Overseas growth in both subscriptions and ad revenue is core to The New York Times’ plan to hit its target of generating $800 million in revenue by 2020.
Today, the publisher makes $500 million globally, and its international digital ad business has nearly doubled in the last two years, according to the publisher. Much of that growth has come from its in-house agency T Brand Studio, whose international division is led from London with an outpost in Hong Kong. But the Times’ subscriptions growth will be just as important for growing its ad business both domestically and overseas, according to Sebastian Tomich, the Times’ head of advertising. In 2017, the publisher grew its international digital subscriber base to 14 percent of its total 2.2 million digital subscribers, adding 100,000 international digital subscribers last year.
Digiday spoke to Tomich at Advertising Week Europe to discuss the Times’ biggest opportunities for international growth.
Here are takeaways from the conversation:
Resisting the audio commoditization trap
The Times’ most popular news podcast, “The Daily,” which is ad-supported and runs in front of the paywall, has generated more than 200 million downloads and led to a spinoff for kids that was released on voice-activated device Google Home. While Tomich is bullish on podcasts — noting they’re blissfully free of bot fraud — and the scope for expanding the Times’ international podcasts, he cautions that expansion must happen in a sustainable way.
“The challenge with the media business is that everything gets commoditized,” he said. “Once every publisher does something, media buyers start to push for how cheaply they can get it, and there will always be someone willing to offer cheaper. I see that happening next with audio.” That’s why the Times won’t be “tripling down” on audio; instead, it will resist the urge to launch more podcasts as a way to merely grab more short-term ad revenue and capitalize on advertiser demand. “We’ll focus on doing fewer [podcasts], in a way only we can do them,” he added.
Becoming an insights engine
For Tomich, the beacon of hope for publishers lies in the one area he doesn’t believe can be commoditized: audience data and insights. As such, that’s where much of the Times’ focus is: using audience data in new ways to enrich ad targeting and inform custom product building on behalf of clients. In February, the publisher launched Demo, a team comprising experts from across its data, product and design, technology and advertising divisions. This team is tasked with using insights from the behaviors and preferences of the publisher’s audience to shape new products for advertisers, as well as targeting capabilities. The team is U.S.-based, but the plan is to offer the same data insights to advertisers internationally.
“For all the attention given to new innovations like augmented reality and virtual reality, if I had to bet on one thing, it would be on data and targeting,” Tomich said. Focusing on this outside the U.S. is critical, given the differences in expectations among U.S. advertisers versus those in Europe, according to Tomich.
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“In the U.S., there’s a rush to the new, whether it’s AR, VR or XR [X reality], but people’s habits aren’t changing quite as fast as that,” he added. “In Europe, the focus is much more on audience targeting still. Yes, marketers want to talk about the new things, but everything leads back to the customer and the outcome. So, the U.S. market pushes us into more innovative forms of advertising, and international drives us to focus on the performance of the media.”
Not trying to own local news coverage
Despite the Times’ 2.2 million global digital subscriptions, scaling ad revenue is tough internationally for a paywalled publisher. While globally respected as a news brand, local market media buyers haven’t always found a reason to drop other domestic players with more local scale in favor of the Times. However, with last year’s heightened concerns around brand safety and the realization among publishers that the “vicious cycle” of chasing scale was over, publishers that can offer fewer, deeper connections with audiences are now far more powerful.
The publisher has positioned itself as a news brand that focuses on internationally relevant stories as a way to differentiate its editorial coverage from local market publishers overseas. “We will not go into local markets and try and compete with local news, or go in on any one vertical like business and finance,” Tomich said. “We want to have a global perspective that connects people. Stories on populism, on the role of gender and identity, for instance — these are all global stories.”
To support that commercially, Tomich plans to try and replicate in Europe its strongest U.S. advertising categories. The only crossover is luxury, where the publisher is already strong in terms of ad revenue in Europe, according to Tomich. This year, the focus will be pushing more into the other categories where it’s strong domestically: automotive, technology, business and finance.