Media’s new revenue play: Sell software to other media companies

Publishers are increasingly beginning to act more like digital product companies that sell services to clients rather than advertising to brands.

In early August, The Information reported that Axios plans to sell the newsletter technology that powers the core of its product. Back in June, The Alpha Group, an incubator that develops digital products inside Advance Local, hired its first head of audience growth to drum up new business for Project Text, a service that enables reporters to text stories directly to opted-in readers. The following month, The Washington Post rolled out Pagebuilder Themes, a lighter version of its content management system that enables a client to get a new website up and running in less than a month, part of a flood of product updates the Post has brought to market.

But just as the pivot to consumer revenue came with tech and talent headaches, selling software, particularly to a competitor, is tricky. It is a slow-going process that can take months, one that requires highly specialized salespeople. And as the products gain traction in the market, customer demands introduce more complexity into road maps for products that many publishers still use themselves; over time, publishers may have to consider whether their product road maps should be driven by client needs or their own.

“It’s always been about balance,” said Matt Monahan, the head of product at Arc Publishing. “We really had to think, from the get-go, about how we were building a true SaaS [software-as-a-service] platform.”

Back in the print era, large legacy publishers built big businesses selling services, such as production and fulfillment, to smaller peers. Today, even with print no longer a top priority, those infrastructures still remain useful to some of them: In July, The New York Times announced it had partnered with Meredith’s Special Interest Media group to distribute a series of special magazines.

While the Times has printed a weekly magazine for decades, Meredith, which claims over 40% of the U.S. “bookazine” market, offers the Times close to a million checkout pockets, where special magazine issues are sold.

“You could get them out there, but you wouldn’t have the checkout exposure [we do],” said Scott Mortimer, the head of Meredith’s special interest media group. “It would be very, very hard to replicate [our distribution footprint].”

But in the digital era, few publishers can offer those kinds of propositions, and most of the products and services publishers have built have been for advertisers. While a creative services unit like Condé Nast’s CNX has done work for broadcasters such as Comedy Central and HGTV, most of the work they do is for brands, which are more plentiful and have deeper pockets than most publishers.

Many publishers also have an unenviable combination of legacy infrastructures and ambitious plans for change, and finding salespeople who understand those challenges and can speak to them adequately is difficult. For the growing sales team that supports Chorus, Vox Media COO Trei Brundrett said he looks for people with experience in launching brands at media companies or have extensive publisher product-side experience.

“You want to make sure you have somebody who’s not just trying to sling software,” Brundrett said. “You have to have people who, from day one, understand how that works. They are usually people who have done this before.”

Vox Media uses a team of about six to drive sales for Chorus, its CMS. Brundrett said he expects that team size to about double over the course of the next year, though the company hasn’t formalized its hiring plans for 2020.

The greater hurdle with those products, though, is balancing internal and external needs. Some publishers have gotten around this by building things that serve the broader needs of the market, rather than their own.

“We’re trying to develop products that are broadly applicable,” said Mike Donoghue, the founder of The Alpha Group, which has brought four different products to market since its launch. “My team’s mandate and the goal is to not solve existing issues. We’re trying to explore open opportunities in the marketplace, but when we do see something that seems like it would be a good fit and the rest of the organization, that’s great.”

Update: An earlier version of this story said Meredith claims a distribution footprint of 40% of all retail locations. Meredith has 40% of the bookazine market.

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