Is email the next comeback kid?

Four years ago, email newsletters would be all the rage. Every brand had one: each was designed to push short, offer based messages to consumers. Email was considered one of the best ways to communicate consistently with audiences.


Out of this came serious attempts at cracking the digital media market. Thrillist, launched by Adam Rich and Ben Lerer in 2004, was the first major guide to city life in New York City for young males. It positioned itself as a media brand, publishing the biggest and best guides for a young, male demographic in an urban environment.


The company had strong growth, seeing profits in year four with around $5 million in revenue. Not bad for a small, email based business.


In 2010, more spam filters were introduced. Gmail, with one of the best spam filters in the world, began to seriously take form. Other email services, like Yahoo! and Hotmail, played catch up.


In short: Gmail had recognized a key consumer demand (among a myriad of other things they did exceptionally well): consumers were getting tired of email newsletters. Open rates declined a full 5% year on year until 2012. And click through rates, as a trend, also declined – a full 20% from their previous figures.


For something so prevalent, this became quite significant. Throw into the mix a slowing rate of receiving emails, and it became clear that the platform was looking at a subtle reinvention of itself from 2011 onward.


And companies like Thrillist responded. In 2010, Inc Magazine named Thrillist as number 93 on the fastest growing privately owned companies. In May 2010, Thrillist recognised that it’s reach could drive e-commerce sales, acquiring online retailer JackThreads, tying it to the Thrillist subscription service.


This all happened to coincide with the growth of another medium: social media. Social media began to rapidly replace email as the daily social communication tool, and this accelerated in 2010 – with more people visiting Facebook than Google in March of that year. This became indicative of the dominance of social media.


Email became, then, the medium of choice for one to one, longform communication – important information that a user would want to be aware of on a day to day basis. More consumers place value on an email over a Facebook message – a fact which should not be ignored by advertisers fixated on social media.


2011 saw Thrillist go to new heights, with the company seeing at least $40 million in revenue that year with projections skyrocketing. E-commerce through the JackThreads brand had suddenly become a huge growth area, with the buying impulse created by Thrillist linked to the transaction provided by JackThreads.


Credit to Colin Morrison here – who aptly put it as ‘media is retail and retail is media’.


Emails were generally used to promote articles by the major media brands – IGN, for example, sent out regular daily updates with articles that were segmented by audience. They had not yet followed the example of Thrillist in providing a targeted offering for their audiences, linked to daily consumption habits.


That isn’t to say email publishing was all rosy in this period – in fact, one of the declining stories has been the DailyCandy brand, another New York e-newsletter. Launched in 2000 and picked up by ComCast in 2008 for a cool $125 million, it quickly became one of the biggest stories.


In late 2009, however, it was forced to shut down much of the overseas operation, including the flash sales arm of the site “Swirl”. Why? Likely because it didn’t gel with the operation – the direct buy was too forced. That isn’t to say this is a venture without growth, just at this stage, it needs to reinvent.


Thrillist saw the opportunity to create a club, or a members lifestyle, around e-commerce – allowing members to feel as if they were buying into a brand. Swirl (DailyCandy), with their flash sales, didn’t allow the level of trendsetter exclusivity that their brand offered.


In short, flash sales were incongruent with the ‘trendsetter’ view that DailyCandy had of itself – hence, the launch never kicked off properly. For an audience that placed a high value on being socially aware, flash sales did very little to prove that they were in a ‘trend-setter’ environment.


Contrast this to Thrillist, and you can see the difference. Thrillist created a brand, DailyCandy looked for alternative revenue models.


With email increasingly becoming more valuable, more of these trendsetter type emails are beginning to appear. Email is remaking itself into a form of premium communication – with social media handling the day to day, email suddenly becomes the source of all your ‘need to know’ information.


And as spam filters have become increasingly stricter, consumers have begun to trust the medium as providing what they genuinely would like to see.


Urban Walkabout launched Urban Talkabout in 2011, an email only page of ‘editorial’ which placed emphasis on places to go out, to see and things to do. It was email only, and designed to reach into the inbox of people every day – part of a growing strategy to surround audiences in digital for their products.


Using their already paid for distribution, they promoted this heavily, using it to gain a daily, unique traction for their audience. As a concept it had two major strengths: one, it had a greater value to advertisers (daily reach, digital metrics), and two, the audience would appreciate the communication more.


In 2011, Shortlist Media saw a similar opportunity, recognizing the power of a daily reach without the traditional print production costs media dailies used to rely upon. Shortlist already published two targeted (and free) weekly magazines, Shortlist and Stylist, but in digital it did not have the same day to day presence.


The concept was simple: create a page of day to day editorial that would be appreciated as a guide by consumers. And it recognized a big flaw in digital strategies thus far: they relied upon users to come to them, rather than going out to users instead.


Emerald Street became the first launch: a daily email for working women in the ABC1 target market. It played off as a splinter brand to Stylist, launching off the strength of the group to promote it.


Giving a page of consistent editorial that was kept to a high quality meant that users had a reason to be familiar with the brand and look at it, being in their inbox every morning meant they didn’t have to actively search for it. With a time poor audience who had so many options in digital, this was critical to ensuring they revolved around the Emerald Street (and therefore the Stylist) brand.


Strategy director Tim Ewington summarized the opportunity as such “Email is a medium with which young women spend more time than even television than the working week.” What he neglected to say, but what he likely knows, is it is also a medium which is has seen an increasing value with the contrast against social media.


And with over 80,000+ subscribers, combined with open rates between 42% and 48%, the medium clearly works.


With the increased value of email, it is clear that the medium is being reinvented into a premium form of communication. With the right content, editorial and strategy, email promises to be the best way to reach on audience on a daily basis.


Building it into a channel in it’s own right is critical to engaging time poor audiences who have little to no need to navigate toward a central website. Getting it right is about making the email the go to source of information – whether that be hear it first gossip, best places to go out, or any number of other topics – email has to be about being ahead of the trend.


In 2013, look for the growth of well targeted email dailies that exist in their own right. It is one growth area that for media companies, cannot be ignored. It’s value as a first in, cheap and effective way of reaching an audience cannot be understated, and the premium  nature of the medium is increasingly important in a fragmented landscape.


A quick summary: email is back. It isn’t the offer driven medium it was, but rather the trendsetting medium it should have been. And it’s something that brands, and publishers, must consider to revitalize their digital strategies. 


Has distribution fundamentally shifted towards audiences?

Once upon a time, in the age of print, you had the newsstand. Magazines were put on shelves through unique distribution deals – in Australia, for example, distribution deals have existed between the likes of Bauer, Pacific and News with groups such as the Australian Newsagents Federation.

They built strong, locked up distribution networks that saw dominant publishing monopolies and large scale distributions become the necessity for the media industry. And it meant that consumers, who by and large only saw publications through major newsagents, had all their demand funneled through the newsagent model.

It meant that the process of ‘discovery’ – or finding a media product that you did not previously know about, was largely limited to what you saw inside of a newsstand, and it meant that this process of discovery was tightly controlled by dominant publishers.

This meant that things like covers, mastheads and subscriptions became crucial to making a magazine profitable, and ensuring it hit a mainstream, newsstand dependent demographic. It also meant, psychologically, it was hard to sell subjects that were not socially conventional – to discover a magazine, or media product, you generally either did it at the Television (monopoly) or newsstand (monopoly).

Flash forward to today.

Today, discovery has been fundamentally shifted. You’ve got social media, the digital app store (which uses micro targeting/advertising to make recommendations to audiences), email, search engines to compete with.

This isn’t to mention the increasingly diminished costs of print and the targeting it generates: leading to the rise of the freemium brand of magazine (think titles like mx in Australia, Shortlist and the Evening Standard in the UK).

All of these have shifted the discovery process away from the traditional, and tightly controlled, newsstand model – in the process democratising the media landscape further. So what does this mean for media publishing?

Well, for one, it means that there is going to be more of a multi-channel purpose. Your product, in itself, now takes on far greater importance than before against your newsstand deal. Working out how to disseminate your product in the most efficient way suddenly becomes the new aim of the game.

Take one of my often used examples: Shortlist. They knew that their product was a free men’s weekly – and that social would be an important way to showcase this interest. They host covers and post articles in digital, distribute free weekly and create a product built around an audience.

In other words, rather than relying on an audience that is coming to them, they go to their audience. It’s a remarkably efficient way of publishing that means the audience is engaged, you understand their aggregate points and match your media alongside that journey.

Another great example of this is a less insurgent brand: Esquire. In recent years, Esquire have worked out that their product is not just a ‘media’ specific brand, but instead meets a lifestyle need. They’ve pushed out apps, iPad stores, strong social and a product line.

Now, Esquire creates ties, furniture and consumer goods based off its brand. It saw an audience need and it met it.

The key lesson is that publishing has changed – and for magazines, focusing on the newsstand no longer can be the priority. When digital gives you so many ways to circumvent traditional distribution, and so many ways to get closer to your audience, it means that you can more aggressively target them.

What does this mean for the future? Well, expect an element of media creation and products to be built around creating and generating distribution. This means thinking about social content, talkability, daily reach and mapping out the content journey of a media product – thinking about how it touches your audience throughout their media consumption habits.

Getting this right will be the foundation for the future of media – rather than the traditional newsstand tactics of the past. It will mean having a focus on building multi-channel touchpoints to ensure interest in your brand, rather than trying to hook audiences at a single aggregation point.

In essence, distribution of the future is simple: build it around your audiences. And that is exactly what the best companies in the world are now doing.  


Is email going to be a future publishing channel?

Any avid blog readers will know about my appreciation for the Shortlist media model[1]. One of the emails that have worked exceptionally well has been the daily Mr Hyde and Stylist email.

Email marketing in general has been on the radar for years. Cheaper than direct to mail, they very often had a pretty standard subject line designed to get through subject lines. Most publishing websites used email to encourage existing users to come onto the site as part of their daily routine.

Looking at the broad trends, there is an interesting juxtaposition. Email open rates have increased from 22% to 25.6% at the end of 2009, but email click through rates have declined from 5.9% to 4.4% on average[2] according to Epsilon.

As a statistic, this seems to be in opposite. In the UK, however, there are similarly low figures – an open rate of only 21.47% against a click through rate of only 3.16%[3]. More interestingly was the way that in this sector, publishing bucked the trend – achieving almost 25% more than their competitors on average with 4.26% click through rate against a 21.52% open rate.

That’s a lot of difference between comparative industries – and one possible answer as to why is that publishers are able to create the subject lines and brand that enables the trust for people to engage with their EDMs.

Moreover, there are good news for advertisers: 67% of customers were willing, according to Clickz marketer Mike Hotz, to give email addresses to receive discounts and promotions. A further 57% ‘say they are more apt to buy a product in store after receiving an email’.

So before we even consider click through rates, there are some strong arguments to say that email is still an incredibly valuable and underrated tool in marketing.

And yet 61% of emails are considered non-essential by consumers. 49% of consumers subscribe to 1-10 brands, and 34% choose to receive 6 emails per day from brands that they trust[4]. This tells you that for brands – engagement and trust is important.

Publishers traditionally used their ‘impartial’ status as marketers, but not direct marketers, as a great skill to be able to generate trust in their audience – perhaps why they generate a higher click through rate than other industries.

What these statistics show is an astounding range of possibilities for the email publisher. Generally speaking, brands themselves can be far too defined to warrant an entire email of consumption – and Shortlist has shown there is a demand for a strong, daily email which can instead select and curate the brand stories you should be hearing about, wrapped around content that you are interested in.

So what is the future of the email with regards to publishers? Well, the opportunity lies in creating a compelling product that curates the content that consumers are looking for. Trust will be critical here – trust that the EDM not just delivers them relevant and engaging content, but content that will work.

For advertisers, this offering will be compelling – a way to cut through the traditional brand noise whilst maintaining a sense of product authenticity. For consumers, they get the news, content and information they want, in a convenient, easy to read format. And for publishers, they create a new channel of engagement – one that can draw people back to aggregating around their website.

In 2013, look for email publishers. They will be the ones creating waves – using email to create a strong, digitally based reach into consumers’ lives.


Video and the men’s market: natural allies


One of the great booms of the internet has been the rise of video. There are now a staggering 1 billion unique views of YouTube a month, with more than 72 hours of video Imagebeing uploaded a minute. 4 billion hours of video are now watched on YouTube alone[1].

And that is just on YouTube. IGN Entertainment records almost 35 million + views in video each month alone – with content ranging from simple video reviews, to conversations about games, to demos and interviews with leading developers[2]. It knows what it’s audience wants to see, and uses video to augment that experience – the majority of print content has an accompanying video piece.

It’s a slick operation. All of these videos are generally (unless it is a particularly compelling piece of content) under ten minutes long. And if you look into reports, it is a male dominated market: a study done in 2009 picked up on the fact that 77% of users are in the under-35 market, while 60% of users are male[3].

For men, then, video is the superior medium of engagement. It explains why porn smashed the men’s market so effectively (you can see my post on this on the attached footnote)[4]. And increasingly, companies are recognizing the effectiveness turning their magazine and media brands into channels of their own.

Conde Nast, for example, is making big moves into the content game: their new entertainment president (Dawn Ostroff) is focusing on building content across platforms to turn them into broad offerings – notably talking branded web series as one major output of their efforts[5].

And both IGN Entertainment and Conde Nast aren’t the only ones. Brightcove has built a platform specifically to help sell video advertising for publishers – a move that highlights the moves that Hearst, Time and others have begun to make toward the video age[6]. Video is quickly becoming the medium of choice to complement and expand a content offering.

All of this points to a merger between the traditional ‘TV’ channels and the publishers. And with advances in technology rapidly smashing the cost of broadcast quality production and distribution, it only becomes a matter of time before these organizations come into direct competition.

In some cases, they already have: Amazon (the noted book publisher) recently made the move to launch a series of pilots that indicate their move into video, film and TV streaming[7]. Instead of the traditional focus group pilot launch, however, they have built a different model: use data to inform their response on the investment into a TV show[8].

That is a radically different approach to the traditional channel, and one which relies on a couple of factors. Firstly, they aren’t restricted in terms of geographical viewership – in fact, digital means geography is largely no object. These days, you can launch a web series that can be viewed in England, Australia and the US and group it around an interest instead.

In essence, video and content is no longer constrained by channel. And so instead of focusing on ‘how can we hit as many people in this area as possible’ (see shows like the news, which reports on such an array of topics there has to be some wastage), you now have the ability to work out how many people exist around an interest group/market, and can you build a product around them.

The men’s market will find this key. Having the ability to build around male interests, whether that be sport, or something else, will be a real trait in the future, and producing the kinds of video content that reaches into those interests will be crucial. Look at the ongoing success of shows like Top Gear, any number of spy shows (Burn Notice for example) and even watching the cricket for good examples.

Men are always looking for the next gripping piece of ongoing content to latch onto. That used to be the weekly FHM, with a series of lewd jokes and other bawdy articles. These days, though, expect the next big men’s site to be one packed with video content, integrating in great digital journalism.

Here are some hypotheticals:

  • Esquire TV: all around cool guy routines, upmarket. A show about stockbrokers (think a Suits style show) combined with articles about their style guides, how to get ahead against your boss.
  • FHM TV: a jackass style show, replete with best office pranks (and video of) and articles about flirting with that hot girl (you can see a video of guys taking a crack at a hot girl, even if fictional, being cool here).
  • Men’s Health TV: workout routines for your morning run, articles on health and fitness, best songs to listen to whilst you work out.

You can see all these types of products working: and what’s more, you know that the media companies themselves will drive that discovery process far more efficiently than companies like Google (YouTube) and Vimeo ever could. They’ll be able to use the data and insights, combined with storytelling, to facilitate the process of discovery across these platforms.

And discovery will be key: producing those TV shows so men are relying and trusting you to provide them with their content, rather than them doing the legwork.

In short: video is going to be big business for the men’s market. It will be a way to reinvigorate the product back around interests in a compelling and interesting way: and will almost certainly see publishers attacking the mass-market television studios in the not-so-distant future.


It’s time for the media business to leverage free content

One of the big challenges for media in the 21st century is the abundance of free content that the internet throws up. It smashes apart the previously subscription driven models, forcing publishers to rethink how they create value outside of providing content for their audiences.

For many, this has involved expanding on their core offerings to provide multi-channels solutions. Take, for instance, one of my favorite companies: ShortList Media[1]. ShortList provides EDMs, web, tablet and print content to an upwardly mobile audience.

But as the value of content diminishes, so to must media companies recognize this. One of the best examples I have seen is Australian company ‘The Roar’[2]. The Roar focuses on providing sports opinion, rather than news, and boasts around 500,000 viewers each month.

The best part about the model, though, is their content model. The Roar has recognized that some of the best submissions come from fans, and as such, fan edited content is an essential part of their model. Fans are happy to provide content as it gives them an official platform for their voice to be heard on. This gives them the legitimacy to have their opinion heard, which is something they place a value on (and hence are happy to donate their time towards).

More importantly, the costs for The Roar of content are virtually nothing. Editing, sure, and subbing. But the journalist cost? Virtually nil.

The Roar recognizes, as any good publisher, that this cannot exist in absentia of any legitimized content from ‘expert’ columnists, and still go down this path. But by embracing the UGC [user generated content] model, they smash apart some of their content costs associated with the journalism model.

For big media, this is a great way to ensure your content is relevant whilst diminishing your cost of publishing. It creates a strong, two- way conversation with your readers that you know remains relevant. As a model, it provides one of the best ways for media businesses to leverage the diminishing value of content in the digital age.

Any good media business is going to have content-curation as a core part of its business. The Roar is showing the way in how media can increasingly embrace new content production models to fuel growth and reduce costs, all whilst keeping their great content relevant.