Top Five Digital Media Launch Mistakes

by Elizabeth Spiers

I’ve been thinking about my work plan for 2015–things I want to change, things I like, and so on. Part of that process is figuring out what I’m doing wrong and what’s out of my hands. With consulting, what’s out of your hands can be anything from nearly all of it to almost none of it, depending on the client and the extent to which they give you the necessary authority to manage the project. In the last few years, I had one (very big, epically bureaucratic) non-media corporate client that seemed to actually relish doing the opposite of what I told them they should be doing, and 90% of my job was triage after they went off and did exactly what I told them not to do. But that’s actually pretty rare.

The bigger problem with larger clients is that when you have forty stakeholders at every major decision point (and you’re not one of them, by the way), you’re going to end up with a publication that looks like it was produced by forty people who couldn’t decide on a cohesive strategy. And in many cases, that problem is compounded by the fact that none of those forty people have any experience producing a media product. There’s a lot of risk-aversity; they don’t necessarily understand the media environment; and the decision making process is driven as much by internal politics as it is rational considerations about resource allocation and expected returns. Those are structural problems and if you’re working in one of those companies, I think the best thing you can do is find a group or a project area where you have some autonomy–a skunk works situation where you can carve out the space to take calculated risks and do it quickly.

It’s actually more frustrating to me when smaller, more agile companies make mistakes because I think they’re better set up to learn and adapt. So here’s some advice for them: five launch mistakes to avoid. I mention these five specifically because they happen so frequently.

1.) “We’ll just hire an intern for that.”

If the job could be done by someone with no experience, it’d be earmarked as an entry level position. You can’t just throw an intern at whatever you don’t want to spend money on and expect the results you’d get if you had staffed it properly. I’ve had some great interns, some of whom went on to work with me full-time and followed me to other jobs. Good interns are wonderful. But even the good ones need managing and teaching.  Interns are not staffers. They’re not invested in the same way, and they’re not bringing any prior knowledge or experience to the table. The best case is that you get someone enthusiastic and smart who learns quickly–and you have to have the resources on hand to teach them. And most of the people I see making this mistake want to hire interns precisely because they don’t have enough resources. So if the position needs to be a full time position and you can’t afford it, don’t fool yourself into thinking that this is a solution. It isn’t. It’s a bandaid, and it’s probably coming off the first time you get rained on. (Intern mistakes can be just as dangerous as staffer mistakes.)

2.) “What’s the salary range for that position? Great–we’ll take the lowest possible number and subtract 10K.”

This is the next step up from problem #1. You will pay for this mistake anyway–in talent and turnover. And especially at the entry level, turnover is costly because your senior better paid people have to spend all of their time training. Too many companies view junior talent as dispensable below a certain level because they don’t realize how many resources go into priming junior staffers to be senior staffers and once they’re trained up and doing their jobs well, they leave if they’re underpaid.

And the reality is, you need to budget for a range of salaries, not just the really attractive smaller number on the low end. Unless you want your entire product to be staffed with entry-level people–in which case you will get the kind of product that is produced by people with no experience. (And yes, there are outlier situations where this has probably worked. But let’s be pragmatic and assume that you are not the lottery winner.)

No one likes to hear about either of these mistakes because it implies that creating good content is going to actually cost money. Here’s the hard reality: it does. If you’re launching a new media property, you don’t need 200 staffers, but you’re not going to get very far with one and a handful of interns either.  There is a reasonable and happy medium.

Running lean is one thing, but you have to understand the difference between “lean” and “starving.” There is no genius in setting your product up to fail by spending the least amount of money possible. No one is going to look at your career and admiringly say, “Well, his company failed, but he spent the least amount of money possible running it into the ground.”

3.) “Our company has a proprietary CMS, ergo we are a tech company.”

What’s your primary product? What are you monetizing? If it’s not your technology, you are probably not a tech company–and you’re probably not going to get a tech company valuation* or the scalability of a tech company by insisting that you are. (Do you even have a company without content? No? Then you’re still probably a media company.**) Something else no one likes to hear: Media is not easily to scale, and margins are tight. The internet makes scaling easier, by nearly eliminating distribution costs, but you still need people to produce product (your content) and there’s a finite ceiling on what an individual can produce. You can add multipliers–investments in marketing, optimization technologies, and so on–but until our robot overlords have fully developed AI, you still need more people to produce more product.

I had a recurring conversation with the owner of the Observer about this, wherein he would play devil’s advocate: Why should I invest a million dollars more into the Observer when I could put it into an early stage tech company? If you’re just looking for returns, maybe you shouldn’t. A million dollars would get you more bang for the buck in early stage tech than it would in traditional or even digital media, assuming your investments don’t fail entirely.

But if you buy a newspaper, you can’t will it into being a scalable unit of proprietary technology simply by putting it on the Internet. If you’re not prepared to deal with the structural realities of the media market, then yes, you should probably spend your money elsewhere. This is why most media owners are not traditional investors anyway. No one gets into media because it’s the highest return business they could possibly be in.

Media is as different from technology as medical devices are from airlines or consumer packaged goods. The Internet is not enough of a commonality to conflate the two. So if you’re going to be a media investor, you need to understand the economics of the business and how it scales. And you can’t stick your head in the sand about the fact that the markets are not the same.

(Nick Carlson’s excellent Times mag profile of Marissa Mayer earlier this week highlights the fallacy of that. I don’t have an objection to thinking of media properties with a product orientation–in fact, I’d encourage it for anyone in the role of publisher–but you can’t think of them as technology products.)

4.) “Our audience is 316 million people between the ages of 18 and 65 with a 50/50 gender split.”

No, it isn’t. There are some products with an audience this big, but I doubt you’re running a toilet paper company. You need to decide who your target user is, and that user needs to be fairly specific. A 63 year old woman living in rural Alabama (i.e., my mother) doesn’t have the same preferences or behavior as a male teenager living in yuppie Brooklyn (half my 14 year old neighbors.) You can make a product for both of them, but in the beginning you have to make some choices. You have limited resources (as evidenced by your enthusiasm for hiring interns!) and if you spread them thinly across multiple markets, you won’t get traction in any of them. So who are the early adopters? (Who do you want to be the early adopters?) Targeting one market doesn’t necessarily turn off another one. But you have to have some idea of who you’re talking to, especially when your publication is new and doesn’t have an established brand yet. If you appear to be speaking indiscriminately to everyone, you won’t connect with anyone. Pick an audience now. You can always expand it later.

5.)  “We’ll just build a good product and the audience will find it.”

A few years ago this might have been true. But if you’re launching something new in 2015, the competitive market (in your category, and generally–anything else that might be capturing your target audience’s attention) is not what it was a few years ago. You need to actively market and promote, especially for a new launch. I like to hire editors and writers who are organically predisposed to putting their hard work out there, but you’re also probably going to have to allocate some resources to formal marketing, audience development, search optimization, etc.–if not from day one, then as soon as possible.

I’m not talking about broad spends around branding exercises here, which I find almost completely useless at the beginning stages. Audience perception of your brand will be driven more by what you end up producing than what you tell your audience the brand is. You can shove your mission statement and supposed identity down their throats all day and if what you end up giving them doesn’t reflect your supposed commitment to quality-slash-community-slash-whatever, your brand will be whatever their average experience of your content is.

But you need a catalyst to get going. Yes, there are people who start successful sites and they get traction entirely by word of mouth. And JK Rowling was rejected a thousand times before she got a book deal, and penicillin was discovered because Alexander Fleming mistakenly left a petri dish open, but no one would assume that the key to successfully getting a book deal is to be rejected a thousand times first, or that you can generally make a major scientific discovery by littering your lab with uncovered petri dishes. Again, you have to assume that you’re not the lottery winner here. And no one’s been able to figure out how to mechanically engineer word-of-mouth popularity. The typical site is going to need a push.

And why do people make these mistakes? Because everyone loves the fantasy that you can start with absolutely nothing and make a successful media company. There are great origin stories where it looks like that’s what happened, at least on the surface. From a distance that’s what Gawker looks like: 25 year old yokel from Alabama with no media experience blogging from her couch. But then you have to pull back the frame and note that the publisher was an ex-journalist and successful entrepreneur who already had a couple of exits under his belt. The 25 year old contributed the voice, which was crucial to the site’s success, but if she could have done it all by herself, she probably would have gone out and done that. Instead, there was some experience and money involved. And the competitive market was pretty much empty at the time. 100, 000 uniques a month was a meaningful number.

I don’t have any nostalgia for the media market then, and I wouldn’t go back. But it’s surprising to me how many people think it’s still 2002, and that the single-blogger-on-her-couch scenario isn’t just possible, it’s some sort of baseline. Low barriers to entry via magical thinking become no barriers to entry. And that’s just not the case anymore–if it ever was.

* Unless the investment community collectively agrees to stick their heads in the sand and call you a tech company, in which case you might. That kind of assessment often tends to come (not coincidentally) after the company has already managed to acquire eight figures or so of investment money that might look pretty boneheaded if it were put into a media company. Again, let’s not assume you’re the lottery winner here.

** I think that platform companies that are also functioning as publishers are an in-between exception here, but that’s another post.