Why editors need to get their shit together and start thinking like marketers
Richard Beech is a former editor of Joe and BuzzFeed, now turned marketer. Here he discusses the evolving role of the editor's role in the digital media age.
Over the course of decades of stories and campaigns, publications take on a personality of their own. Each editor guards that personality, remolding and reshaping it but never crossing the line or changing the essence.
Dan Sandison, head of brand at Mundial and Robyn Vinter of The Overtake
Legacy publications are now heavily outnumbered by new titles, mostly digital, and all vying for space in markets that are changing, but not necessarily growing.
These publications all need strong leadership and vision to survive. Vital to that is the editor, who I liken to a football manager. It's the editor's work the fans see, and the editor's voice the team hears ringing in their ears. Sorry chief execs, the editor is the one that understands it all.
So when an editor, or director of content, joins a brand new publication, they must bring the title's business goals and brand values to life.
Journalists learn their trade by sourcing news, writing clean copy and staying on the right side of media law. They don't usually study brand and marketing. Most of us are naturally allergic to that stuff. But it's an increasingly important skill in a landscape where new publications can not only launch and scale audience quickly but where writers and editors have direct, high-frequency contact with their audience.
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To connect with a growing audience, a strong and clear brand, a set of values, and a tone of voice are vital. This suits advertisers and media agencies too. But unlike the world of brand marketing, new titles don't have budget to hire an agency and hash this out properly. As an editor, I've tackled this with trial and error – and now handle it for brands and publishers at the agency level.
There's definitely a right way and a wrong way to operate.
For new publications, it's easy to fall into the trap of tackling this problem the wrong way round. It's easy to throw content out there, see what gets the clicks, study demographics on analytics software, and build a brand around who you think these people are. I've been asked to do this and it's hard to push back when you're in one of your first senior roles.
It's much harder, but much better, to do it the right way round – to have a vision, find the staff to fulfill that, and stick to it even when the numbers aren't where you want them to be.
Because it's hard to go back and undo the damage of getting this wrong. One common problem new publications face is the conundrum of having built 'the wrong audience'.
This usually occurs in one of two ways: producing content which performs well for audience volume but attracts an audience you don't want. Or buying the 'wrong' audience through, for example, paid social media marketing.
It can be done the right way, but it's not easy.
"It's a hard life and it doesn't really get easier – though you get more used to it," says Robyn Vinter, founder and editor of The Overtake, an independent digital publication based outside the London Bubble in Leeds, which is partly funded by reader contributions.
The Overtake has had a well-defined brand and tone of voice from the beginning, and its growth has been impressive. Robyn doesn't have a chief marketing officer or a management team to answer to, and her strength of vision has ensured this has been a positive.
Talking to Robyn about her brainchild, it's clear she values and invests in the people that have brought the brand to life.
"The target audience and values of The Overtake were fixed in my mind, I'd been planning it for five years. And then as people with those values came into the company, it only strengthened that."
For Vinter and her team, having a well-defined set of values hasn't limited their audience, in fact, it sounds like the opposite is true.
"What's been surprising for us has been the really broad appeal of our values. We originally thought of ourselves as 'woke', 'social justice warrior' types, which we thought appealed to a small audience, so it's been quite a surprise to discover how mainstream we are compared to sections of the mainstream media." (Read how The Overtake is building a formidable media presence outside of the London bubble here.)
Dan Sandison, head of brand at Mundial, a football title that has established itself as a leader in the storytelling of cult football fandom and earned a place in the hearts of football fans around the world, is honest about the challenges of finding the right brand.
"We were essentially making a magazine for ourselves, in the confidence that there would be other people like us out there.
"It's one thing making a magazine for yourself, but it has to be a version of yourself that people get along with. It's still very much a representation of what we love about football, and it's a reflection of us as people, but we definitely consider a wider audience now when we put features together, and put stuff out on our social."
The brand's tone softened over time, which was by no means an accident. The result was an inclusive football hipster (sorry, Mundial lads) brand with a huge following.
As a magazine, Mundial isn't a high frequency publication, but the title has diversified successfully into other formats and sub-brands, and from talking to Dan, it's obvious that getting Mundial right was about so much more than words on a page. An especially important marketing takeaway for any journalist reading this.
"We do so much more than the magazine, and we have so much more to offer. I think when we work with brands, or when we work on our own content across digital and social, we're hyper-conscious of the brand. Football is the biggest sport on the planet, and we're never going to be able to take ownership of it all, but when it comes to the things that our audience loves, we do it best."
And though Dan admits the tone and feel of Mundial has changed over time, a strong identity at the start gave them something to tweak and build on.
"I think you have to be prepared to make massive, clanging mistakes. When we look back at our first issues, we're not best pleased with them, but we are still glad we stuck our neck out and did it. Every magazine has to be better than the last, and the only way you can do that is to learn from your mistakes."
As we continue to see new titles fight for limited eyeballs and revenue in saturated markets, brand becomes more important than ever, and a skill set that any journalist seriously looking to climb the leadership ladder should have in their locker.
My advice to journalists is to learn to love it, even if you're programmed to be cynical and wary of it. My advice to leadership teams is to let your editor get on with it, and to give them the time and space to get it right.
Richard Beech is director of The Ginger Agency, a content and social agency with clients including News UK, Reach Plc and The GoCompare Group. He was formerly chief marketing officer at DriveTribe.