Last month, an internal report written by a strategy team at the New York Times was leaked to the public. Written over the course of six months with consultation of over 350 people, the Nieman Lab at Harvard called the 97 page report “one of the key documents of this media age”.
Here at Percolate, we believe you don’t have to be a newspaper to appreciate the key findings of the report.
The ideas it puts forth hold tremendous value for marketers as we move into a world of brands as publishers and adapt to the rise of content marketing. Having reviewed the report in depth, we’ve identified several major takeaways worth considering.
Don’t build one off hits – create systems and better tech
In 2012, the NYTimes produced a story called Snowfall, a multi-part series on an avalanche that took place in Washington State, pouring technical and design resources into explanatory video graphics, embedded slideshows, and animations triggered by scrolling down the page. The project was a big hit, both critically and in terms of traffic.
However, it seems the Times learned the wrong lesson, and now “Graphics, Interactive, Design and Social are spending a disproportionate amount of time on these labor-intensive one-offs. Meanwhile, we have repeatedly put off making the necessary improvements to allow our graphics to appear on mobile.”
Instead of investing their resources into technology and infrastructure that would allow them to easily launch new Snowfalls, they continue to chase the big hits. Many marketers are doing the same thing, thinking too much campaigns vs sustained communication.
Instead of just pouring more resources into the next hit, think about how system can scale your efforts. As the founder of BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti says in the report:
“Our tech team, product team, and data science team … have spent years building publishing formats (lists, quizzes, video, longform, short-form, breaking news, photo essays, explainers), stats and analytics, optimization and testing frameworks, integrations with social platforms, native-mobile apps, and a user-friendly, visually pleasing design. This is a massive investment that is very difficult to replicate, it is part of the reason that the best editorial talent wants to join BuzzFeed.”
All content needs a distribution / audience / influencer strategy
When you really think about it, the newspaper distribution system is an incredible marketing effort – loading newspapers into trucks to be driven to cities and towns across the nation, delivering the paper to people’s doors or prime locations at corner stores and newspaper racks.
But when it comes to digital distribution, the NYTimes’s efforts are far more muted:
“After we spent more than a year producing a signature piece of journalism — the “Invisible Child” series — we alerted our marketing and PR colleagues too late for them to do any promotion ahead of time. The reporter didn’t tweet about it for two days.”
The report goes on to detail the efforts that publications ranging from the super-viral Buzzfeed to ProPublica, the “bastion of old-school journalism values” take to ensure their content reaches their audience: plans for search, social, PR promotion; several tweets written and ready to go, sharable images to hit Facebook, etc.
Additionally, the report recommended thinking more about the content that comes after the content.
With the example of Michael Sam, the first openly gay NFL player, the NYTimes wrote a great initial story but missed out on opportunities like having Op-Ed teed up, doing a Google+ Hangouts with other gay athletes, reaching out to NYTimes editors and community websites with strong gay followings, etc.
Marketers generally spend a lot of time thinking about how their content will “get big”, but still, we can sometimes overlook the amount of work involved in maximizing the reach of a piece of content. Leveraging numerous and varied platforms in the right way is now a crucial responsibility for marketers.
Collections can be a powerful way to resurface old content
The Times report talked about how as a newspaper, the organization focused only on new content and often didn’t do enough to promote older content from the archives.
“On a whim, Andrew Phelps created a Flipboard magazine of our most important obits of the year and it became the best-read collection in the history of the platform.”
The NYTimes has nearly 15M articles dating back to 1851, but most stories see 90% of their total traffic in just the first week or so. The report when on to discuss two experiments where collections of wedding stories and (separately) sex trafficking stories that put together and promoted outside the homepage. Both were huge hits.
Marketers, like journalists, are often thinking about what’s new. What’s next. But while change is good and novelty is interesting, breathing new life into older but still relevant content allows you to get more from your marketing efforts.
Over 127 million posts on Instagram were tagged with #tbt (throwback thursday), showing that even consumers recognize the value of old content.
Experiments are important – but frame failure carefully
Editors at the Times appear to agree that the paper needs to do more experiments But the authors were quick to point out that real experimentation goes far beyond simply trying something new.
“Real experimentation is about adopting a rigorous, scientific method for proving new concepts and constantly tweaking them to be as successful as possible. This is how every major digital innovator — including Google and Amazon — works today.”
As a stark example, the report points out that The Verge, a tech news publication, redesigned its home page 53 times in two years, while the NYTimes in January announced its first homepage redesign in seven years. That’s a 1:183 ratio for those keeping track at home.
The report went on to argue that real experimentation means being upfront about goals and deliberate and open about why something is being shuttered if it didn’t meet it’s goals.
Whether we’re a reporter or a social media strategist or a brand manager, we know we need to try new things. But we also want our new things to work right, every time, on the first try. Unfortunately, that’s never going to happen. Headlines can flop. Hashtags can bomb. Snark can get blowback.
Let’s take experimentation back to its scientific roots: a quest for knowledge and understanding. Let’s recognize that the world is too complicated to pretend we have all the answers and see invalidation of a hypothesis as a sign that we’re learning something.
Find ways to develop, engage, and promote young talent
Towards the end, the report acknowledges that in order to build the technology platform it needs to succeed in a digital-first world, they need to cultivate a brand that the NYTimes is a place for talented digital natives. It took the brave approach of interviewing promising staffers who left the Times for new (and often better) roles at other publications.
As one said: “Figure out a way to take a big chance on someone. In 1992, the ‘Today’ show was already a 40- year American institution when NBC appointed 26-year-old Jeff Zucker as its executive producer. We all know the success that happened after that. But can you imagine something like that happening at The New York Times?”
Marketing at enterprise organizations might not be as stifling as that of a newspaper, but if you’re a VP or CMO, consider taking another look at hiring and promoting practices. Are you perhaps overvaluing certain traits, like traditional brand management experience, at the expense of new and probably more relevant ones like platform fluency, analytics, and programming skills?
With the transformations taking place across our discipline, we can’t afford to lose great people because they aren’t being valued or fully utilized within our organizations.
The entire report is riveting and worth reading. Put together by eight respected members of NYTimes team, with experience in finance, video, software development, and design, it’s a clarion call to not just the newspaper, but anyone who creates media in 2014.