Digital Innovation Guest Columns
6 mins read

Harnessing media innovation to drive business growth

The media industry has talked about innovating for years but it took a global crisis to teach us an important lesson: urgency spurs innovation. So how can publishers keep the flames of innovation burning as we return to ‘normal’? The World Media Group invited a panel of experts to share their experiences around how innovation has shaped their businesses.

The panel was chaired by Gordana Buccisano, EVP, Managing Director, Global Clients Transformation, Havas Media Group, who began by asking whether some of the biggest technology trends of the pandemic are here to stay.

Don’t predict the future based on the past

Liam Brennan, Global Director of Innovation, MediaCom, is concerned that brands will blindly latch on to the successful trends of last year without thinking about their own business focus. “So much innovation is just fluffy. It gets you lots of PR, but if you’re not improving the business bottom line, then it’s a waste of time,” he said.

While trends like streaming, e-commerce and gaming certainly grew during the pandemic, Brennan pointed out they were not new technologies, and became a digitalisation of existing behaviours. Rather than brands jumping on these trends, Brennan hopes it will be a wakeup call, forcing them to pay more attention to what’s bubbling under the surface. “The brands that succeeded in 2020 and in the first half of 2021 weren’t necessarily brands that threw everything out the window in mid-March and then pivoted into these three areas. They were brands that were prepared for this because they’d been trialling things beforehand and learning how they worked.”

Survival, speed and solidarity

When the FT had to reinvent its Live events business as a virtual offering almost overnight, Leyla Boulton, Development Editor, FT Live, and Senior Editor, Financial Times, said “the three S’s” were key: survival, speed, and solidarity. Showing the world that FT Live was still a valid business required a speedy response. The solidarity came from the FT’s culture of pulling together in an emergency and thinking entrepreneurially. They quickly procured a digital platform and invited the FT’s chief economics commentator, Martin Wolf, to host a test event, which generated a respectable 6,000 registrations.

Six week’s later, the FT Live’s Global Boardroom launched with 120 speakers over three days, generating 52,000 registrations – double the total number of attendees at FT events for the whole of 2019. The FT plans to hold its first hybrid event on September 4th, with the return of the FT Weekend Festival to Kenwood House in London and online, allowing it to retain the global audience it attracted during the pandemic.

From zero to hero

For Kevin Young, Head of Audience at The Economist, innovation has centred around transforming The Economist’s “traditional” media approach to a digital-first strategy. Following a complete overhaul of The Economist’s social media platforms, Young initiated a new focus on Instagram, which has become a “shop window” for the visual journalism previously only accessible to readers of The Economist’s print magazine.  

The Economist’s Instagram account now has 5.5 million users, with two thirds aged between 18 to 34. Of all the media brand’s social channels, Instagram is the biggest generator of subscriptions, having gone from delivering zero website referrals per month two years ago to delivering one million today.  

During the pandemic, Young standardised the way the global social media team worked, democratising processes to ensure that if someone fell ill, the team could still operate without compromising its outputs. They began crowdsourcing content from all over The Economist encouraging picture editors, data journalists and video producers to showcase their work to this vast new audience.

The strategy clearly worked: The Economist won ‘Best Use of Social Media’ at the International News Media Association awards.

Recognising which trends are important

According to Jean Ellen Cowgill, GM of Bloomberg QuickTake and Global Head of Strategy and Business Development, innovation stems from identifying the trends that are happening around your business. QuickTake, Bloomberg’s streaming news channel, began in 2017 in response to audiences going to Twitter first when news broke. With the initial wave of concern around fake news on Twitter, Bloomberg recognised it could offer trusted quality content in those moments.

More recently, Bloomberg recognised the shift away from cable and traditional broadcast towards streaming, and saw QuickTake as an opportunity to address the needs of a new generation of business leaders. QuickTake launched as a full 24/7 streaming channel during the pandemic, producing longer form video content, including documentary series, and available across various streaming platforms.

“Once you recognise the trends happening under your feet, you can start to talk about how, as a business, you’re going to address them,” said Cowgill, but it’s important to make sure you have staff responsible for “tackling those trends and marshalling the traditional divisions within the business to go after those new opportunities.”

Our business goals are to drive referrals and to drive subscriptions, and on some platforms that’s difficult because the platforms don’t want you to leave.

Kevin Young, Head of Audience, The Economist

And they have to be the right opportunities for your business. Young said he was initially questioned about why The Economist wasn’t on Clubhouse. “It’s easy to be swayed by the latest thing – to try to innovate and adapt to everything, but it’s really important to stick to business goals. Our business goals are to drive referrals and to drive subscriptions, and on some platforms that’s difficult because the platforms don’t want you to leave.”

Experimentation drives innovation

For Jarrod Dicker, VP Commercial, The Washington Post, experimentation is essential to innovation. “When Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post back in 2013, we started to think about how we could leverage the reputation of such a strong technology founder to build more opportunities outside of traditional revenue streams for journalism,” he said. They started experimenting with ways to better equip the newsroom and soon realised it made sense to build their own technology.

What started as an experimental project has become Arc Publishing, a massive SAAS business which enables 1500+ brands and publishers globally to tell better stories and reach broader audiences without investing in software teams themselves. More recently, the Washington Post has built commercial tools to help publishers drive more revenue, including a model that will compete with Facebook and other programmatic marketplaces.

Dicker sees The Washington Post as the beta lab for innovation. “It’s an amazing breeding ground to test new concepts, whether that’s products, new ways to make money, or new tools and services. Everything happens in that sandbox. We’ll test products out and often they will continue to exist and drive The Washington Post business, but sometimes they’ll be more effective being licenced out to marketers or local news organisations. The Washington Post is the core; we rapidly innovate there, and then we fly it out.”

Setting innovation KPIs

So how do you measure innovation? According to Dicker, innovation KPIs should be based on how many ideas went live. “You should set goals for that, whether that’s two a month or four a month, or six a month. Being able to actually put these things out there in the market should be the number one goal that innovation teams are measured against.”

Wrapping up the webinar, Damian Douglas, MD EMEA, TIME and President of the World Media Group echoed the panel’s sentiments around the importance of innovation in understanding and preparing for the future. He signed off with a warning: “Unless you have a culture that steps into innovation and looks for signals in data that allow your brand to go to certain area, you will stay routed in the past while audiences shift dynamically around you.”

Belinda Barker
Chief Executive, The World Media Group

The World Media Group is a strategic alliance of leading international media organisations that connects brands with highly engaged, influential audiences in the context of trusted and renowned journalism. Its members include The Atlantic, BBC Global News, Bloomberg Media Group, Business Insider, The Economist, The Financial Times, Forbes, Fortune, National Geographic, Reuters, The New York Times Company, Time, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and associate members: Moat and Smithsonian.