Hearst’s Darren Goldsby: “We’re in a good place right now”

Goldsby will be at FIPP London (10-11 May), where he will speak in the FIPP Tech channel. Jon Watkins caught up with him.

At the FIPP London you’ll be talking about how content and tech can work together to create audience engagement. Obviously the digital revolution has created great opportunities, but presumably it’s now way more competitive, too? What does that mean for Hearst?

Absolutely. That really sums it up in one sentence. Clearly, the history of content in print was that the audience came to you and there was a scarcity of product. Now, you’ve got this ubiquitous product that is everywhere, on every platform, on every device that you can possibly handle. You can get BBC News on your watch now, for goodness sake. So you have to go to the audience. But in all of that, the serendipity that an editor gives you, the placement of two stories near each other to create that journey, is still incredibly valuable. And the trust that we have created with our audience, which happened through print and digital, is still incredibly valuable. So we’re in a wonderful position where we have great trust, we have great editorial products and we’re a huge organisation – so we can invest technically. And I think that any media company in its right mind will consider themselves a tech media company now, recognising the value of creative and tech working together.

I agree. But it took us a while to get there, right?

Oh, absolutely. It’s not an easy journey. They’re kind of very different types of people. You could argue it’s creative and logic working together in harmony. Editors pride themselves on understanding their audience implicitly, but now we’re talking about gathering huge amounts of data, creating statistically relevant tests to prove whether or not something works. You could see that as an affront to the editorial capability but I see it, and I think our editors see it, as an extra tool in their armoury. So we’re about creating tools in the editorial armoury. Equally, in the commercial space, the model’s different. If you’re an efficient organisation that started from scratch and has slapped a bunch of programmatic ads on your site, you’ll probably make a few quid but it’s not very attractive. The premium display marketplace is a very difficult place right now. So we’ve looked at what makes us different and what separates us in the marketplace. And what that is, is our great content, the trust of our readers and the ability to create good tech resourcing around it. So we talk very strongly about how we’ll create partnerships that reach our audiences well and use our technology to find those audiences and bring them to us – and we’ll provide them with content that works. I think we’re in a good place right now. I feel really confident that the moves we’re making in the marketplace are the right moves for Hearst.

Of course, the modern world requires us to give our content away more than we used to – and more traditional players in the industry are not so comfortable with that. Have you seen a culture shift at Hearst, to coincide with the way the industry is embracing tech?

Yes. And it’s not an easy cultural shift because lots of questions get asked. Someone asked me recently why we aren’t selling our content and it’s hard to say ‘because anyone can get content anywhere now’. An editor will often say their content being paid for, and my answer to that would be ‘how does the audience know until they’ve read it?’ If they can’t read it because it’s not free, they won’t read it and they’ll never know. And what you actually end up with is a load of people reading rubbish products, and no one wants that.

I’ve been in the content business for 16 years and what I now know is that people want great content. Sometimes they don’t get it – because they read some rubbish nonsense they believe that’s what content’s all about. But suddenly you put in front of them some wonderful, beautifully written long-form content from an Esquire, an Elle or a Harper’s, or a great campaign from Cosmopolitan, and they say ‘wow, this is amazing, why haven’t I ever read this before?’ So you have to get the content in front of them. Editors get that. They do. Then it’s a case of making sure that it’s clearly demonstrating what the value of that content is. And I think volume speaks for itself. Editors love it when they see their content getting to lots and lots of people, when they see people really enjoying that content and engaging with it. So you need to get past all the objections and all the fear and buzzwords, and just say: ‘See that article?  600,000 people read it. Each of them spent a minute and a half on it and they all read something else afterwards.’ That’s what matters.

What will emerging platforms mean for further audience engagement?

It’s just more and more places. We’re all competing for space on people’s home screens, on their phones or in their 15-minute break at lunchtime when they’re having a sandwich and they want to read a few pieces of content. And more and more we see people coming from social to our site. It’s clear that the future is multi-platform, we cannot deny that and we have to recognise and embrace it. And there are different models for this. You look at Facebook, Twitter and Google with its AMP offering now on search, and they’re all looking at feed-based, fast, lightweight content that hasn’t got all the tagging and all the tracking – and which is quick to get to the consumer. Then you look at Snapchat and they’ve got an entirely different publishing model, which is actually a bit more like traditional magazine content in a way – really compelling, article based, a book of content per day that lots of people go to. And it’s proper – it’s not feed based. So there are lots of different models. Of course, it’s quite expensive to be able to get on to all of those platforms. But it’s where our audience is and that’s what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to get there.

There will be sites where we’ll probably have bigger audiences socially than on the web and there’ll be sites where we won’t get a huge amount from social – because we’ve got such a breadth of content that reaches such a diverse audience. Cosmo feels like signpost for the future. What’s happening on Cosmo now will happen in five, six years’ time on other brands. 

Presumably, the emergence of distribution over destination is also shaking things up – allowing you to engage audiences without even pulling them back to a destination?

Yes, very much so, and there is a different model for each. When we look at audience engagement, we look at the audience that we can reach, the viability from a content perspective – does that content really work on that platform; does that audience want to read our content on that platform; do people want to read other content on that platform? Then we have to look at whether we believe we can monetise it in whatever way is appropriate – and there’s not one way to do that.

Ok, so on the subject of monetisation, what are your views on ad blocking right now?

Ah, that’s an interesting question – and one I get that asked all day long. It exists, of course, and we know it’s happening. And we understand why it’s happening. We can’t stop ad blocking from happening. We just have to respect that some people are paying to do that and some people are blocked. So then we have to provide commercial offerings that people want to go and see. We’ve built an entire commercial ethos and product based around content – we call it shared spaces (in the US, we’ve started calling it content first). It’s all about having our entire content in partnership with our commercial partners in a way that is non-intrusive to the audience. That means things that audiences want to read and which the partner can play a part in – sharing our editorial space with the customer. Ultimately, people vote with their fingers, so if they don’t like something and they think it’s too ‘advertising’, too commercial, they’ll just disappear and go away.

What really excites you right now in the world of emerging technology – such as virtual reality and AI, for example?

There was a really interesting article this morning that said that virtual reality and augmented reality are looking for the killer app – and I think that’s a really interesting point. There’s still something that’s not quite there for those technologies. For me, augmented reality wins over virtual. But also, the second screen is something we’ve been talking about for five or six years now. Amazon has now got this x-ray proposition in its Amazon Instant Video, Prime Video. That’s just a link into IMBd, so you can tap the screen and it tells you all about them. That is augmented. That’s augmented content on top of a video. And that’s really powerful and why I think augmented reality has a part to play in what we do. In whatever form it is, people enjoy knowing more about the things that are going on around them. My son, who’s six in a couple of weeks’ time, has conversations with Siri on my iPad actually…

…it used to be your iPad

Ha! Exactly – it’s his iPad now… but that’s his form of search. His search is voice and visual. And that’s why AR excites me – because visual and voice search are probably the future of that generation. They’re using keyboards, but not very often, and only because they have to. He would much rather be using his voice or pictures – what is this picture; who drew this picture; who painted this painting; who made this? That’s massively powerful. So I think AR is really good and the point for us is that they’ll need content for it to work.

Join Goldsby and others in London from 10-11 May. Our Early Bird, discounted rate for FIPP London is available until 1 April. You can sign up at the discounted rate, here.

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