Nick Ascheim is the SVP of digital for NBC News and MSNBC. Coming at video from a broadcast company’s perspective, he shares a lesson with insight for marketers too: Views aren’t everything. Measuring for loyalty is the long game.
A version of this article originally appeared in Digiday.
Since the advent of digital news, publishers have pursued scale, a strategy premised on a big assumption: If lots of people consume your content, you will make lots of money. But that assumption is wrong. To succeed today, content publishers and brands need to shift focus from scale to loyalty and engagement.
How the publishing industry came around to loyalty the hard way
In the first era of the Digital Age, a few big-name publishers found something approaching scale—back when the majority of visitors bookmarked their favorite publishers or clicked links in emails they subscribed to intentionally.
Scale still seduces, but there is hope in something even more basic than big numbers: loyalty.
In the second era, portals—like AOL, MSN, and Yahoo—redefined scale. Single destinations commanded audiences at levels that had only been seen before when TV viewers across all channels were added together.
Then, in the third era, came the platforms. YouTube, Facebook, and others pushed the meaning of scale even further. Audience-size tallies began with the letter “B” instead of “M.”
This kickstarted some experiments from publishers, especially when it came to video. New publishers emerged to create viral content that was “optimized” if forgettable. These newbies, and some legacy publishers too, bragged about the small nations of people who consumed their videos, but were silent when the conversation turned to making money.
And so we stand today as a publishing industry, bruised by our own “scale-ian” pursuits, and still in search of a sustainable digital business model to call our own. As the fourth era of the Digital Age dawns, I believe there is a way. Scale still seduces, but there is hope in something even more basic than big numbers: loyalty.
Why loyalty, not views, is what we’re after at NBC News Digital
It is no small irony that we publishers can look to those same platforms for a path forward. The successful platforms didn’t begin by chasing scale. First, they sought validation in loyal users. Because loyalty meant their efforts had given rise to products and experiences that people wanted to visit and use again and again. Their audiences grew because of that intense focus on quality before all else. And what followed? Scale, though loyal scale, and then of course revenues in seemingly unending supply.
At NBC News Digital, we have adopted loyalty as our North Star. Not because we don’t aspire to be big, but because we do.
How we’re reorienting our video business, storytelling, and creative for loyalty
1. We changed the way we measure success. We now judge success not simply in video starts or unique views, but in the return frequency of our visitors and in the quantity of content they consume during a single visit. It’s made a rapid impact, especially on YouTube. Across our YouTube channels, viewers watch our videos for nearly five minutes on average.
2. We focused on the quality of the products that deliver our content in equal measure to the quality of the content itself. We made our video players on NBCNews.com faster and more visually compelling. We turned off autoplay, knowing full well that it would hurt our video scale, but that audiences would love it. And it worked. It took just nine months to organically earn back (and then some) all the starts we lost when we turned it off. Every brand can apply this learning, because we all have owned properties that could benefit from a check-up. Take your mobile page speed. Are you delivering your content fast enough? If not, you risk missing table-stakes on the path to earning loyalty.
3. We committed to made-for-digital video content across several channels, including YouTube. In addition to launching a daily news briefing on Snapchat, we also launched NBC Left Field, a digital video team for the express purpose of creating sight, sound, and motion of the highest, most cinematic order hosted on YouTube. For instance, we explored the failure but persistence of New Year’s resolutions using visually arresting graphics created with Tilt Brush—a tool that allowed us to paint in 3D space with virtual reality.
4. We redefined our audiences and gave them the in-depth, challenging reporting they wanted. We rolled out new content verticals—MACH for technology and innovation, BETTER for health and wellness, and THINK for opinions and perspectives—to differentiate our video and written content and stand out from the crowd. These narrower editorial niches allow us to appeal to specific audiences with deep subject matter affinity. Not surprisingly, these audiences tend to come back more frequently.
5. We doubled down on what makes us, well, NBC News: journalism of the highest quality. We’ve expanded our newsroom, hired the best, and focused on telling the stories that need to be told, that we can tell better—whether or not they’re the ones a social algorithm likes best.
Building for loyalty and engagement is not an easy road, nor a short one. But we know what we do is important and that audiences rely on us, and we are fortunate to be a part of a company with the drive and resources to allow us to dream big and think longer term. We are confident in our pursuit of loyalty as the foundation for building not just scale and a good business to go along with it, but a trusted provider of journalism across the globe.