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When it comes to adopting to digital, traditional publishers are forced to look within. Many made mistakes early in the transition by not challenging their own internal structures and ways of doing things. At Time Inc., for instance, editors at the various titles were allowed to choose their own content-management systems. That won’t work in digital, where scaled media players need to move faster and be more efficient.

In this week’s Digiday Podcast, Troy Young, president of digital media at Hearst Magazines, joined us to discuss how traditional media companies change — and what will determine the winners in the fast-changing digital media market.

“The biggest challenge is when you have over a couple billion dollars in revenue, just on the magazine side alone,” Young said. “You have a lot of established practices about the way you go to market, the way you structure your organization, etc. Digital asks for many different things. You have a lot of power centers and structures that need to be challenged to make it work differently. The whole publishing mechanism for digital is very different from a magazine.”

Some edited highlights:

Big media companies need a coherent platform strategy.
Upstarts like BuzzFeed and Vox have shined a light on an essential truth of the future of publishing: The big media companies of the future need to have a tech competency that allows them to compete at scale. At Hearst, its CMS gives its editors an immediate list of stories published across Hearst’s 20 magazine properties and shows how they are performing, along with an immediate link to a messaging service for collaboration. Such a set-up “makes editors better” and allows them to compete with upstarts and those with larger staffs.

“Platforms are incredibly strategic to the future of multibrand media companies,” Young said. “If you do not have a platform and data strategy that brings the scale and power of brands together as an organization, scale will only get in the way against pure-play, very focused competitors.”

Brands are more important than ever.
The cacophony of digital media has laid bare a time-worn media truth: Brands matter. For all the fast-growth viral newcomers, the media that will last will be those that have a distinct point of view and focused audience. That’s easier said than done in a digital media system where the chase for traffic leads to a “viral sameness” of seemingly all manner of publisher regurgitating the latest traffic driver.

“The shrewdest of the next generation realizes they have to build brands; platform alone won’t get you there,” Young said. “A brand connected to a media strategy that meets a need or has a clear point of view is a fundamental starting point. The brand needs to mean something in an incredibly cluttered landscape and across all the distribution channels.”

Brand beats algorithm.

Media companies seemingly rise and fall these days at the hands of large platforms, like Google and Facebook, which control algorithms that determine where traffic goes. Fall out of favor with the algorithm, you’re in trouble. The threat here, in Young’s view, is overestimated. Ultimately, publishers need to diversify their platforms portfolio and rely on their brands. For a publication like Cosmopolitan, that means being on Snapchat, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and “many more that are coming,” Young said.

“I don’t believe it’s the way the world works that people will take whatever is shoveled to them on any distribution platform,” he said. “I don’t think people are brand-neutral inside of platforms. They have clear preferences. Your job as a content company is to make them want to interact with your brand. There’s always been a tension in media between the distribution channels, whether that’s a cable network or a magazine distributor, and the power of your brands.”

Display ads aren’t dead.
Yahoo was once known as the Internet advertising bellwether for the health of the market. No longer. Earlier this week, Yahoo reported a sharp decline in display ad sales. But don’t be fooled, Young said. Yahoo’s struggles in display are more about its struggle for what it stands for and its meaning to consumers than the overall market. At Hearst, both direct sold and programmatically sold display advertising is “way up.”

Display media is really important to augment what you’re doing with content,” he said. “What display gives you is frequency. It gives you a systematic ability to deliver a message.”

Vice nailed brand.
Vice is the publisher its peers envy most. As opposed to high-fliers like BuzzFeed and Vox, Vice has a huge business, not a huge audience. It has built a powerful brand, not just with its target market but with major brands. That’s nothing to sneeze at, Young said.

“The brand is meaningful to an audience. What’s great about Vice is the alignment of the strategy from the brand through to what the consumer understands through to the advertising market,” he said. “Vice is a counter-culture idea that’s a great ballast for a millennial-oriented media brand. You can extend it horizontally in lots of ways. The most important thing in driving that monetization premium is they go in as experts. Any time you want to be successful in the advertising marketplace, you have to have some kind of authority.”

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