Betsy L. Morgan is an Executive in Residence with LionTree, an advisory firm focused on technology, media and telecommunications. She is the former President and CEO of TheBlaze and was the first CEO of The Huffington Post. She is on the board of Chartbeat, CommerceHub, Trusted Media Brands and TheStreet.
Keith: Let’s start with the first question, which is the obvious. What is the problem with making money with content?
Betsy: Keith, you ask that question like it’s a bad thing!
Keith: No, no. Why is it hard? Why is it a question? What’s hard about making money with content?
Betsy: First of all, making consistent, quality, authentic-to-the-audience content over a sustained period of time is hard. You need to be disciplined and you need to stay on task. These days, it’s easy for content creators to get distracted in pursuit of a viral hit.
If you cannot keep a user, listener or viewer engaged and entertained thru the length of a series, a show, or a season you have greatly diminished your ability to generate a returning audience and monetize that content at a premium price.
Keeping the attention of an audience is hard. This has never been more true than in today’s highly mobile, highly perishable world, where technology trains and rewards people to consume quickly and move on to the next hit. Unfortunately, as consumers we are all consuming lots of empty, content calories.
The insatiable appetite for content leads creators to increasingly focus on producing the most eye-catching and attention-popping short-form content. And, that often comes at the expense of storytelling.
Virality may be a hot buzzword, but virality has a hard time making consistent money. So, if you are a creator, slow down!… Tell your stories well and consistently and with great thought to your audience.
Keith: What does consistent mean?
Betsy: “Consistent” in this context means familiar, unchanging in nature, in tune with….an audience. Here’s how I would explain it: you should be able to experience a series of content in any form (audio, text, video) and feel like it fits together. If I listen to the first episode of the podcast ‘CrimeTown’ from Gimlet or the last episode, I expect to hear the same narrators, the same music in the opening scene, the story told at the same pace. Increasingly, when digital creators are spending their energy on inventive ideas for one-off viral content, they are unable to sustain that invention on the next piece of content. They lose consistency of voice. My favorite example of sustainable, consistent content is CBS News’s 60 Minutes. That show has stayed on the TV schedule for nearly 50 years in part because of the discipline and rigor of its storytelling. It is subtle to the viewer, but the composition of a 10 to 15 minute 60 Minutes piece is constructed in a very similar and familiar way. It takes incredible discipline to make over 100 original stories a year in the same manner.
Keith: Isn’t that what we used to call “brand”?
Betsy: 60 Minutes is certainly a brand. You certainly can’t build a brand without consistency of voice. In a marketplace of infinite content, consumers seek brands that resonate with who they are, their sensibilities, their values and beliefs.
Keith: Why is consistent, repeatable, content monetizable in ways that quick hits are not?
Betsy: If you are rigorous about creating consistent content and you have an audience authentically interested in that content. you are on your way to creating, a community, a TRIBE. Advertisers want to reach tribes.
And, beyond monetizing great content through advertising, you also have the opportunity to connect to customers with a direct offering whether it be selling them a ticket to an event or a subscription service or a product.
Keith: What is the balance between targeting an audience and cultivating an audience and scale?
Betsy: Of course, gaining scale with an audience is essential. Advertisers are less interested in a tribe of 5 or 10 people. Advertisers are interested in specific audiences. Sometimes an advertiser is geographically motivated, sometimes they are interested in demographics. Think of the success of Facebook and Google at delivering specific audiences (people who own cats! people who are traveling to San Diego!) and delivering them at scale.
Keith: Who do you think is doing that well?
Betsy: In the content/IP world? What is interesting is that both traditional media brands and digital native media brands are doing well at cultivating their tribes. The brand Garden & Gun is primarily a print magazine that has done an exceptional job at delivering great content and great advertising to its readers. The advertising in their magazine is as compelling and interesting as its content pages. For the reader, every page of the magazine holds together seamlessly.
In the digital native world, there are any number of lifestyle blogs that speak specifically and consistently to specific audiences. One brand I love is Apartment Therapy, a website for people living in apartments and limited in their home space. They are a brand that super-serves its audience with consistent content.
Keith: If I hear what you’re saying correctly, it sounds like nowhere in your thoughts are the big scale players, the portals…
Betsy: The older portals are challenged for sure (brands like Yahoo! and Aol) though they still amass large audiences built in earlier days. What’s interesting about the older portals is they are building tribes under their bigger umbrellas. TechCrunch and The Huffington Post and Makers are all brands under the Aol umbrella. Each of these brands has a distinctive voice.
Keith: Let’s talk about where the money is, and then I’ll let you go. Marketers: There is sort of an easy to buy aspect that seems to be segmenting the marketers in terms of where they’ll spend their money. It is just easier to buy Facebook and Google because of all the scales there. It is harder to find these smaller, yet highly relevant, highly engaging brands. What do you think that means for those content players who are getting it right on content? How should they approach the money side?
Betsy: For years and years, the largest marketers have sprayed their messages across mass number of eyeballs, geographically and demographically. Television did and does that beautifully (big sporting and entertainment events like the Oscars and Superbowl). And the web does that beautifully too in the form of Google, Facebook and also a diverse offering of programmatic ad buying. But, marketers have found value in mixing those broad based advertising spends with advertising dedicated to content sites as well. Of particular importance are content sites with passionate, influencer audiences who are likely to spread the word on their own about a new product or a new movie.
Keith: What about business models? You advise companies that have mixed business models. What’s your advice for up and coming content brands about revenue diversity?
Betsy: It will always be hard to compete with the giants that deliver scale and targeted audiences. But, not everything is perfect in the world of Google and Facebook ad-buying. Marketers complain about value, quality, and responsiveness to their advertising on the biggest sites. Marketers are thrilled when they can measure ROI against advertising money spent. If you align the right message / product with the right audience, you’ll get people to take action right at that moment.
Keith: Okay. Of the many companies you advise, I’m thinking about The Skimm, I’m thinking about Barstool Sports, and so forth, would you cite them as examples of businesses that people should follow in that regard.
Betsy: Absolutely. There are many things similar about these two businesses, even though at first they seem quite different. TheSkimm’s readers are primarily, but not exclusively women. Barstool Sports attracts male sports fans many from the Boston sports area. Each company has found and cultivated their tribes by creating consistent, high-quality content. Their audiences are loyal and excited to see them each and every day: excited to open an email, read a tweet, watch a show. In both cases, everyday, with consistency, these brands show up to serve their audiences with timely and fun content specific to their interests.