3 Questions with Jed Williams: How companies are handling Facebook changes, plus emerging opportunities for local media

We sat down with LMA Chief Innovation Ofificer Jed Wiliams to hear his thoughts on recent industry news. Here’s what he had to say.

It’s been a few months since Facebook announced its algorithm changes, and the impacts those will have on publishers in News Feed. Now that publishers have had some time to digest what this means, how have you seen them respond strategically?

There was so much written and said at the time, but I always come back to a comment from Casey Newton at Vox that nails the essence of all of this: “we’re about to find out who has traffic and who has actual audience.” Local media companies have always had real, loyal audiences, but many lost sight of that, or didn’t have enough visibility into who these people are. The easier play was to cater to mass and scale on platforms. The Facebook change – and the traffic trends were bending in that direction for quite a while, was a stark reminder to get back to basics. Building owned audiences through diverse traffic sources, then delivering high value to them directly – but in some newer, smarter, data-driven ways. Meanwhile, the platforms – Facebook and beyond – will continue to serve as important marketing tentacles (and this can mean much more than just click referrals) with some revenue potential, and should be leveraged for this purpose. But nothing more, nothing less.

How it this playing out? What are some actual examples you can give?

For a local media company, I assert that it all starts with building your customer database, and that starts with converting someone from an anonymous to a known user. Granted, it’s a high bar to get someone to register on your site and self-identify so that you can start building first party data around their behaviors (and append other data sets to this). But there’s great power in an email address, and how it can move a user deep into your funnel. At The Boston Globe, a registered user is 10x more likely to convert into a paid subscriber. But this isn’t just about subscriptions. Owning an email relationship opens up a wide spectrum of opportunities. Build targeted email newsletters with premium sponsorships. Leverage newsletters to drive users to live events or products that you’re selling. Study their behaviors on-site to tailor re-circulation strategies to keep them on-site even longer.

This all starts with understanding where your traffic is coming from, and the relative value of different audience segments and traffic sources, so you can double down on your most important “customer franchises” (as Penny Abernathy at UNC would say). Google is doing interesting work in this area with their News Consumer Insights initiative (formerly FUSE), which seeks to answer these questions and then provide strategies for increased customer engagement. We have a big meeting with the News Consumer Insights group on the June San Francisco regional Innovation Mission to dig into how to utilize this data for smarter marketing, product, and content strategies.

First party data, databases, known users – got it. What’s another big opportunity or emerging trend that you’re keeping a close eye on for local media?

Verticals! So much interesting work in digital media isn’t about mass or scale at all. It’s about targeting a specific audience that may be underserved, or that you can build a close relationship with, and creating unique value for them through content, community and other vehicles. This is where watching what the pure play are doing is instructive. Bleacher Report, Cheddar, NerdWallet, Texas Tribune, The Hustle, The Skimm, The Information — they’re each going deep in different verticals, and in different ways. Some are video plays, others are newsletters, some have subscriptions…but all of them have a unique voice to their content that builds a loyal base, and all of them are working on diversified revenue models. There’s a lot of runway for local media, too! Think about the unique knowledge you already possess in your communities, and all the opportunities for going bigger. There are some great examples we can point to – Cox Media Group’s Diehards Network for college sports fanatics, WRAL TechWire, and Raycom’s The Southern Weekend.