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Oct. 11, 2016, 11:50 a.m.
Business Models

Bloomberg’s new global chief of digital innovation on the company’s careful hunt for new audiences

Ensconced within the larger Bloomberg empire, Bloomberg’s editorial operations are in an enviably comfortable position.

“If you look at our approach at how we play on platforms that we don’t own, compared to other media companies, you’ll see we do it a little differently, because we’re part of a bigger exceedingly well-capitalized, healthy — for lack of a better term — technology company,” Michael Shane, Bloomberg Media’s newly appointed global head of digital innovation, told me. “So we aren’t subject to the stormy winds of the rest of the media industry.”

michael-shane-headshotShane was previously managing editor for Bloomberg digital and before that director of operations at The Verge, which he joined shortly after its launch — and before that, a professional clarinetist. He was especially confident in the new readership he felt Bloomberg was poised to attract globally, and the monetization opportunities that come from building a (loyal, wealthier) audience (if a little intentionally vague about what those new formats and partners might be). He was careful not to overpromise on the “innovation” part of his job, emphasizing the behind-the-scenes work building up internal processes and teams and the sometimes incremental nature of building digital products.

It’s recently relaunched, for instance, the Technology section with a new article template built to reduce page load times — a template that will roll out to other sections if it works well on the Technology vertical. The Game Plan section of Bloomberg.com, now with its own podcast, is targeted at a more youthful group (for Bloomberg, this means under 40). Its Hello World video series has stepped far outside Bloomberg’s other finance-heavy video offerings, and its viewers on places like Facebook and YouTube include many people who’ve never seen, read, or heard anything else from Bloomberg before.

And approaching new projects leanly and deliberately has paid off, particularly in podcasting, which has become for the company a “seven-figure business,” up from zero less than a year ago. But as Shane told Nick Quah over at Hot Pod and reiterated to me, “we expect, as does pretty much everybody else, that the CPMs around standard-format audio ads will be pushed down to the commodity level.”

Below is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity.

Shan Wang: Your title has a lot of big new words in it. Can you give me an overview of the main areas you’re concerned with at Bloomberg?

Michael Shane: The first thing to say is that this is a new role for us at Bloomberg. But it doesn’t appear out of thin air. As a team, broadly across Bloomberg Media, Bloomberg editorial, we all sort of grew into. At this point, in partnership with Scott [Havens] and other leaders, right now, the five pillars I’m looking at in my work, is the following.

Experimenting with and prototyping new products: That includes, do we have the right posture and culture to do rapid prototyping within product and editorial, and how do we approach it.

The next bucket is our internal tools and technologies. As a team both in editorial and in product, across every team until we have the right tools and technologies to help us be competitive.

The third bucket: What are the interesting partners that we might want to work with that are maybe a little surprising, that you wouldn’t necessarily think of right away if you were putting together your yearly business plan as a media company.

The next bucket is innovation around ads, working in close partnership with our ad products team, with our sales team. What kind of advertising can we sell as a collaboration with advertisers that is better for our users, better for the clients, and lead to more better experiences? What kind of new ad products can we make together that will make the Internet a better place?

The last bucket I’m focused on sketching out is looking for new revenue streams, new business lines, things outside the realm of advertising that are a good fit for Bloomberg, a good fit for our storytelling, our product team and our culture. What are some unexpected sources of revenue growth for the company as we head towards an anecdotally difficult media environment? It behooves everybody to be looking at, what are some more creative ways to run a profitable business?

A typical month for me might include: We could have a hackathon with the product team, I’m participating in a lot of user testing, user research, interviews with potential users with our product design UX group. I’m working on new ad products with sales and the ad team. I’m met with a few potential outside partners for Bloomberg. I want to see us develop the capability and culture to do rapid prototyping, so that we can experiment with things on small scale, learn as much as we can, and then if warranted, go bigger, if necessary, build a business case, get the buy-in and support that we need.

Wang: Wait. Let’s start with the advertising and revenue buckets. Did you say “anecdotally difficult?” I don’t know if it’s anecdotally difficult for everyone!

Shane: It’s anecdotally difficult depending on who you ask. Bloomberg is doing really well. Bloomberg the media company is making more money this year than it did last year. Everything financially is headed in the right direction. There are plenty of places around these days that are making less money than they did last year.

Our team has a roadmap. My mandate is to pull out of the weeds and look down-range six months or more for new opportunities to grow audiences, to grow our relationships with the audience, and to grow revenue.

The media business isn’t going to get any easier, but if you respect your users and you put out a world-class product, results will speak for themselves.

Wang: I have a limited imagination when it comes to how news organizations can make money in “new” ways. I can see sponsored podcasts, new forms of native advertising online. What else are you reaching for that I am not imagining and other people aren’t imagining that you see as a possibility for revenue sources down the line?

Shane: The main thing is that it’s only going to be less profitable to sell squares and rectangles on a website and preroll and all of these traditional formats we’re all used to.

We’re doing a lot of research and experimentation. Podcasts for instance — there’s been a huge opportunity there. We’ve gone from a zero to a seven-figure business in less than a year. But we expect, as does pretty much everybody else, that the CPMs around standard-format audio ads will be pushed down to the commodity level.

So other ways to collaborate: That may mean new audio ad formats that don’t exist yet. Something you can only build in collaboration with an advertiser. Obviously a lot of people are looking at branded podcasts. But we need to figure out how to do that in the right way, how to get buy-in from your audience. Otherwise you find yourself shouting into an empty theater.

At Bloomberg, we’re global, and we have a global live events editorial operational business, and there’s a lot of opportunity there for us to connect with people in person. Primarily I think going forward you’ll see Bloomberg and a lot of other media companies focus on building products for the parts of the audience that show us they care about us. The people who are the most engaged, the people whose loyalty we earned over time.

When we go to advertisers, when we go to commercial partners, what we want to be able to say is, this is Bloomberg’s global audience — business leaders, executives, up-and-comers — but also look at this core that’s loyal to us and uses multiple of our products throughout the week, all day. We know who they are, we know what their proclivities are, what their preferences are, and because of that we can help advertisers form stronger relationships with them. Which means you don’t have to use squares and rectangles and prerolls. We’re going to be working on a lot of ad products and formats and looking for partners who are interested in taking some risks.

Before I took this role I spent my career in the newsroom. I’ve had plenty of edifying experiences with advertising in various formats. Fewer of them have been within the borders of a traditional web browser. But I know that canvas is still capable of good things.

Wang: Even hypothetically, can you tell me what these new formats are? Where we might see them?

Shane: We’re really not ready to talk about it. It’s still early. We’re just getting started. We’ll have some really interesting launches and relaunches over the next six months.

First and foremost I’m excited about what we’re going to be able to offer our audience. But also to advertisers, when we for instance relaunch our OTT app starting with Apple TV. We’re trying some interesting new things there. And that means advertisers can try new things as well.

We’re trying to build things with our audience first. The opportunities that creates for advertisers is by definition going to be more powerful.

Wang: So we’ll see a change in ad formats and Bloomberg News popping up in more places where it wasn’t.

Shane: That’s fair to say. If we’re going to focus on the subset of our audience that shows us that they care about us, part of that means providing them advertising across platforms, across devices, that build on each other. Rather than a random smattering of ads.

We’ll build a suite products that can talk to each other, and connect with an audience that cares enough to tell us who they are, and uses more than one of our products. Then we can serve a menu of advertising that is more relevant and integrated.

We have multiple different products being worked on right now. But how do they talk to each other? How do we create one single continuous experience for our audience, if we’ve earned enough of their trust and loyalty to allow us to do that.

Wang: I’m hearing two different things, that you want to grow your audience up globally and make it big as you can overall, and also simultaneously have extremely targeted offerings for specific audiences interested in specific things. I’m trying to understand what practically speaking this will look like. A ton of verticals devoted to specific readers?

Shane: In the digital realm, our audience is in two segments. We have an audience of business decision-makers. The other audience is, the people who want to be those people, and that’s where we want to grow. There’s an audience out there that doesn’t know Bloomberg is doing journalism and reporting that can make them more prepared to be more effective at work or understand the world.

Technology is making the world go round. And essentially every business story is a technology story if you dig deep enough. Bloomberg’s journalism is becoming more relevant for more people as our economy evolves, as the world becomes more globalized.

Bloomberg’s audience is incredibly high quality. If you look at our approach at how we play on platforms that we don’t own, compared to other media companies, you’ll see we do it a little differently, because we’re part of a bigger exceedingly well-capitalized, healthy technology — for lack of a better term — company. So we aren’t subject to the stormy winds of the rest of the media industry.

We’re very strategic about where we play, because we don’t have to live quarter-to-quarter. So we’re really looking at how can we build longterm relationships with audiences and platforms.

Wang: Give me an example of how you launch a new product, the decisions that led to its creation.

Shane: We have a small team running a section of the site called Game Plan. For a long time, Businessweek has been ranking the best business schools in the world on a yearly basis. When I arrived about two years ago, we all saw an opportunity to evolve that coverage into a broader mandate, essentially to talk to the portion of our audience that’s under 40, that’s maybe leaving business schools, entering the workforce, what do I need to know about personal finance, global finance, the economy. It’s the part of our audience that wants to see stories about business that are also aware of what’s going on socially, culturally.

The shorthand is that it’s a section of our site for people under 40. They have a podcast that just launched also called Game Plan. The podcast focuses specifically on culture at work, life at work. One of my favorite episodes, the hosts went around the newsroom and asked colleagues, ‘Can I ask you your salary?’ So Game Plan is a specific thrust we make towards a younger audience.

If you look at for example, our audience on iTunes, based on what we know about iTunes users and the Bloomberg audience: We’re doing storytelling and news reporting through audio there, and we’re also doing it through Bloomberg Radio. The demographics are quite different between the two, and that’s a unique opportunity for us.

We’ve been running a show called Hello World, one of the most ambitious things we’ve done in digital video here. They’ve gone all over the world looking for places that are like Silicon Valley that are not the United States, that you didn’t know existed. That allows for totally new audiences on Facebook, YouTube, and has given us a whole suite of new editorial dishes we can let people taste. A lot of what we do is go out on other platforms that aren’t ours and give people a taste.

We’re trying to think about how to bring out journalism to platforms in a way that makes sense, that isn’t copy and paste. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about, for instance, what should a podcast sound like? We have a global radio network, and some of that radio does make its way to iTunes. Take a show like Surveillance. We transform it for the podcast audience, which is looking for something different.

We look for, where are the audiences we want to reach? And in the case of the up-and-coming under 40 crowd, that’s obviously on distributed platforms a lot of the time. We think about, what are their expectations on this platform, why do they go to this platform, what frame of mind are they in when they are on this platform?

For instance, I think of podcasts as a very intimate medium. A lot of people do it with earbuds in their ears. The journalism is literally inside their ears. So we spend a lot of time in the newsroom, on the product side, thinking about how do we get the right story, in the right format, on the right platform, at the right time, in order to meet the right audience?

You have to make a lot of adjustments along the way. You have to be thoughtful and sensitive when you’re doing that for an audience that’s grown up in some cases solely on distributed platforms.

Wang: When I take a step back I hear strategies like meeting audiences where they are, investment in podcasting as a way to reach more niche audiences in an intimate way — none of these are particularly new? Wondering if you can tease out more more specifically what you guys are doing, versus what another large globally-focused media company might be doing?

Shane: Bloomberg is a very data-driven company. I don’t know what other processes other companies before they tackle platforms and launch products, so I can only talk about what we do: We do have to build a business case, we have to look at models, and we figure out what’s possible.

One of the things I was involved in shortly after I arrived was, we created a special projects team, which is something that hadn’t existed before. When you go online and see the crazy things we do — from from What is Code to our big Businessweek electorate issue that came out — that comes from a team we built here, led by Thomas Houston. On his team he has a designer, a front-end developer, a features editor — we assembled this little special forces team that can branch out anywhere else in the newsroom and develop experiences unique to Bloomberg.

There’s not a national strategy someone is secretly working on that is going to turn everything around. The difference is, some people pay lip service, and others do the work. If you look around at the media landscape, it’s clear who’s guessing and who isn’t.

Launching podcasts and creating digital video obviously are not new. But doing them profitably is new for a lot of people. Bloomberg is in a position to do a lot of interesting collaborations, like the streaming deal we just did with Twitter — we were the partner for streaming the debates.

And we’re in some ways at the beginning of this. A lot of my work over the last two years has been behind the scenes — building processes, collaboration, communication, we’ve been doing a lot of hiring. In some ways my first two years were an on-ramp for this new role. After two years we’ve built a lot of teams and processes, and now we’re looking at an evolution to go from behind the scenes to projects that are more external in nature.

I’m not trying to dodge your question, but a lot of this is ineffable. A lot of innovation in media is iterative. It’s how you think. It’s how you work.

Obviously we want to do big things. But I’m just as excited about the things that happen in chunks that are so small that while they’re happening you can’t see them necessarily.

Photo of Bloomberg Tower entrance by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid, used under a Creative Commons license. Photo of Michael Shane by Dave Cross.

POSTED     Oct. 11, 2016, 11:50 a.m.
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