A year ago, my TBD colleagues and I launched one of the great adventures of my career.
Few remain there. TBD barely remains, its staff and mission diminished and redefined. Founding leader Jim Brady parted ways with owner Robert Allbritton last November. By February, Allbritton changed the mission and cut the staff. By May, I was gone.
A year ago, I thought we would be celebrating an exciting first year and planning more growth and expansion. My point here is not to dwell on the past. Instead, I will quietly lift a glass to my TBD colleagues and share some lessons for other digital pioneers (and for my Journal Register Co. colleagues) from our TBD experience.
Digital products need digital sales teams. I won’t elaborate on why and how Allbritton messed up in digital sales (or anything else). I want to state everything as a lesson. The TBD experience proved what I already knew: A digital operation needs a sales manager and sales staff focused on the success of the digital project.
Start small or be patient. Clayton Christensen, the leading authority on disruptive innovation, advises starting small. In my job interview before joining TBD, I asked Allbritton how long we had to make money, because we were going to be starting big and that costs a lot of money before you get up to full steam. He noted that Politico made money in its third year and said he was ready to give it five years. He said TBD would have a similar runway. He’s entitled to change his mind and he did, abandoning our approach after six months. But he went about this wrong. If you’re going to start as big as TBD did, you need a few years to become profitable. If you don’t have the patience for the long haul, you’d better start small.
Pursue multiple revenue streams. You need to pursue non-advertising revenue streams and non-traditional ad approaches. I have blogged about this topic before and won’t repeat those points here. Brady was more interested in pursuing multiple revenue streams than his Allbritton bosses. If we had been allowed to get up to full speed and had pursued more revenue streams with a digital sales staff, we would have celebrated profitability in three to five years, I am sure.
Pursue mobile opportunities aggressively. We developed a couple cool apps and engaged nicely with the mobile community using social media, but Jim and I could not get approval to hire the top-flight mobile leader we wanted, and the ownership did not embrace mobile as aggressively and imaginatively as we should have.
Excel in breaking news. Make this a top priority in local coverage. Become the place where people turn for breaking news (and keep coming back for updates), and you will establish your brand quickly. Print-based news organizations think they cover breaking news well, but most don’t and that’s a tremendous disruptive opportunity.
Excel in social media. It’s not just that Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Flickr, Foursquare and YouTube are excellent sharing platforms whose use is growing dramatically. These are essential journalistic tools and you need to use them aggressively and smartly to rule in breaking news. They also are great conversational tools for building relationships with your audience. You don’t want to just build an audience, you want relationships and social media are where people are building relationships today. Mandy Jenkins, our social media producer, led a great staff effort in this area. If breaking news wasn’t TBD’s greatest strength, social media was (and social media helped us excel in breaking news, so they worked well together).
Hire talented people. I never worked with a more amazing team of creative, talented people than I did at TBD. The quick splash we made in the Washington market was a result of the outstanding hires made by Brady, Editor Erik Wemple, TV vice president Steve Chaggaris, Senior Product Manager Bageshri Ghate and me.
Develop a strong local blogger network. TBD’s blog network was an outstanding asset. We had more than 200 blogs pointing to our site and eager to work with us. Their links gave us outstanding contact. I think with a better sales effort, we would have developed a strong advertising relationship, too. Our community hosts, Jeff Sonderman, Lisa Rowan, Daniel Victor and Nathasha Lim did an amazing job.
Master SEO and analytics. Mitch Schuler’s expertise in these areas helped significantly with TBD’s traffic. You need to know what you’re doing well (and what you’re not), and you need to know how to help people find your content. Mitch helped TBD staffers excel at SEO.
Don’t rely on “Field of Dreams” marketing. They don’t come just because you build it. They come if you market effectively. We built audience effectively with social media, SEO, our blog network and promotional messages on our own TV stations. We would have been able to build a notably larger audience if we had spent some money to market. Unless you’re starting small, some local marketing money needs to be part of a startup budget.
Don’t waste time on bitterness. I could go on a whole rant about the bad decisions Allbritton made relating to TBD. But it wouldn’t get me anywhere and I’d still have to move on. Bosses are going to make bad decisions. But don’t let them turn you bitter; bitterness hurts you more than it hurts them. Learn your lessons and move on.