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Dec. 9, 2011, noon

Josh Macht: Having two brands isn’t better than having one

The Boston Globe is trying out a two-site strategy to get the best of the free and paid web. But the group publisher of Harvard Business Review group argues from experience that it’s important to keep a brand unified and consistent.
Editor’s note: We’ve written before about the new split-site web strategy of The Boston Globe. (That includes keeping the established Boston.com a free site, but building a new paid-only site called BostonGlobe.com that includes the print newspaper’s content and a print-like experience.) The Globe’s approach again raises age-old questions about how a news organization’s print and digital selves — the brands — should or should not be one.

Josh Macht, group publisher at the Harvard Business Review Group and a veteran of outlets like Time and Inc., thinks the split is a bad idea. Here’s why.

If you want to see a good example of an online newspaper that’s easy to navigate, neatly organized, and particularly well-suited to the iPad, type bostonglobe.com into your web browser and tour around the Globe’s new address. It’s a site that stands out for its simple elegance; a place where you’ll find limited but useful functionality that lets you save and share articles with one click. What you won’t find, however, are a lot of prominent links to Boston.com, the Globe’s sister brand.

After years of banishing the daily paper behind the Boston.com front door, BostonGlobe.com stepped out alone on September 12, in a move that was meant to create a standalone, paid-for newspaper website. Boston.com is a completely separate place for the free stuff — a haven for Tom Brady and Gisele photos, sports scores, as well as the latest blog postings.

It’s no secret that many newspapers are considering forcing web surfers to cough up cash for content. But the Globe is in a unique position because it had spent so many years pumping up the Boston.com web address. Now they are maintaining two separate brands on the web, each used for different strategic purposes. Call it the “have your cake and pay for it too” web strategy: Boston.com aims for millions of eyeballs and advertisers; BostonGlobe.com sets its sights on paying customers. Never (or perhaps rarely) the two shall meet.

While each new platform might offer different uses and value for the consumer, we want the brand experience to be consistent and integrated across print and digital.

While the game plan may seem logical enough on paper, it’s quite another thing to pull it off online. The move also appears to swim against the tidal wave of editorial integration that’s washing over most newspaper operations. Take, for example, The New York Times (which shares a parent company with the Globe), where you see a paper concentrating on a multi-platform experience. Customers can get access to the tablet, smartphone, website, and print version of the Times for one price. By lashing together all of their publishing platforms, papers like the Times are attempting to habituate enough digital paying customers so that they can eventually deemphasize or drop the print — a fate that now seems inevitable to most papers. The Globe, on the other hand, has fractured its efforts to pursue two vastly different approaches during a time when money is tight and focus would seem to be key to survival.

I know something about the divide and conquer approach, because we tried it here at the Harvard Business Review. The difference was that we were in an opposite situation from the the Globe. For many years, HBR.org was a paid-for website where you could buy reprints, books and subscribe to the magazine. In 2007, we launched HarvardBusiness.org as a stand-alone site for freely available blog content, forums, and conversation. It worked. Right from the start, we saw significant audience growth at the HarvardBusiness.org URL.

We also quickly learned that the type of content that drove eyeballs online was very different from what was at the heart of HBR in print. And even though we tried to market the magazine to Harvardbusiness.org visitors, we struggled mightily to convert this new audience — and when we did convert them, they typically didn’t stay long as subscribers.

What we’ve discovered along the way is that creating and managing multiple web addresses can dilute your ability to reach your overall goals.

When we made the strategic decision to redesign the magazine two years ago, we simultaneously collapsed all our web efforts under the HBR.org URL. We also created one HBR editorial team, which could work on the redesigned magazine and website and keep them in sync. Much of what we were learning online about our audience helped to shape our thinking about the redesigned magazine. Today, we produce all of our content (both free and paid) under the HBR.org flag. And it’s led to some very heartening early results; we’ve seen that because the magazine and website offer a more consistent experience, we’re much more capable of turning surfers into subscribers. We’re also seeing benefits both online and in the real world where, for example, we’ve witnessed 20 percent growth in newsstand, 135 percent increase in unique visitors to the website, and an exploding fan base across our social media channels.

We still have a long way to go with our efforts, and it’s bound to continue to morph over time. But our experience has led us to the conclusion that focus pays off. And it’s particularly crucial now as we begin to take advantage of the tremendous growth in tablet and mobile usage. While each new platform might offer different uses and value for the consumer, we want the brand experience to be consistent and integrated across print and digital. To achieve that priority it takes a collective and concentrated effort across the entire HBR Group.

What we’ve discovered along the way is that creating and managing multiple web addresses can dilute your ability to reach your overall goals. Just type the word “Boston” into Google and you’ll see what I mean. You’ll find Boston.com is the fifth link. You won’t even find BostonGlobe.com on the first page. To gain prominence, the Globe will be forced to spend time and money to blow out their new digital brand, which means splitting resources between two URLs instead of pouring it all into just the one.

But perhaps the larger point is that the Globe is acting as though growing traffic and growing paid-for content are mutually exclusive. That’s simply not true. When I was at Time.com, we tried to create a website that echoed the values of the magazine for online readers. Much of the content, such as photo galleries and blogs, were open to the public. Even the latest magazine was available for free, but if you wanted to read the previous week’s Time or go back deeper into the archive you needed to pay. That approach yielded growing traffic as well as growing circulation from the website to the magazine. We didn’t need two separate brands to pursue two different strategic goals. Rather, we needed to define the value of the content for the reader so that they understood why something was free versus another item behind a wall.

So often, we still create a false dichotomy online between paid versus free. The fact is that the two models can — and in fact must — live together in order to widen the audience and then simultaneously discover what makes your brand special online. For the Globe, separating the brands with different URLs may solve a few problems in the short run, but in the broader scheme, it’s a recipe for limiting growth and opportunity.

Joshua Macht is group publisher for the Harvard Business Review Group.

POSTED     Dec. 9, 2011, noon
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