PART ONE – Relentless Reader Focus
Since I last wrote I've been watching this new quarter play out. While our sales have been good, the story of our audience is sobering. In fact it's been sobering for over a year. Others companies have felt it as well. As you can see, looking at the two graphs above, we've hit a real slowdown on both sites that I do not believe will change without some radical thinking and adjustment. We have to invent our way out of this.
In December we all agreed to make the focus of this year The Reader. It was clear to me as well that rolling up our sleeves and reconnecting with our readers was crucial, and that we'd lost our touch in what has become a very new world on the web in the last three years. This was the slide that I finished the last memo of the year with:
I do believe that this resonated with everyone in the room. We knew it was the right direction to go in. Then we set about lining up our OKR's for Q1 and Q2, and we did pretty well on paper. Underneath, however, we didn't change our approach that much, and we haven't fully redirected our focus to our readers.
I will admit that I underestimated how hard it would be.
Now, while we're still in the first half of our year, we've got to shake things up. Despite our traffic numbers being sobering, we have a tremendous opportunity if we figure this out ahead of our competition and break through to the other side.
But, why is it hard for us to change? What is the problem?
Editorial organizations are by nature narcissistic and more invested in pushing out the messages and content and pictures and videos that they want to see, rather than listening hard to the audience, connecting with the audience and relentlessly giving them what they want.
This is not unusual, and we have to be very careful of our old tendencies if we want to truly effect change.
Here are some of the place where I see work is needed. While there is some good work going on, it has not permeated our organization fully:
We made a commitment to make all decisions based on reader data, and we aren't doing it enough.
We don't follow the data closely enough on what they are reading and not reading.
We don't watch the differences between how our content is received on different platforms.
We don't write enough for the readers where they are, which is largely OFF our site.
We don't follow our comments, enter into them, and converse with our readers enough.
We don't solicit feedback from our readers individually.
We don't ask our writers to publish their work to their own social channels and get it out there to their readers.
We are not relentless focused on our readers.
This is not about doing things better, or doing things more. This is about doing things differently.
We need to listen closely to our readers and make CHANGES to the way we've always done things, otherwise we will lose them over time.
A great example of the type of radical thinking I'm talking about, which is entirely focused on the customer is the creation of Amazon Prime in 2005. Initially the idea of one engineer, the concept was to not only create a fast ship, two-day option, but to charge a subscription price for it. In other words, a blanket price that would pay for two-day shipping at all times during the year. Amazon could figure out how to guarantee a fast ship but it was expensive and they figured that customers might want this, so they went ahead, not knowing if they'd lose tons of money. The big idea, however, was not just a new feature for customers. Prime turned out to upend the industry by making people addicted to shopping on Amazon for everything.
Interestingly, this excerpt points out that Vijay Ravindran was not only one of the architects of Prime, but he also has been instrumental in leading the Washington Post to its recent turnaround success.
Again, customer product thinking beats old fashioned editorial thinking. This whole series of memos from the very beginning is about content as a product, and we're not getting it yet.
We need to turn out telescope around – from us to them, the readers.
We need to have relentless reader focus. We need to write for them, distribute to them, communicate with them, and arrange our sites, emails and social feeds for them. We need to remove all friction between the conception of a story idea and the delivery to the moment that story, post, article, video or image is received. Numbers will tell us when we are right and when we are wrong. Time and speed will be measured and optimized for.
No judgement except the judgement of our readers will prevail. We will have to try more and take more risks. We have to move more quickly.
Here is the challenge that I want us all to rise to:
In the next two days, every department should review their priorities for the next month and raise to the top those that are in line with reacting more quickly to reader demand. Every department, but particularly Aud Dev, Editorial and Product, should assess if they need to make bigger changes to their schedule than they expected in the next month. All of these changes should be highlighted on Wednesday in our Monthly Reports by the department heads.
NOTE: This is NOT changing our OKR at all for this quarter. This is doing it.
PART TWO – Being a Media Company
Part of why it's hard for us to focus on our readers is that we've become too wedded to concepts of ourselves as a traditional publisher, and we've gotten ourselves all confused about who we are and how we represent ourselves and our BRAND, etc, etc….
I told many of you that I had been thinking a lot about how the project we're involved in is bigger than all of this, and our Brand Camp of last month was very helpful in pushing the ball forward.
I want to aim even higher.
We are a digital media company right now, driven by technology, not a publisher or an online magazine or even a content creator.
We are a completely new animal.
We are on the way to becoming a Home Network.
Here is our final mission, which harkens back to our very original one:
A warm, beautiful, healthy home for everyone.
This is a big mission. It unifies all of our work and it gives us an excellent mountain to climb.
I could talk on and on about the value of the home, how it improves one's life and millions of other things, but the bottom line, I've realized, is that, since the beginning, I've done anything and everything that would help make good homes – inside and out – for people, and this is where the energy is. Similar to Microsoft's "a computer on every desk," we need to look wide and do anything at all that our community needs to achieve this mission.
It is the highest possible mission. It speaks to transforming the world. It speaks to doing good in the world. It is a polestar for all the "hows" or "whats" that we have gotten caught up in.
How this shifts things becomes very clear once you get the thinking.
Everything we make has to be a product that helps our community get there, and we'll know it when we the numbers go up.
Passionate, Useful Content
Right now we are two sites devoted to helping people achieve their warm, beautiful, healthy home through two distinct lenses: design and food. These sites are passionate destinations for our community, they speak to people who are wearing their design or their food hat (often the same people, but at different times of the week).
We will have more sites devoted to other discreet areas of the home and the people who are interested in those areas.
This DOES NOT MEAN however that Apartment Therapy is just a "design site" or that Kitchn is just a "cooking site." They are sites that see the world of the home through the lens of design and food. This is VERY different. It gives us great flexibility. It speaks to the people and their passions in our two communities and not a specific subject matter.
Our Brand Camp missions came very close to this but need to be centered on the home. This is the rewrite and it needs to go back to Brand Camp to be teased to completion:
Apartment Therapy inspires you to design a warm, beautiful, healthy home.
Kitchn empowers you to create a warm, beautiful, healthy home through food.
To achieve these goals, our creative, editorial teams will constantly be providing our readers with the inspiring, useful and instructive content that they need. Now we break this effort down into Team Verticals, and these need to get smarter and more aggressive about meeting our readers' needs. Broadly speaking, they need us to provide three things (you've seen this before):
1. Inspiration – challengers – show me something new
2. Teaching – teachers – teach me how to do it
3. Resources – finders – tell me where to find it or which is best
Content Creation for Platforms
After we master the mix of how we serve our readers, we need to reach them.
ALL of our content has to have a destination in mind, and this means that it will all be different depending on where it's going. We need to shape our content for the various platforms from the very beginning. It can no longer be "let's make a whole bunch of stuff for the site, and then package it off to social, etc…" We have to make different meals for each destination and what gets recorded on the sites is secondary.
Our readers on each platform are different and see us and use us differently. We need to look, walk and quack in a different way for each, and we need to experiment boldly with what works best in an email, on Facebook, in Instagram Stories, in Search…. Etc… and assume it might all feel very strange at first. If it's right, the numbers will tell us.
As a media company, we need to shift our thinking from just pushing out stories to building destinations that help our readers in other ways, and always towards making that warm, beautiful, healthy home.
We want them to come to us when they need something because they know that we can fulfil it (Just like Amazon for purchasing. Just like Sweethome for reviews. Just like NYTimes for news. Just like Wikipedia for info.) We already do this to an extent, and both sites are identified with solving problems, but we are not top of mind. It will require building rich, meaningful destinations - "Franchises" - for Real Estate, Remodeling, Shopping, etc. on Apartment Therapy and Travel, Recipes, Wellness, etc. on Kitchn.
We can then take expand on these franchises to go even further into online classes, summer tours, reader events, daily television shows, pop up shops… ANYTHING that gets our people closer to that warm, beautiful, healthy home, and where we think there's an opportunity.
Finally, you can't be a destination and command loyalty and love if your community doesn't feel that they have a home with you. This is where we've been particularly bad, and why I'm so pleased to have our new marketplace team – MP2 – getting rolling.
We have continually downgraded, deprioritized and simply not built for our community. This is, I believe, because of that same inherent bias in publishing organizations to consider their readers more trouble than their worth.
This thinking is killing us.
MP2's job is not just to rebuild and integrate our marketplace, but to go further and build it as our first fully fledged community SERVICE that will be as ubiquitous, important and useful as comments. MP2 will be a fast and frictionless way for community members to find one another, find what they need and buy and sell items, so that their homes will be warm, beautiful and healthy through an amazing COMMUNITY resource.
This helps to solve the problem of how to find it, how to get rid of it, and how to afford it.
We have to use the web for what it's really good at, and, among other things, it is peer to peer discovery and transaction.
After MP2, this team will continue on to create any new features that help our community to connect, answer questions, find things, share their work, sell things, anything at all where we can see usefulness and opportunity.
The MP2 team, when successful, should create more page views than all of our editorial put together, but they won't necessarily be separate. They should be seamlessly embedded within the experience of our sites, so that you can't tell them apart.
We've got one month to go in our second quarter and then we hit the halfway mark. Now is the time to refocus on our OKR, dig deep and work even harder to move the needle and make this truly the Year of the Reader.
I look forward to seeing us all step up to this challenge, starting this week.
June 1, 2017