How Publishers Can Pivot to a More Sustainable Future: Q+A With Allison Mezzafonte

If it’s true that opportunity lies in crisis, then the media industry should be awash in opportunity right now. Already strained by the Facebook-Google duopoly, publishers now have to contend with slashed advertising budgets and advertisers who are shying away from content related to COVID-19.

That puts media companies under tremendous pressure to make money from new channels. Sailthru turned to Allison Mezzafonte, a former Executive Vice President at Bauer Xcel Media and current Sailthru Media Advisor, to explain how publishers can create highly engaged audiences, how those audiences can be monetized, and why media companies should be optimistic about the future.

How would you describe the media climate right now?

Turbulent. The media has gone through a number of necessary but difficult changes over the past several years. Now, it’s being forced to take a good look in the mirror and revamp yet again. It will be a hard road, but ultimately it will be for the best.

We all remember the aftershock of the 2016 presidential election. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal raised issues of data privacy and led us to question how the dissemination of alleged fake news swayed the outcome of the election. In response, Facebook changed its policies, deprioritizing publishers in its news feed. These changes decimated some publishers, putting them out of business.

It was a wake-up call, for sure. Publishers suddenly understood the costs of relying on the big third-party platforms to deliver an audience. Facebook and Google — not the publishers themselves — were in control of the media’s fate. Now publishers are trying to reconnect with the audience that was once theirs, monetize that connection, and build new experiences from there. Really, publishers don’t have much choice. Ad revenue is down in the wake of COVID-19 and everyone is being forced to find new ways of driving business. It’s a scary, but exciting time.

What does it mean that many publishers are seeing jumps in traffic, but are having trouble monetizing that traffic?

Concern over COVID-19 is driving clicks, but not necessarily revenue. We need to think more about quality and less about quantity. Publishers’ focus on scale is not sustainable in a world where it is difficult to monetize that scale.

This whole experience is going to force publishers to be more creative in what they produce for their audience. The experiences offered by media companies have to get people to sign up, to pay, and to engage more deeply. The spike in traffic is an opportunity to get people in the door.

What challenges do publishers face in reconnecting with their audience in a meaningful way?

People have become accustomed to consuming content through a feed, resulting in significant brand dilution. Most readers are looking at a headline, a photo, and a caption, and deciding which one grabs them the best. They don’t care if it’s The New York Times or The Washington Post. Publishers are not building a loyal audience. Instead, they’re getting that one-and-done traffic. But what was once a game of scale is now about quality and intent of an audience. This challenge is actually a great opportunity.

Do you see any cause for optimism?

The media is having a moment in which we’re being forced to adapt and to make changes we might not have otherwise made. This is a great thing! We will certainly come out stronger for it in the end, but it will be difficult for a while. Figuring out new revenue streams doesn’t happen overnight, but the industry has already made some great progress.

For example: Some news publishers are seeing a big spike in paid subscriptions. Everyone wants a reliable source of news, and many are willing to pay. Other publications, like Gothamist, The Guardian, and Skift, let you know that they’re supported by readers. So even if they aren’t getting subscriptions, their audience is still paying for that content. Many publishers are also reporting unprecedented ecommerce sales in this post-COVID world. We should feel hopeful about this shift in behavior.

How can publishers pivot successfully to new business models?

Publishers need a reason to take chances, and they sure have one now. They need to be willing to reallocate resources and try new things. If you have editors turning out five or more pieces of content a day, ask yourself if you really need that many, especially if you can’t monetize them effectively. What else could those editors be doing? Can they create custom content for your email subscribers? If so, give it a shot!

Email is valuable because if you have this group of people that have handed over their email address, and they are engaged with you, you can create experiences that are targeted and custom to them. The likelihood is that you then see a higher conversion rate.

If you can build an engaged email audience and you can monetize them, that’s awesome. That’s an audience you’ll take with you regardless of what happens to outside sources.

Each business needs to look at where its strengths are and where the opportunities are. Publishers seem to think they need a search strategy, a commerce strategy, a video strategy, an email strategy. Most are never going to do all of those really well, especially in this climate. So think about what you do well. Why do people come to your brand? Why do people read your content? You need to know your audience — not just your audience at scale. What do they care about? Whatever it is, do more of that.

How do publishers drive the engagement necessary to justify subscriptions or support new business models?

It’s about finding the people who are so interested in what you’re providing that they’re willing to engage more deeply with you. You could argue you’re not going to find your most loyal reader on Facebook these days.

You need to understand where people are coming from and how much they’re consuming when they show up, and then making sure you’re marketing to them. This is why it’s so important to collect your own first-party data in a consistent, responsible way. Does your audience from Instagram skew younger than your audience from email? If so, maybe your email content should be different from the content you’re promoting on Instagram.

For search, look at the keywords that are bringing people in. Understand what the user’s journey looks like when they come to your site. If they are consuming multiple pieces of content, how are they navigating? If you can create cohorts within your audience, you can start tailoring your content and experiences to each of those. It doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all anymore.

If you know people have come to your site repeatedly and consumed content and haven’t signed up for your email, can you try to get them to convert, either by providing an email address or by paying for a subscription?

Publishers have experimented with alternative business models before, particularly content and commerce. How viable is a content+commerce strategy?

It’s really hard to do. If I click on a headline on Facebook and it sends me to a media site, and they give me related links to buy something, am I going to trust that brand? Or if I want the 10 best baby strollers, will I just go to The Bump? The goal is to build brand trust to the point where you can turn that customer into more than just someone who is looking at a display advertisement. Goop has been fantastically successful at this, as has Glossier, which started as a blog. Morning Brew and theSkimm are other success stories.

How else would you suggest publishers build brand loyalty?

Focus on the people, readers, and audiences most engaged with your brand. I’m not sure this is a time to worry about acquiring new audiences. Then figure out what works for those very engaged audiences and go deep on it.

Learn as much as you can about that audience and what their interests are. Do something to go deeper in that psychographic so you can create experiences that go deeper for you and pay off for you in the end. Wouldn’t it be great to come out of this time saying, we revamped our whole email strategy and our conversion rates are so much higher?

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