Founded in 2008 as a digital marketing events business, the company has since built its web publication into a must-read for online media and marketing insiders.
Digiday does this by creating a brand of journalism that is as engaging, relatable and as honest as any mass consumer publication — without pandering to the sort of person who has no business reading a story about ad-tech.
We spoke with Brian Morrissey, Digiday's president and editor-in-chief, about building a diversified revenue stream, creating branded content and resisting the temptation of that sweet, sweet, Facebook traffic.
Disclosure: The author recently accepted a freelance assignment from Digiday's branded content studio.
At a time when many publishers are attempting a delicate balancing act that will allow them to reel in the Facebook masses without alienating their regular readers, Digiday appears remarkably secure in what it is and whom it is trying to reach.
Native: Tell me about Digiday’s audience. What kind of people are they?
Brian Morrissey: The way we look at our audience is “people obsessed with the future of media and marketing.”
It’s focused, but at the same time, it’s not niche. I hate when people call it that because it’s always dismissive. They say, "Oh, it’s a niche site" and I don’t really believe that because the media and marketing worlds are enormous, and the group of people who are interested in the future of media and marketing is even bigger because that has a cultural dimension.
Our main audience is the people who are the players in those worlds. And that’s brands, advertising agencies, publishers, and platforms — both consumer platforms like Facebook, Snapchat and Twitter — and business-to-business platforms — ad tech and marketing tech companies that are building tools to enable brands, agencies and publishers to connect with audiences.
We’re sort of laser-focused on influence. It’s not as much of a pageviews play as a lot of people. I think what the Gigaom situation made pretty clear, outside of some fairly egregious mismanagement and perhaps a bad strategy with venture capital funding and venture debt especially, was that it’s pretty tough to get caught in between, and they got caught in between.
You’ve got Business Insider and BuzzFeed, and the rest of them who are going very, very mass and very, very big, and I think there’s an opportunity to have a focused media company that can aggregate a very, very focused audience. That will allow you to charge higher rates for access to that audience. Because if you’re going to chase pageviews, you’ve got to go all in. You’ve got to optimize for something.
We optimize for influence, we don’t optimize for pageviews.
Native: Interesting. How does your audience get to your site?
It’s interesting because we cover the rise of Facebook a lot, but we don’t see our audience portfolio getting too over-indexed on Facebook. It’s actually not the largest source of our social traffic. Twitter is still a larger source, oddly enough. This year, it’s been search, then it’s direct traffic, then it's Twitter, then it's Facebook.
One of the things about Facebook that I think everyone glosses over when they talk about their huge Facebook traffic is how crappy it is.
People from Facebook stay a really short period of time, and I know we’re not the only people. I think all those people boasting of their Facebook traffic are not talking about how their average visit is well under a minute.
Native: So, do you have plans to sell advertising based on anything besides clicks, then?
Brian Morrissey: Oh, we don’t sell on clicks. We sell sponsorships with CPM guarantees. So someone will buy out the Brands section and they’ll get all the ads on our stories about brands and then ads in the Brands newsletter, and there’s an impressions guarantee that we’ll reach.
The thing about being a focused company is you don’t have to sell on a CPM basis.
We don’t run any ad exchanges or ad networks, so we’re a little bit unusual in that. It’s another irony. We cover all that stuff, and we have zero.
It just doesn’t make sense for us to run retargeting ads and make $1 CPMs. For us, we’d rather use that space to promote a conference where a ticket costs a few thousand dollars rather than get a $1 CPM.
Native: What are the different revenue streams you guys have?
There’s the publishing side of things, which is the audience we build on the website through reporting. Then there’s the content studio, which is our creative services/agency side, which works with technology companies in order to create content that people will actually want to read and find valuable. They do that on our website, but hopefully soon we’ll be doing that on other websites.
And then we have an events business, where we bring together the key decision-makers in the media industry.
And they all work together.
We don’t look at our publishing business as just a place to directly monetize an audience.
We look at it as the key way that we build our brand as an influential source that’s used by influential people in the media and marketing industries. And how we monetize that is in a lot of different ways, but a lot of times it’s not direct.
So our publishing operation is not a loss leader for our events business, but it does build our brand and our influence that powers our events business.
The fact that we may not monetize [our site] through a display ad, but instead through a sponsorship at an awesome event we put on, to me it’s sort of irrelevant.
Native: Given that so much of your publication is geared toward covering branded content and reporting on the ethics surrounding it, do you feel like you have to be extra careful with what you do in that department?
Brian Morrissey: I mean, yes. Actually, maybe I would say “no” to that.
I mean if anything, we’re doing this because media has gone through a really difficult period and it’s in a lot of flux right now. I think that’s kind of exciting, and new models are emerging.
I think it’s worthy to try to build an innovative, and profitable, and ethical media company.
Because a lot of people are saying you can’t, and that you have to cut corners and things like that.
So I would say that’s the biggest motivation, and not that people are more likely to be like “Ah, gotcha!” because we write about this stuff and we call out people when they may blur the lines. I just think it’s more about what your company wants to be about.
Native: Got it. So what’s the process like for creating the branded content?
Brian Morrissey: It’s a separate group. There’s some people like The Daily Mail and even some larger publisher groups that have their editorial staffs do it. We’ve never had that setup.
I don’t think that the reporters who work for me would be very good at [branded content].
I know a lot of people say “Oh, it’s unethical” and stuff like this. Yeah, that’s part of it, but also I don’t think that the reporters who work for me would be very good at it. I think the people in the content studio are much better at it, just because they’re more experienced at it. Most of them have some reporting experience, but they’re used to doing branded content. I was in the kitchen hearing the back-and-forth with some client. I mean, my god, the reporters who are working for me would be terrible at that.
There’s five people in the [branded content] unit right now and we’re hiring two people. Right now, we’re just trying to figure out what the mix is that we need. I think that’ll be like seven people, but they use our four-person design team for a lot of things, too. They tap into resources across the company. Not editorial exactly, but they they’ll do stuff with sponsors to create mini events and stuff like that. So they’ll use our events infrastructure to do that.
Native: And finally, how do you measure the success of your branded content once it's finished?
Brian Morrissey: That’s the million-dollar question. It’s funny, when we started our content studio, we were like, “This is about thought leadership,” and all that stuff. And then, do you know what we end up finding? People wanted leads. (Laughing)
And so, you have a choice. You can either say, “Yeah, no, that’s not what I’m doing.” Or you can change, and that’s sort of what we did.
For some people, it’s about generating qualified leads. Whether it’s using a whitepaper, or whether it’s using a webinar to get people to sign up for something and then to be able to offer them services. You see a lot of people doing this.
For us, the key is if we can get a large enough, qualified audience that we can generate however many leads the client wants, that’s great, and we’ll do that through a variety of different methods.
For other people, the metrics that are being delivered are more typically associated with success in publishing. One, there’s the impression value because they’re basically getting an ad unit on the homepage, or on a section page, or in an email newsletter, and then they’re also getting social distribution.
But then there’s also how many people came to the piece of content, how much time they spent on it, and how many people shared it.
There isn’t one metric outside of the leads. When it’s leads, it’s leads. If you need 500 people for a webinar, it’s pretty black and white.
Qualified people, that’s the key.
A lot of people have larger audiences, but our bet is that we’ll be able to deliver qualified leads. That’s also why we haven’t done a lot of paid audience acquisition. Because it’s hard to guarantee that it’s the audience that we were selling to people.
I’m not opposed to it. I’m not opposed to any of those things. It’s just how can we do it in a way that we’re not diluting the quality and the focus of the audience we’re delivering?