audience centric – you need to make them customers, I believe – and what publishers can learn from other consumer companies and more. Listen on Apple | Spotify 

Check out House of Kaizen and how they work with publishers to ignite sustainable growth