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Video A Peek Into the Business Side of Online Publishing (Video) 43

Mark Westlake is the Chief Revenue Office for TechMediaNetwork. Slashdot has often taken a mediawatch role, especially when it comes to technology coverage -- which is what TechMediaNetork does for a living. As Chief Revenue Office, Mark is in charge of making sure enough money comes in to pay writers and editors, pay for bandwidth and servers, and hopefully have enough revenue over and above expenses to show a profit. We've interviewed editors and writers, and plenty of writers' work gets linked from Slashdot, but we pay little or no (mostly no) attention to the business side of the publishing business. Like it or not, if we are going to have online news someone has to sell the ads and make decisions about whether to set up a paywall or not. That's Mark's job. Like him or not, he does a job somebody has to do, and has been doing it for 30 years. He knows he's talking to a potentially hostile audience here, but he accepts that. As he says, near the end of the video, " can't please everybody, right?"

Robin Miller: I’m Robin Miller, Roblimo on Slashdot, here with Mark Westlake.

Mark, tell us about yourself.

Mark Westlake: I am the Chief Revenue Officer for Tech Media Network, the largest independent publisher of science and technology content. I’ve helped launch a number of successful online businesses or have been part of the teams that have built sites like AutoTrader, Juno, most recently was part of the management team at that sold it to The Times, as well as part of the management team at How Stuff Works, which is now part of Discovery.

Robin Miller: Oh, yes, Mr. Brain.

Mark Westlake: Yes, Marshall was the leader of our editorial team, great man.

Robin Miller: Truly a great man, I am a fan of Marshall Brain’s.

(Text question about Slashdot never talking to business-side publishing people until now.)

Mark Westlake: I think you are smart. I think one of the major -- I mean there are a lot of things going on in the world, but I think what’s interesting is, I think marketers need to or you got marketers who want to go into the content world, and really got to understand of what it takes to be a publisher per se, and how they get their content to speak to consumers, just like publishers now have to start thinking like marketers. Publishers need to understand that there is things that you can do because of your relationship with your reader that to drive revenue to allow you to do the things that you need to grow your business.

Robin Miller: Okay. So, tell me the worst mistake that everybody makes from the editorial side when it comes to the money making and publishing side?

Mark Westlake: What are the mistakes? One is, one dimensional. What I mean by that is everybody focuses on one revenue stream, where they’ll focus on one type of advertising to drive revenue, when in reality there is a lot of things you can do on a page to help drive revenue that isn’t necessarily your traditional advertising. It might be how do you engage your consumer to do something or how do you help them answer a question and take it to the next step, kind of the Amazon model. Amazon, you buy a product and they say, “Hey, do you ever think about looking at these other products that might be of interest to you?” Think the same way from a revenue perspective. Many publishers don’t do that. They think it’s one and done. I think maybe you could say one of the interesting things is one-hit wonders. Everybody hits some ones and forgets about it. And the reality, it’s important for you to think like a marketer when it comes to your users and help them whether it’s providing them information and then taking it to the next step.

Robin Miller: Okay. Slashdot, let’s say our audience is not very pro-advertiser overall, and not necessarily too pro-business, so I think intrusive ads, how do we do what you are talking about, engaging people... how do you do it without making them angry or taking them -- I mean they are here for the content, let’s face it, they’re not here for the ads. How do you get their attention without making them angry?

Mark Westlake: Well, I think the best way is content integration, how do you integrate it into the user experience without being forceful. There is things, yes, when it comes to branding, everybody talks about brand dollars. And remember, our industry was built not only on brand, but also direct marketing. So, there are things that you can do that are not intrusive, but definitely engage the consumer and then you get compensated for it. So, it might not be – yes, you are seeing more and more advertisers look to do these native, what they call native ad units, which I think is just another way of saying they want big brand type of units. They are looking to do these things, but they can’t scale that, so what they do is they focus on content sites.

Robin Miller: What’s a brand type unit? That’s industry jargon, we’re not going to understand that.

Mark Westlake: Right. So, let’s say, there is a size, everybody has different terminology, it could be a 300x250 ad unit, a box unit, a billboard, right?

Robin Miller: Right.

Mark Westlake: That’s a standard size ad unit. The banners at the top of the page, those are standard units. Then people will take it now and what we have morphed into is, all right, let’s take those units and have them auto-expand. But the problem is at the end of day, consumers just probably like your readers, are individuals who just like, I don’t want to keep on bargaining with advertising. So, how do you talk to those people who aren't interested in the ads, who don’t click on the ads? Well, they’re coming to your site for an experience, they’re coming there because of the content and there’s probably stuff in that content that you are writing about. For example, let’s take antivirus software. You always got people pirating and block up ads or there’s a virus that comes out. So, if a person is reading that and they most likely are interested in antivirus software, wouldn’t it be interesting or wouldn’t it make sense to have some sort of service that says, “If you are interested in getting this, learning more about antivirus and you want to get the new antivirus software and what is the best antivirus software, click here.” And that can be not necessarily in an ad format. That could be in a text unit, it could be integrated to the content, it could be some sort of

Robin Miller: Well, if we integrate it into the content, certainly, I, as a long time Society of Professional Journalists’ member, I’m going to scream, and I have had to scream, but before I retired, when I was Editor in Chief with Slashdot’s parent company and on and all, once in a while, they’d talk about integrating it into the content, and I’d say no, no, no, no, advertising has to be definitely separated from content.

Mark Westlake: I think everybody has a different understanding of integration. Now, you write a paragraph and the last sentence of the paragraph says, “Oh, by the way, you should buy this software for antivirus.” That to me is blatant. I agree with you and we here at Tech Media Network are very much about church and state, all right? It’s not about writing content for, I mean, if anybody who blurs the lines, it’s television productions where they have the whole branded entertainment and they push stuff into the programming. What we do and what I mean my integration is, if you’re writing a story, where on that page, surrounded by content, can you put a unit that will provide a service to the consumer if they are interested? That’s content integration.

Robin Miller: I can see an ad, your standard rectangular unit in that story by keyword, that’s in there and it says “interested in antivirus, click here.” It says advertisement on it.

Mark Westlake: Right and what I mean by integration is not a standard ad size, because consumers know, if it’s 300x250 really in there, it’s how do you make that look more like something that is not going to be intrusive, something that they’re going to think what the heck is this? But it’s something that is relevant to the story. That to me is integration.

Robin Miller: Now, I know none of our readers would ever use anything like Adblock Plus, and I would never use it myself, no, no, no, no way. With some of the intrusive ads, how did you deal with that, is there a way to deal with that that’s fair or is it just whatever?

Mark Westlake: (laughs) You have to understand your audience, you have to understand the user experience, you have to have people who are very protective of the user experience and that’s what we have, we have product people who are really, what we call site owners, who really protect the user experience, so that we aren’t bombarding them with the ads because we found if you bombard them with ads, it’s not going to help you, it’s going to hurt you because people are going to drop off, they’re not going to come back. So, you’ve got to balance, I guess you could say church and state, you got to balance that user experience, so that, in our case, we try to do one for 24 hours, no more, if it’s a real intrusive ad, and then we measure, you measure. We keep a very close eye on statistics, we look at pages, we look at users and we’ll see a drop off, if we see a drop off we try to understand what the drop off is. So from a publisher’s perspective and your readers would be, you’ve got to make sure you understand what is the optimal user experience and how do you integrate intrusive ads into that experience.

Robin Miller: Or even aside from advertising, now Slashdot’s original founder, Rob Malda is now working for the Washington Post. Now, Washington Post is not necessarily because of Rob Malda working there, talking about going behind a paywall, as The New York Times has done, and as a matter of fact, my local newspaper, The Bradenton Herald has done. Now, I’m going to tell you if you have any technical sophistication at all, those paywalls are easy to defeat. How do you charge people for subscriptions, or is that really even an option?

Mark Westlake: You have to give the consumer, the consumer has to want it, and it has to be something they can’t get anywhere else. Or it is content that it’s so valuable in their mind they’re willing to pay for it. The New York Times, Washington Post, even your local newspaper at a local level has a relationship with the readers that feel that that content is so valuable they’re willing to pay for it, but you have to understand what you are giving up in return. And in some cases, the big boys, The Times, and The Wall Street Journal, they’ve actually found that it’s not hurting their growth, it’s actually helping them. Because it’s helping them not only drive subscription revenue, but it also, they can demand a higher advertising because of the fact that they have people who are willing to pay for content they can normally get for free, they’re willing to pay for it because they value it. And therefore, they must be a unique consumer so as we move into this whole audience targeting almost TV buying across screens, that type of buying, you look at Wall Street Journal, New York Times or someone behind a paywall, that is a very, very valuable consumer, so

Robin Miller: I can see how that would be, because obviously there are – and here is the thing that I’ve often thought over the years and that is when somebody is buying an ad on you guys’ pages, on our pages or on your page which is linked to from our page, which they are buying a certain percentage of our cachet. Slashdot has a pretty good reputation for being honest and un-bought. We get knocked by a small group of readers all the time... they think we’re advertising for free or selling out. We’re not, never have, but we have a good reputation, your guys, I know some of your editors and they too, they have a good reputation, they’re not selling out, they’re not taking bribes or free computers or anything. So, we have that -- and isn’t an advertiser buying that to a certain extent? And isn’t that of value?

Mark Westlake: I think it’s important, the value, you look at search today, and how the value of the writer is playing a role in search results. So, the credibility of writers, the credibility of the content is so important and how I think for us, you are right, our guys, we’re a big believer of quality content. We believe quality content is going to win out over mass produced type of content. So, it’s that brand positioning that’s important, but most importantly, it’s the relationship your writers have with the consumers that drives the brand, which ultimately will position the quality of the content, it make sense?

Robin Miller: So, you are saying the individual byline does have value?

Mark Westlake: As far as the organization, correct.

Robin Miller: Interesting because

Mark Westlake: I don’t know if you’ve seen this, what Google is doing, how they have page rank, which values?

Robin Miller: Yes?

Mark Westlake: And we have page ranks that are very, very high because of the quality of the content, and who links to our content. We syndicate a tremendous amount of our content to Yahoo, Fox News, CBS News, Huffington Post and so forth, to a lot of big media companies and they like our content, because it’s unique, it’s different, it’s quality. So now the next phase of what Google is doing is they have like an author rank or an author relevancy. It’s how many of those people, it’s almost like tying in a social element. If that user has a lot of Google Plus followers, and there are lot of people reading that content from that writer, those are values that are added into the search results that to help it get a higher rank over like, let’s say, a mass produced content farm article that is basically being written so that it can buck the system.

Robin Miller: So, what you are saying is those of us who do real writing and research, that we still have value over and above Demand Media.

Mark Westlake: Demand Media and all that content, those content farms, correct. Quality will always win out. You look at YouTube and how consumers... more and more advertisers are looking for that, they have a lot of video bytes, but they will look for those quality views because that’s what’s important. The relationship, they want brand, they want their brand messaging associated with high quality content. So, it’s important if you have a very strong relationship and you have a very well established position in the market, you will be able to have – if you could have scale, you’ll have a very unique position, an opportunity with advertisers. At the end of the day, it’s your relationship with your readers that’s a value.

Robin Miller: Well, our readers submit and then we have little summaries and link to it, that’s what we do all day.

Mark Westlake: Correct.

Robin Miller: And some videos.

Mark Westlake: And I think it comes down to you have to understand and you have to manage the relationship with the consumer, because at the end of the day advertisers, us as publishers, we have readers at one side and you have advertisers on the other, and we have to figure out how to push both, bring them together, that’s our job.

Robin Miller: Is it fun?

Mark Westlake: Sure, I wouldn’t be doing this for 30 years if it wasn’t.

Robin Miller: And some people – it’s inevitable on Slashdot, there are going to be some negative comments. How do you handle those? Does that bother you?

Mark Westlake: No, well, you can’t please everybody, right? Nobody can please everybody, whether you are in politics, you’re a teacher, it’s just the way of life. It’s very hard to please everybody. But you know what? If you are fair, you create quality content, you’ll understand your users and provide them a service that’s like what we do and like you do, it’s rewarding, because you're helping people.

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A Peek Into the Business Side of Online Publishing (Video)

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