Formerly known as the Reader's Digest Association, Trusted Media Brands is a multi-platform media company based in New York, that boasts a portfolio of high profile brands. Over the years it had developed a strong and loyal audience for its print products, yet knew it needed to innovate in digital to survive and prosper.
Vince Errico joined the company as Chief Digital Officer three years ago and was charged with developing a strategy and roadmap for transitioning well established print titles to online.
At DIS 2019, Vince will talk about some of the challenges he has faced in that process, particularly integrating large numbers of digital savvy staff into a print focused team.
Here he speaks about the importance of culture change, whether the pivot to video is over and the potential of native advertising. As he explains the company he joined wasn't so much of a startup, but in fact more of a re-startup.
Tell me a bit about yourself, your role at Trusted Media Brands and how you ended up there?
The role of Chief Digital Officer can mean many different things, depending on the company, the company’s goals, existing digital strengths and weaknesses, company culture, size, etc.
At Trusted Media Brands, my role encompasses:
Product Development: both website feature/functionality development as well as entirely new business lines of direct-to-consumer, digitally delivered products. I’m also responsible for the relevant P&L’s
Engineering and Technology: teams that do the development and coding to support these products
Audience Development (which I generally think of, and prefer to call, Content Discovery), including Social Media, SEO, Newsletters, Partnerships, etc.
Revenue: Both direct-to-consumer new digital product revenue as well as Programmatic revenue
Marketing: Driving awareness and purchase of our new digital direct-to-consumer products (for both existing customers as well as customers who are new to our franchise)
My professional background is quite varied, having moved across marketing (both brand and direct) and product roles most of my career in multiple industries and different sized companies. Immediately prior to joining Trusted Media Brands I had been working independently as a consultant for a variety of angel or early stage VC backed startups, again, across many different industries. One day I was contacted by an Executive Recruiter I has worked with in the past when I needed to hire top talent. He introduced me to Bonnie Kintzer, the CEO of Trusted Media Brands, whom I greatly respect and admire. I thought the challenges and opportunities presented were extremely interesting and I knew at a visceral level that I could bring my skills and experience to the role and really make a difference. I’m happy to say, I just hit my three-year anniversary at the company!
At what level of evolution were TMB's digital properties at when you joined in 2015?
I often say that when I got to Trusted Media Brands, the company had websites, but not an actual web product. And by “web product”, I mean a website that most people today would recognise as an enjoyable media website experience: a site that meets or exceeds user expectations, and has written and video content, features, and functionality that are appealing to our users. In concert, these elements transform a website or simple web presence into an actual product—one that can simultaneously place the end users’ and ad clients’ needs front and center.
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
The biggest challenge was devising a new strategy, plan, and roadmap given the significant structural changes required under the existing resource constraints. In many ways, our challenges were similar to those of a startup, which I immediately recognised from my previous startup experience. Unlike most digital startups however, Trusted Media Brands had a major marketplace advantage: strong brands with powerful consumer and trade recognition such as Taste of Home, The Family Handyman, and Reader’s Digest. Each brand had (and continues to have) an extremely high preference among our consumers and like-minded potential consumers. As our CEO has often pointed out, we’re not a startup, we’re a re-startup! Jason Sinclair, our VP of Marketing puts it another way. He says we’re a startup that’s had the benefit of being around a while.
How did you end up with the level of growth you achieved?
It really boils down to building a great team with the experience to develop and execute an evolving plan. We had to be nimble and quickly identify areas to invest in, or fail fast, learn from those failures, and build upon things that work for our audience and advertisers.
I emphasise the significant constraints we faced at the time because I believe the challenges motivated each team to remain hyper-focused while developing a deeper appreciation for our growing success. After setting the overall strategy and developing the budget, my role was to stay out of the way or help remove obstacles for each team.
You employed a lot of people in short period of time. How did you integrate them? How did you change TMB’s culture?
We developed a fairly detailed “integration plan” because we knew that adding so many new people all at once (or within a relatively short period of time) had the potential to be extremely disruptive and counterproductive. Part of that plan included ensuring the new hires were spread out among different hiring managers and functions. We also tried to stagger the timing of the new hires as much as possible (although when you find the right person, you act fast and ignore the plan!)
In addition, we tried to proactively anticipate potential future changes in work flows and processes, so that each team could prepare in advance. Proactive communication across all teams kept everyone on the same page and had the added benefit of reiterating both the role and the skillset we were bringing in and why.
One thing I was tasked with by our CEO when I first started at the company was in fact to be a cultural change agent. Part of being a cultural change agent involved helping everyone at the company understand how the digital business model is fundamentally different than print models. Most people, once they understand the fundamental underpinnings of a different business model, can then understand (and hopefully better accept) some of the changes we were making. At the same time, we tried very hard not to make things so culturally different that it was alienating.
And, as with most companies today, cultural transformation is an ongoing process, if no other reason than keeping up with the continuous changes in the business environment. And so for us, this process continues.
Do you think that recent changes to social media algorithms have forced media companies to focus once again on SEO?
If those companies moved part or all of their focus away from SEO and towards social media, then I would say yes. Our approach at Trusted Media Brands has been to manage our content discovery channels (most people call these audience development channels) using an investment portfolio approach. If you put all your eggs in one basket, it’s highly risky. But if you manage each channel both separately and as a whole, you can maximise the value of each channel through constantly changing circumstances (and algorithms) while keeping an eye on overall trends. That way you’re better positioned to both weather a storm and seize opportunities on the horizon. The portfolio approach has definitely been one of the keys to our tremendous organic traffic growth across all Trusted Media Brands’ channels and has contributed to our digital revenue growth as well.
How do you go about monetising the brands? Were there any key innovations?
We started by building simple and effective ad products that users will positively engage with. We are above all else a brand safe environment for both consumers and advertisers. With an extremely loyal and engaged audience, user experience is paramount, which is why we study their onsite behaviour, patterns, and intentions, and use that feedback to enhance the media experience for both the consumer and advertiser. Our tremendous digital revenue growth, coupled with our audience and engagement growth, has continued to prove the success of this model.
Next, we began developing and selling new digital products directly to our audience—from direct-to-consumer products to shoppable recipes and DIY projects. One unique innovation for Trusted Media Brands was the launch of My DIY University, which offers our home improvement audience online classes with real contractors and pro instructors. MyDIYUniversity.com has been so successful, in fact, that it was recently featured in the New York Times.
My DIY University is a great example of our core competency of rapid/lean digital product development. We’ve taken a leaf out of the startup playbook and put together a small but highly talented team that understands the agile/MVP/fail fast/grow fast approach to digital product development. We are leveraging this strategy to continually innovate and launch even more new products, more quickly.
What are your predictions for the future of online display advertising? Do you expect it to be a significant revenue source in the coming years?
Yes, I do expect display to continue to be a significant source of revenue in the near future for us and most media companies. Based on what I’m seeing in the industry, display continues to be one of the best ways for advertisers to reach their audiences in a cost-effective way.
Industry data suggests more and more standard display advertising will be bought/sold/managed through programmatic pipelines if for no other reason than ease of use and convenience. And this trend goes hand in hand with advertisers’ desire to take back control of where their advertising dollars are spent. This ultimately dovetails into a converging need for brand-safe environments and fraud reduction. All of these trends (and investments) driving the improvement, reliability, and deliverability of display advertising suggest to me that display isn’t going away any time soon.
That said, I also see advertisers desiring more interesting and deeper integrations with content and user experiences that supplement display. Native is the most recent example of this trend. When combined with display, these deeper integrations generally outperform in our environments (and I suspect most media company environments) than either one by itself. As long as both users and advertisers are well served by these integrated experiences running in conjunction with display, I believe advertisers will continue to seek those kinds of solutions. Another long of way of saying, I think display will be sticking around.
Is the 'pivot to video' is over? Or do you think there are still many untapped opportunities for media brands?
I don’t believe the “pivot to video” is over yet. I hope that those media companies that may have been burned by the pivot don’t give up, but rather learn how to better map out ROI-positive paths forward. Those ROI-positive strategies will serve all audiences better (advertisers and site visitors) and hopefully make for a generally better overall user experience.
Again, I would say, putting all your eggs in one basket or taking a build-it-and-they-will-come approach is risky. We’ve proceeded much more cautiously with video and have found various pockets of success where we are continuing to invest and grow.
What do you think will be the future for print? Will it still be a major part of your strategy in the coming years? How can you grow print products?
A: You’re asking the digital guy about print? ;-) I see a very bright future for print. Digital and print aren’t mutually exclusive and (when done right) are extremely powerful working hand in hand. While digital offers a lean-forward and more actionable content experience, print inspires and connects with a lean-back experience that effectively drives consumer intent. And print continues to innovate. New experiential and print-to-digital activations are engaging readers in new ways—making that same lean back experience more interactive and enjoyable. These innovations coupled with a move to more specialised content (vs. general interest) has led to a resurgence and growth of print that will continue for many years. In fact, we’ve seen a 26% increase in print magazine titles in the US vs. 2002. As a leader in special-interest content, we have grown with the market, both in audience and revenue.