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9 Ways The Most Innovative Media Organizations Are Growing

Jim Babb
Jim Babb

In 2014, media organizations experienced an unprecedented arms race instigated by startups, traditional rivals and brands becoming content companies.

Showing up with good content is no longer good enough.

Only 15-35% of visitors, on the average media site, go deeper than two pages.
Source: Chartbeat Quarterly: Vol 1. Fall 2014

With content on-demand and ever-available, traditional loyalty is going the way of the homepage. Continuing to optimize for increased page views no longer makes business sense.

In this age of transformation, the ability to create new and differentiated methods of sustained growth has become more important than ever. Only the innovative and agile prevail.

Below is a framework, followed by observations on some of the most innovative media organizations. Each example demonstrates an insight on how to shift from using traditional marketing practices alone, to a holistic approach for growing and retaining users.

Traffic: After you get it, how do you use it?

Legacy model: Traffic focused

Monetizing visitors exclusively through ads led to an overemphasis on the top of the funnel and a disconnect from the bottom.

the traditional traffic focused funnel - acquisition, activation, and actions

New model: Growth focused

In the new model, traffic is a means to an end, not the end itself. Creating, tracking and optimizing an entire funnel not only grows traffic, but develops additional opportunities for creating more sustainable value.

Growth focused funnel - Acquisition, activation and actions

1. Niche Spreads Better Than Broad

While often counter intuitive for organizations at scale, more narrowly targeted content has the potential to reach deeper through networks than traditional mass content.

buzzfeed post - 27 signs you were raised by asian immigrant parents
The dramatic decline in the New York Times homepage traffic
Source: NYTimes Innovation Report

Over 2M Views
This BuzzFeed post
received over 2M views by speaking directly to 18M Asian-Americans.

Social is the New Homepage
Social networks are overtaking the website homepage
as the dominant content discovery mechanism.

Reasons Why

It’s easier to make resonate: Acknowledging a specific and quantifiable audience enables a content creator to focus on crafting their content in a way that resonates more with the target.

It’s more sharable: Audiences are more inspired to share compelling content with like-minded peers than content that feels generic.


How can your organization make better content for a networked audience?

2. Rapidly Expand Like a Multi-Channel Network

While having different verticals (lifestyle, sports, etc…) is nothing new to scaled media organizations, new entrants are able to grow audiences incredibly fast by smartly integrating and sharing audiences between partners.

The Verge, SB Nation, Curbed and Polygon

Over 15M Monthly Uniques in 9 Months
The blogging pioneers behind The Verge and SBNation combined their innovative tech with Ezra Klein’s voice to jump start their new platform.

Maker Studios' Monthly Active Users

$1B Youtube Network
By aggregating the efforts and audiences of individual creators, while leveraging the operational scale, Maker Studios is defining a future of networked media.

Reasons Why

Low switching costs: Today, users are disloyal and bounce around to different brands that provide immediate value. The switching cost of media is practically zero, so sharing traffic at the top of your funnel is no longer something to fear.

Partnering is the default: Any teen will tell you the best way to increase your number of social followers is by making content with someone who has more followers. This mindset of building networks through networking is inherent with innovative media organizations.

More platform-like: The distribution of media is incredibly easy to scale, but the backend scaling of operations is what makes an MCN-like organization more valuable to their consumer facing brands, verticals and talent.


How can your organization get more value out of current or future partnerships?

3. Aim High to Attract Attention

Taking risks and heavily investing in validated bets attracts new audiences. These high profile projects are press-worthy themselves and inspire top talent.

Snow Fall - New York Times

Old Dog, New Tricks
The New York Time’s Snow Fall pushed their narrative journalism to new digital heights and won them a Pulitzer Prize too.

House of Cards - Netflix

Start Strong
Netflix launched into original programming by ordering an unprecedented initial two seasons of House of Cards without even producing a pilot.

Most Popular Podcast Ever
The most popular podcast
made an even more popular podcast. By investing heavily in an underutilized medium, This American Life’s team created a new project so compelling that people shifted their listening behaviors and expanding the entire market.

Serial podcast
Reasons Why

The content R&D lab: While it’s important to keep your risks in check, saving resources for experimentation allows safe spaces to push boundaries and find new insights.

Long & evergreen: Big pieces of “stock” content stand the test of time and remain valuable long after the latest Tweet has been forgotten.

Memorable: While sparking buzz, differentiated and significant content connects with people and reminds them what your organization stands for.


What bet will have the biggest impact, while also having the greatest odds of success?

4. Content Calendars That Match Behaviors

Interest in breaking news always peaks when it’s the most fresh, however behaviors around other forms of content are dispersing. Besides the most immediate uses, your data can reveal how visitors use your content for other purposes.

BuzzFeed Pinterest Strategy - 27 Halloween Party Hacks

Pinners Pin Early
BuzzFeed pre-seeds its Halloween content in September so its Pinterest-loving audience has enough time to organize their projects before the holiday.

vox explainer content strategy

Links Made Evergreen
Vox’s innovative “card” based UI
delivers explainers on current events. Rather than pushing new stories, Vox updates existing pages which makes them evergreen and SEO friendly.

Reasons Why

Not all social is twitter: While the media industry is heavily influenced by Twitter, other social behaviors are less ephemeral and open opportunities for sustainable feedback loops.

Passive and active content: The social newsfeed is a passive experience, where friends curate content for us. At the same time, we actively seek out other types of content. Smart media organizations balance content for both behaviors to create multiple in and out roads.


What unconventional ways are visitors using your content? How can you leverage it?

5. Treat Every Page as a Landing Page

As every page becomes an entry point, create custom optimized experiences for each user based on insights of who is visiting and why.

BuzzFeed puts pin buttons on some pages, but not on others

Choose Your Own Display
Buzzfeed observed that users coming to their listicles from Pinterest were sharing content back to Pinterest, not to other social sites. By revising their layout for these users, Buzzfeed grew Pinterest into their 2nd highest social referrer.

Reasons Why

Segment by referrer: Where users come from is the first insight into their behavior. Compare and contrast behavior from different sources as a jumping off point to create more value for them.

Users have preferred social networks: Chartbeat observed that users are far more likely to return to a site via the same social referrer than all others combined. If a user came through Twitter, chances are they’ll come back through Twitter.

Destinations are revealing: Besides where users come from, knowing where and why they go helps determine what valuable actions they are most likely to take. Which group of users is most likely to sign up for a newsletter, share or go one page deeper?


Do you understand where your audience comes from, where they go, and how you might create a value exchange between you and them?

6. Design For Habits

Meaningful relationships and increased engagement are created by designing content and products that fit into a user’s existing and underserved behavior.

wnyc discover app functionality and user experience

Built for Commuters
Much of WNYC’s audience spends time underground commuting so they designed an app that pre-downloads the right amount of content for the trip.

product hunt content user experience

User Content That Make's Sense
Product Hunt
reached 11M Monthly Uniques by combining the addictive fun of Reddit’s up-voting with the existing behavior of seeking out and discussing new products.

Circa news app - content experience and strategy

Push Notification as News
Circa knows smart phones are rarely far away and are building a modern news delivery service that is timely, customizable and at your fingertips.

Reasons Why

Behavior change is hard: We all know habits are hard to change. Instead of trying to go against the grain of change, serve the habits they’ve already formed.

Loyalty through behavior: Rather than traditional emotional brand loyalty, users today are more loyal to products and services that are aligned with their behavior and provide them with the most value.


What valuable behaviors are your users already doing and how can you join them?

7. Create Direct Connections With Valuable Users

While still a somewhat unproven business model, a few innovative organizations are attempting to grow and monetize existing channels rather than driving users elsewhere. Within these opt-in connections, content providers can push directly to users.

theskimm email signup

Connecting With 500k People With Every Email
pushes a highly stylized news digest to their millennial audience every morning.

buzzfeed distributed content bff

No Place to Go
BFF, BuzzFeed’s new experiment, attempts to crack every social platform the way they did Facebook, by creating platform specific content that doesn’t drive anywhere else.

Reasons Why

Direct connections are proprietary: Having a direct relationship with users not only fosters more guaranteed reach, but it also opens up valuable sources of data.

Most loyal are most valuable: While more challenging to scale, having a direct connection with your most loyal users can be incredibly valuable to experiment with alternative forms of monetization.

Skip the driving step: Driving users to a place where they can be monetized is increasingly difficult. By creating value directly in these distributed networks, these innovative players hope to disrupt the need to drive users anywhere.


How can you create own-able direct connections with your most valuable users?

8. Content Sells, So Let it

With the rise of native advertising, the line between ad and content is disappearing. Aligning with this change, a few content companies are experimenting with making their content sell things.

instacart yummly integration

Pick a Recipe, Get the Groceries
, the recipe app, just partnered with Instacart to bring on-demand grocery delivery to their users. Simply pick a recipe and have the ingredients delivered within an hour.

opening ceremony on spring app

Window Shopping
While still unproven, Spring is attempting to merge mobile commerce, Instagram-like content and follow mechanics.

Reasons Why

The most valuable user action: Converting traffic into actual sales provides an alternative opportunity for revenue, brand voice and user value.

Growing advertising capabilities: As more media organizations build in-house branded content teams, they’ll be able to use these new teams and capabilities to sell their own products and services.


What sales opportunities overlap with your current product and user behavior?

9. Get Physical to get Authentic

While the digital content space is increasingly fragmented, opportunities exist for differentiation through the authentic and physical premium experiences.

pinapple airbnb magazing

Non-Traditional Publishers
Last year Airbnb launched Pineapple a travel & lifestyle magazine and Warby Parker added a publishing imprint to their eyeglass business.

media organizations conferences and live events

A Gathering of Your Closest Friends
Call it a Sunday revival, family dinner or the spawn of TED conference. Media organizations are finding value in bringing their core audience together.

Reasons Why

Old school is cool: Last year vinyl record sales hit a 18 year high while “heritage” American brands are all the rage in fashion.

People like to come together: With Twitter it has never been easier for fans to connect to creators and perhaps paradoxically, there have never been bigger crowds of fans at Comic Con and other fan events.


Do you have existing communities that could be leveraged into premium physical experiences?


The observations and insights above were born from organizations unafraid to experiment, fail, learn and grow the bets validated by their internal metrics. There is undeniably something amazing that happens at the intersection of a specific audience, a well-designed distribution mechanic and great content. For those prepared to adapt to this disruptive climate, the future holds incredible potential for both audiences/users and media organizations.

Please feel free download and share this pdf version of these observations. Special thanks to the smart @kylerw.