New Product Divisions Can Be Key Drivers for Publishers Small and Big

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"Companies make a thing, then tell media companies, 'Please tell the world about this.' It should work in a more collaborative fashion. We should say, 'Here's what we think the world needs. Can you make this?' And go back and forth."

That quote comes from Ben Kaufman, a BuzzFeed executive who is the head of a division there that creates products for companies that want to reach the demographic that BuzzFeed knows best—young people. An article by Gerry Smith in Bloomberg outlines an instance where Scotts Miracle-Gro Co., the plant-care company, came to BuzzFeed because they didn't think millennials were gardening enough.

Writes Smith: "The result was a subscription service for Scotts called Lunarly, which mails houseplants and wellness items based on the lunar calendar. Since launching in July, Lunarly has repeatedly sold out, bringing hope that the garden company can make inroads with younger consumers."

"'BuzzFeed helped me build a better product and not just sell my product,' said Patti Ziegler, chief digital and marketing services officer at Marysville, Ohio-based Scotts."

Let's say you have a really good feel for your audience, could be administrative assistants or emergency room workers or mortgage brokers or marine biologists. And then a company comes to you—or you reach out to a company—that wants to reach this audience. So you turn to your new products division to devise a product or two or three that will be attractive to this company and your audience.

It's an interesting equation. Kaufman's team has generated around $50 million in sales this year. Okay, SIPA members don't have 65-person product teams, but the idea sounds like a scaleable one.

AAA Northeast has taken a bit of a reverse route.

The SIPA member has products to offer but found that their audience wasn't engaging enough with their website. "What really matters for us is time on site and ROI," said Michael Dempsey, project manager for AAA Northeast. "Get them to spend more time on site and [then move] them over to other things. And have them engage with outside advertisers. If we get someone to renew two times, we feel like we have them for life.

To accomplish this engagement, they teach analytics. "All of our writers are open to learning about analytics and keywords," said Andrew Rosen, AAA Northeast's VP of brand and content marketing. "If they're not interested in that, they're not right for you."

"[Good content is] a simple litmus test—would you read it?" asked Dempsey. They try to keep subject lines to three words or less and have started using icons and emojis there—quite successfully. "It helps that I have writers and editors that I trust. AAA needs to have a certain voice, so we worked on being conversational. You can't go too far though because it's AAA."

I visited my local AAA store a few weeks ago and left happily with a bag of guides and goodies. The website lists 12 different digital travel guides that you can also order. Dempsey said that they are testing to see how their print customers respond to the more robust digital offerings "and how much more we can get the member base interested and interacting."

"To [BuzzFeed's] Kaufman, the line separating media companies and brick-and-mortar stores is being washed away, with little difference between foot traffic and web traffic," writes Smith in Bloomberg.

"Retailers are trying to be media companies and media companies are trying to be retailers," Kaufman says. "Everyone is playing, but I don't think anyone is playing as aggressively as we are."

Will other publishers start producing more products? Writing about our BIMS conference in Forbes, Tony Silber wrote: "Content used to be about news, trend analysis and case studies. Now, the new thinking goes, it's about 'decision-based content.' ...Once content was about providing information. Now it's about providing workflow tools."

Ronn Are you subscribed to the SIPAlert Daily?
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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…