Be essential

“That new franchise you’re building, that podcast, the video series: Who is it for? What need is it serving? What will the audience do with it? Do they really want it, need it? Or are we just trying to keep their attention long enough for the ad to serve?”

My personal Covid mantra has been to simplify. I’m constantly asking, re-evaluating: What do I really need? And if this doozy of a year has taught me anything at all, it’s that this is exactly the right question for our audiences, too.

I’ll start with the fact that our audience is not a monolith, as we’ve long tended to talk about them. “The youth want X,” “millennials need Y,” “conservatives believe Z, now use Triller,” and so on. And we have data (so much data) and we collate these macro trends, steering our ships in an attempt to serve this perceived cohort at scale. That’s been our business. But we are chasing, eternally chasing.

So I ask the practical and existential question: What do audiences need from us? Not in the macro, but the micro. That new franchise you’re building, that podcast, the video series: Who is it for? What need is it serving? What will the audience do with it? Do they really want it, need it? Or are we just trying to keep their attention long enough for the ad to serve? These are the questions we need to be asking so that our content — how we serve our audiences — can steer our strategy.

I believe 2021 will be (should be) the year we embrace audiences of all shapes and sizes and work to produce work that fits their needs — as opposed to chasing as many people as we can to pay attention. We need to be essential.

To jump ahead a bit, it’s time we evolve our scale strategies. To be clear, scale isn’t a dirty word. Journalistically, you want your work to have as big of an impact as possible. But we must include meaningful engagement as a top-line objective. And no, I’m not about to give you a tidy guide to building your DTC business, the perfect material for the next presentation to ready for your boss. I’m talking more philosophically about our intention as publishers.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of some of the things I’m thinking about as I consider the needs of my audience, as opposed to my own business bias in how I serve them:

  • Ask your audiences what they need. Talk to real people; be a reporter about it.
  • Tell your advertisers what your audiences say they need.
  • Don’t just use social trends as your bellwether; that’s bad journalism.
  • Community and connection are part of the value proposition of a digital publisher, which can be the opposite of “race for as many eyeballs as possible.”
  • People follow people, not brands. Consider how you show up in places where you weren’t really invited (i.e., TikTok).
  • Our products should be content-led; we are content companies.
  • Dig into the insights and source material. Understand the why and the need being served before launching anything new.
  • Don’t chase — build. And build with integrity.

I leave you with the ever-prescient lyrics in Taylor Swift’s 2020 song “Mirrorball.” I realize I might be the only person in the world who listened to this song and divined a media strategy. But I’m looking forward to being less of the mirrorball next year.

I’m still a believer but I don’t know why
I’ve never been a natural
All I do is try, try, try
I’m still on that trapeze
I’m still trying everything
To keep you looking at me
Because I’m a mirrorball
I’m a mirrorball
I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight

Cory Haik is chief digital officer at Vice Media Group.

My personal Covid mantra has been to simplify. I’m constantly asking, re-evaluating: What do I really need? And if this doozy of a year has taught me anything at all, it’s that this is exactly the right question for our audiences, too.

I’ll start with the fact that our audience is not a monolith, as we’ve long tended to talk about them. “The youth want X,” “millennials need Y,” “conservatives believe Z, now use Triller,” and so on. And we have data (so much data) and we collate these macro trends, steering our ships in an attempt to serve this perceived cohort at scale. That’s been our business. But we are chasing, eternally chasing.

So I ask the practical and existential question: What do audiences need from us? Not in the macro, but the micro. That new franchise you’re building, that podcast, the video series: Who is it for? What need is it serving? What will the audience do with it? Do they really want it, need it? Or are we just trying to keep their attention long enough for the ad to serve? These are the questions we need to be asking so that our content — how we serve our audiences — can steer our strategy.

I believe 2021 will be (should be) the year we embrace audiences of all shapes and sizes and work to produce work that fits their needs — as opposed to chasing as many people as we can to pay attention. We need to be essential.

To jump ahead a bit, it’s time we evolve our scale strategies. To be clear, scale isn’t a dirty word. Journalistically, you want your work to have as big of an impact as possible. But we must include meaningful engagement as a top-line objective. And no, I’m not about to give you a tidy guide to building your DTC business, the perfect material for the next presentation to ready for your boss. I’m talking more philosophically about our intention as publishers.

Here is a non-comprehensive list of some of the things I’m thinking about as I consider the needs of my audience, as opposed to my own business bias in how I serve them:

  • Ask your audiences what they need. Talk to real people; be a reporter about it.
  • Tell your advertisers what your audiences say they need.
  • Don’t just use social trends as your bellwether; that’s bad journalism.
  • Community and connection are part of the value proposition of a digital publisher, which can be the opposite of “race for as many eyeballs as possible.”
  • People follow people, not brands. Consider how you show up in places where you weren’t really invited (i.e., TikTok).
  • Our products should be content-led; we are content companies.
  • Dig into the insights and source material. Understand the why and the need being served before launching anything new.
  • Don’t chase — build. And build with integrity.

I leave you with the ever-prescient lyrics in Taylor Swift’s 2020 song “Mirrorball.” I realize I might be the only person in the world who listened to this song and divined a media strategy. But I’m looking forward to being less of the mirrorball next year.

I’m still a believer but I don’t know why
I’ve never been a natural
All I do is try, try, try
I’m still on that trapeze
I’m still trying everything
To keep you looking at me
Because I’m a mirrorball
I’m a mirrorball
I’ll show you every version of yourself tonight

Cory Haik is chief digital officer at Vice Media Group.

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