Lessons from MIT Technology Review’s digital transformation

MIT Technology Review found itself stuck in bit of a rut in 2015. The 124-year-old bi-monthly magazine, owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, only appeared in print, had no social media channels and journalists were not using a CMS. Enter CEO and publisher Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau who has transformed the title into a digital-first, multi-platform brand.

“We had to change everything – it feels like in seven years we have transformed it a couple times,” she told Alan Hunter, co-founder of HBM Advisory, during a discussion at the recent FIPP World Media Congress in Cascais, Portugal.

“And I think maybe that’s normal. I’m not saying it was normal in 2015 to be where we were, but I think this kind of constant reinvention is probably not something I’m going to get to stop doing.”

Digging into niches

As Bramson-Boudreau looked at the challenge confronting her after arriving at the publication she knew she could count on one thing – top-notch content. The problem was not enough people had access to it.

“Most of the content was really, really great. Until you get to know us, many people think maybe this is an academic journal. No, it’s tech journalism about emerging technologies as they come out of the labs and before they enter our lives. We’ve been writing about AI for 30-40 years.

“But when it’s only print, it’s only reaching a fraction of the audience. So, what we had to was really dig into niches.”

A popular event the publication stages around AI pointed the way forward for Bramson-Boudreau and led to the launch of focused newsletters.

“Events were a very successful piece of the business, particularly one around AI – the who’s who of Silicon Valley and academic leaders in the field,” she explained.

“So, we needed to really build out an AI kind of niche. We built out niche-specific newsletters in AI – we had one on space, we had one on the future of work, which in 2016 or so was a new kind of concept.

“We built these newsletters so that we were constantly building an audience around people who cared about those topics, who could also be leads for buying tickets to our events.”

Pivoting towards subscriptions

In terms of MIT Technology Review’s digital offering, the magazine initially focused on reach as a way to quickly revive things but have recently moved its focus to subscriptions to ensure longterm prosperity.

“When I arrived with sellers not selling, I knew the ceiling in advertising was dropping, and I knew we were way down at the floor,” Bramson-Boudreau recalled. “So, there was a long way for us to go, but that wasn’t ultimately where we were going to have a happy life because the roof is coming down.

“So, while we first needed some quick money, we knew that reader revenue was going to be our future. What we needed to do is make sure we were pivoting our attentions over time. As we stabilised the advertising side of things, we knew we had to build our subscription offer, but there was a lot that had to happen in order to do that.”

The first thing that had to change was the mindset of the editorial department. Today the approach at MIT Technology Review is writing for a particular audience, using big enterprise stories to generate a lot of traffic and bring people in.

The publication then tries to convert readers into becoming a newsletter subscriber for free, serving up more “beat coverage” on AI, biomedicine, robotics and cybersecurity.

“We want to serve you those on a regular basis to get you to come back since we’ve brought you in for that big kind of splash story that maybe was an exclusive or a deep investigation. That is where we encourage you to subscribe,” said Bramson-Boudreau.

 “The editor-in-chief totally buys into that strategy. But it has taken him quite a bit of work to get all of his reporters – some of whom came from a ‘let’s get a lot of eyeballs’ kind of backgrounds – to help them to understand better who they need to be writing to.”

Bramson-Boudreau has adopted what she calls a “portfolio approach” to managing the editorial team.

“Not all of them should be about nurturing existing readers – some of them ought to be about lots of traffic, and those people maybe get a little bit more time to do the big investigative pieces, so their volume of stories is lower because they’re meant to have more blockbuster stories,” she said.

“Whereas others on the team have to be much more about daily or the weekly labour of tracking what’s changing in their particular beats. They’re going to have more stories that they need to produce. But expectation is that each of those stories is going be less phenomenal on the traffic side and then the collection of each of those individual stories at the end of the year ought to make for a portfolio that works across the platform.”

Being attached to a world-renowned research university like MIT is something that also guides Bramson-Boudreau and her team.

“Those sort of clickbaity things that are about dumb eyeballs is not going to work for us because you can imagine people will start to get really nasty as say ‘What has become of MIT’.”

Asked for one piece of advice to give to a fellow CEO who’s embarking on the digital transformation of their magazine company, Bramson-Boudreau said it was all about knowing your niche audience and understanding what exactly people are going to pay for.

“I think a lot of us in the media industry think, and we’re right, that the content is really good,” she added. “But it has to be uniquely special because we are so overwhelmed by subscription offers.”


Your first step to joining FIPP's global community of media leaders

Sign up to FIPP World x