All businesses—from startups to one of the most famous media organizations in the world—are adjusting to the new world of media consumption

There have been countless articles, speeches, seminars and webinars about the changing dynamics of how Americans consume media and content. And with these have come many proclamations about how brands and organizations should adjust their content strategies and media budgets to the new reality.

And the reality has definitely changed: traditional forms of media have seen share of global consumption drop1: since 2010, TV is down 8%, magazines are down 23%, and newspapers are down a whopping 30%. Meanwhile, consumption via the Internet continues to quickly increase, up 93% since 2010, with mobile use skyrocketing. More than ever, brands that want to remain front-of-mind will need to do so through digital, mobile, and streaming platforms, and make sure their content engages their audience in those formats.

But while these conversations may help marketers with where to spend their media dollars, there is less attention paid to what these evolving media behaviors can tell marketers about how to create great content.

So we decided to ask experts from two media companies—one long-established as one of the most famous media brands in the world, and one rapidly growing startup aimed at a specialized audience—to get their insights.

The New York Times needs no introduction. As one of the biggest and most storied names on the global media stage, it has the power to inform and influence millions. But even an institution as venerable as the Times is not immune from the forces changing media today and from needing to innovate.

Enter the Times’ Beta team. According to marketing manager Melissa Hostetter, Beta is the Times’ “experiment zone,” a task force of engineers, designers, developers and writers looking to engage readers in new and different ways.

On the other end of the media spectrum is startup sports media company The18. Founded just two years ago, The18 has rapidly grown as a hub of multimedia and viral content for soccer fans worldwide, and is looking to disrupt its competitive space by innovating in content, format and distribution, all while continuing to grow its audience.

Despite the differing situations, both media organizations have some important lessons to offer for brands and organizations on how to create content that engages and excites your audience in this new landscape.

Do Your Research

This might seem obvious, but you need to deeply understand your audience to determine the topics that interest them and the ways they want to connect. In the past, it might have been more about picking the right medium or venue to align with your target audience. Now, it’s easier to curate a library of content about the topics your audience finds interesting without committing to a single source, then being the provider of that content across platforms. At the New York Times, that means finding ways to build new audiences while continuing to serve their current, core readers. They put research and critical thinking into the development of new products, apps and content, and then follow it, even if it seems counterintuitive.

Hostetter cited the extensive research that went into the latest iteration of the Times’ Watching feature. While one might think a special product around books or travel might be more in line with the Times’ highly educated readership, research revealed a need area produced by the proliferation of TV content on streaming, cable and traditional broadcast networks.

“There is simply too much content out there for one person to watch,” Hostetter said. “Readers wanted some guidance on which shows to spend their time on.” The answer was Watching’s “What to Watch This Week” synopsis of the most worthy shows as determined by the Times’ team of television critics. In a few minutes, readers get a quick glimpse on which new shows are worth setting the DVR for, and which ones aren’t.

For The18, researching their audience’s tendencies helps shape the site’s content philosophy. “We try to create content that matches our audience’s personality. Doing that allows us to connect on a more emotional basis, which drives reactions and connects with the cultural consciousness,” said chief operating officer and digital marketing industry veteran Matt Jenkins.

Seeing oneself in content can be a major driver of audience enthusiasm, Jenkins added. One of the site’s consistently popular features is a series of videos on the training regimens of top women soccer players. “Watching athletes who look like you doing amazing things makes you want to learn how you might be able to do the same.”

Realize Much of Your Content Will Be Consumed Via Social and Mobile

For both outlets, coming to the realization that they weren’t going to “own” the experience when their content is consumed was an important strategic shift. With so much engagement coming through social media channels, it’s important to focus on other aspects of the content rather than just stickiness to a website.

“We make sure the content is adjustable to different formats, and that it stays consistent with our voice, which has a lot of power,” Hostetter said. Audiences want to hear your organization’s authentic voice, not a hard sales pitch, she added.

50 percent of the Times’ traffic comes from mobile, and for The18, it’s an astounding 80 percent. Both organizations said it’s critical to make sure content is fully optimized for the mobile experience. This includes the interface and the content itself. Because consumption is now de-centralized, Jenkins said, the value is in having your content ready for wherever consumers want it.

“Brand is currency, so just being on the screen of someone’s phone has tremendous power,” he said. “The key is to be present, because once they engage, your content will show up more.”

Don’t Be Afraid of Trial and Error

The nature of this new, diffuse media consumption environment makes it impossible for anyone to hit a home run every time. The key, Hostetter said, is to not be afraid of what the Times’ Beta team terms “smart failure.” Sometimes even with thorough research and a lot of brainpower behind it, an idea will fail to click. She cited a recent example of content that had been subscription-based that was shifted to free after their audience didn’t show much interest in the fee-based product.

But that same willingness to try new ideas can lead to smashing successes – Hostetter mentioned the Times’ Cooking site as a major success story. Faced with an archive of thousands and thousands of recipes from old print editions, the Beta team set about ways to make the old content new and relevant again. The result is an interactive site for cooks of all skill levels, featuring new images of dishes, updated commentary from Times’ food critics, spaces for readers to interact and help one another with their culinary exploits, and an online “recipe box” feature so that readers can save their favorites for future meal-making. As a result, dormant old print content has become one of the site’s most popular and engaged-with features.

Jenkins said an openness to experimentation is essential for getting to know your audience and how best to connect with them. For example, The18’s “Stop the Flop” campaign garnered more than 11 million content engagements by figuring out a way to turn a common soccer fan aggravation – excessive diving by players – into a positive, fun interaction.

“Building affinity can happen in many ways – through nostalgia, a shared passion or annoyance, or simply something that’s entertaining for a few moments,” he said. “The end goal is to tell interesting stories that inherently let your audience know ‘you’re with us.’”

1: According to a 2016 study by Zenith Optimedia.


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