Publishers are the heart and soul of the internet. They curate highly engaged audiences with content designed to entertain, educate, and inspire. With digital ad spend reaching $129.3 billion in the U.S. this year, publishers are the vessel by which brands and marketers are connecting with consumers online.
I recently sat down with friend and client Jason Wagenheim, Chief Revenue Officer of Bustle Digital Group, to learn more about how his talented team of writers, editors, creatives, and marketers are disrupting the online publishing marketplace and creating the model for the media company of the future.
At BDG, you have your finger on the pulse of consumer trends, and more specifically, of those within the millennial and Gen Z audiences. How are you helping marketers better understand these extremely influential audiences?
We feel a major sense of accountability in helping our partners understand our audience, what’s on their minds, and what’s driving their consumption behavior. Each year, the BDG Trends team conducts several significant research initiatives to dive deeper into topics that matter to our brand partners and audience. We use those real-world insights to help our partners plan and tell more impactful stories through branded content and other formats. We also maintain a 5,000-person audience panel made up of our most engaged readers, The BDG Hive, with whom we communicate regularly on topics ranging from beauty and fashion to entertainment, news, and politics.
To build on the previous question, how do you think marketers should be engaging with these audiences?
Millennial and Gen Z audiences demand more from marketers in 2019 than ever before. We’re now starting to understand what’s driving Gen Z in particular, and how they’re different from millennials. One thing is for certain: They want brands to stand for something, be honest, and take action. We’ve identified “Five Rules of Engagement” that have become the backbone of all the work we do: (1) Know your story; (2) Inspire instead of aspire; (3) Provide them with a service; (4) Show, don’t tell; and (5) Always let insights lead the way. When we’re hyper-focused on these things, we see rates of engagement that are three to four times higher than when we don’t.
In your opinion, how does the behavior of these two audiences influence the way that they interact with publishers? Brands?
Neither audience is going to engage with a brand or publisher if they feel it doesn’t align with their values, or if that brand or publisher isn’t relatable. The biggest compliment we often hear from our readers is “Thank you; I see myself in your stories. You get me.” Both Gen Zers and millennials are incredibly savvy and do their homework on us all. They regard business as a force for positive social impact and know about our corporate social responsibility initiatives, our values, and action that we’ve taken to move forward with what’s needed. Their relationship with brands and publishers goes well beyond ads and the product they’re getting from us. To that end, they demand transparency and are double-checking that brands are practicing what they preach.
What brands are “getting it right” in terms of having an authentic identity and strong audience engagement?
We’re really pleased to see so many getting it right. Nike and Dick’s Sporting Goods immediately come to mind. First, Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, and LeBron James last year was the shot heard ‘round the world. Not only did the brand take a stand in response to intense public political debates, but it featured the very athletes whose voices were heard the loudest. Nike is a risk-taker, and it had to expect some of the Twitter hate and public sneaker-burning that ensued, but it didn’t waiver; it did what Nike always does: It just did it. Nike customers — new and old — know exactly what Nike stands for, and the brand is consistently rewarded for that. Sales surged 30 percent after the campaign went live.
Several brands took a stand on gun safety initiatives and gun sales policy reform after the tragedy at Parkland. There was a new level of activism we haven’t seen in decades — mainly driven by some incredibly strong and passionate Gen Zers — but we also saw brands immediately respond, even if it wasn’t popular among their core customer base. Following Parkland, the CEO at Dick’s Sporting Goods announced gun sales policy changes in its stores nationwide. Regardless of the social media backlash from parts of its consumer base, Dick’s will be a winner in the long term.
You often talk about an “insights-led” approach to marketing. What does this mean, and why is it important?
For too long, media decisions were made based on the preferences or hunches of executives, many of them completely out of touch with the audiences they aimed to reach. When we say “let insights lead the way,” we mean that we use both qualitative and quantitative data to help inform everything we do. We have really smart and connected marketers and editors who know our audience because they are our audience — but when you layer those smarts over audience and content insights from partners like Quantcast, we create a new superintelligence that makes our proposals truly great, and the chances of delivering successful campaigns even greater.
BDG is the epitome of a modern media company. Can you tell us about your approach to M&A, and about what made brands like Gawker, Mic, and The Zoe Report appealing to your team?
There are many incredible digital-first media brands that have highly-engaged audiences and great content, but that are finding it hard to operate and be financially viable businesses in this complex, competitive environment. When Bustle started in 2013, the goal was to create great content and build an operational model and infrastructure that could scale to support other brands. With the operational stack we’ve now built, we’re able to support six media brands (Bustle, Romper, Elite Daily, The Zoe Report, Gawker and Mic, and our experiential offering, Flavorpill) and have them immediately contribute to our EBITA, where they otherwise couldn’t go it alone. Each acquisition is incremental to the others — we’re constantly acquiring new audiences and advertisers with every one.
In this same vein, in your opinion, what type of environment is necessary for new media brands to thrive?
I’m really happy to see audiences and advertisers start to shift back toward wanting premium content that matters to a highly-engaged audience. We need a media and advertising ecosystem with more than just a few players taking the largest bites of the pie. There should be diversity in audience and content; a suite of great, proven products in branded content; high-impact display; rich social programs — even programmatic and affiliate revenue. To achieve these goals, I think we’re going to continue to see a lot more consolidation among publishers and media companies in the year or two ahead.
Talent is certainly the secret to success. How do you ensure that BDG retains the best of the best — and once they get there, how do you keep them?
Behind every successful company is a strong workforce. We are proud of the growth at BDG and have built a really successful business around our brands — and as a result, we’ve become a popular place to work. As we’ve gone from zero to 300+ employees in just five years, we haven’t been without our growing pains, but we’re spending a lot of time listening to our team at all levels, understanding what our culture is becoming as we acquire new brands (and their teams!), and supporting our team in the community service work that matters to them. Some of this evolution happens organically; at other times, we’ll take a more formal, structured approach.
At Quantcast, one of our mantras is that “Publishers Power the Internet.” What powers BDG?
It’s our connection to our audience, first and foremost, and the community that we have built. But it’s also our authenticity, relatability, and ability to execute great work for our partners. These things were the foundation of the company we built in 2013, and they have since fueled our success — we all bring these things with us each day we come to work.
I often talk about the importance of finding your superpower. Jason, what is yours?
Wow, I’d love to hear what my team thinks (or maybe not!), but I’d say it’s an ability to think on my feet and treat all people — no matter who they are — with respect and kindness. It surprises me how many people I see lose sight of how important empathy and respect are in business and in life, and I think you can just be so much more successful if you’re not an ass. My dad taught me that from Day 1.