Refueling Trusted Media Brands’ Growth Engine
By Deborah Nason
When Bonnie Kintzer said yes to a homecoming, she wasn’t planning to rehash old glory days. She was instead planning to reinvigorate the best of past strategies while introducing fresh approaches that would ensure forward momentum. In doing so, she’s placed marketing, and its unique ability to provide customer insight and action, at the core of a wildly successful transformation.
Kintzer is president and CEO of Trusted Media Brands Inc. (TMB), parent company of Reader’s Digest, as well as Taste of Home, The Family Handyman, Birds & Blooms, and nine other highly regarded, long-standing publications. She held several senior executive positions at Reader’s Digest Association in the late 1990s and early 2000s, returning in 2014 to rebuild Reader’s Digest and its sister brands, determined to increase reader engagement and leverage the company’s significant yet untapped digital potential.
“I came back on a mission to bring this company back to growth,” says Kintzer, who perceived a substantial opportunity based on two key factors:
The strength of TMB’s brands – “If you pick up a magazine or go to the websites of any of these brands, you get it,” she says. “These brands are serving their customers. That’s key.”
Revenue potential – “We have millions of unique visitors coming to our websites [and] millions of paying customers. There were all these incredible assets that, in my opinion, just weren't being managed for growth,” she adds. “That was absolutely the impetus for me.”
Kintzer knew the impact marketing could have on harnessing the growth opportunities available to TMB, so in 2015 she encouraged Alec Casey, another
Bonnie Kintzer, president and CEO of Trusted Media Brands Inc. Photo courtesy of TMB.
Reader’s Digest Association veteran, to rejoin as CMO. He obliged. Together with the executive team they’ve been marshaling existing and new resources to remodel TMB into a leading digital-first multiplatform media company with an emphasis on brand safety.
We’re touching a lot of people’s lives with a lot of great content and they respond accordingly,” Kintzer says.
Corporate strategy first
Marketing is most effective when aligned with clear corporate goals. And Kintzer has five she’s been immersed since her return:
Stabilize the core. Kintzer’s first step was to understand the talent level of TMB employees and their overall appetite for innovation. She met about half of the U.S.-based employees to determine if the company had the right amount of knowledge and talent to grow again. “Most of the people here have been here a while, but we brought in quite a lot of new talent,” Kintzer says. “It’s [a great] balance of people from the outside who have a different perspective and people here who really understand the customer.
Grow digital advertising. This year is poised to see digital growth of 20 percent year over year.
Launch businesses of scale. TMB has launched several new products, including Taste of Home’s Taste of Season subscription boxes (e.g., Taste of Spring, Taste of Winter) and The Family Handyman’s DIY University (mydiyuniversity.com), which offers online classes to help readers master their home DIY projects.
Optimize international operations. Kintzer wants to focus on the U.S. and Canada, where TMB can add the most value. So, the firm has been licensing its international businesses to local companies that can drive the growth of the Reader's Digest franchise in their geographies.
Ensure cost structure aligns with revenue opportunity. Kintzer and her team work to keep costs under control and deploy resources “where the money is.”
The biggest move in support of these goals came in 2015, when the company replaced the name “Reader’s Digest Association” with “Trusted Media Brands Inc.”
“We're proud of Reader's Digest and its many other brands,” Kintzer says. “We didn’t try to outsmart the world [with a fancy moniker]. We picked a name that stated who we are: a portfolio of a trusted media brands.”
The name change has been empowering from a consumer marketing point of view, Casey says. “We have different magazines on different platforms in some cases,” he said. “But [until the name change], we had never really reconciled them as all separate but equal.”
Marketing strategy brings opportunity
Those brands each have an ardent reader base. TMB has a history of capitalizing on that brand affinity. The company was always consumer-marketing led, Casey points out.
“We began with our relationship with the consumer, which is why our brands are still strong, and why we still get people to pay for our content and come to our websites...,” he says. “If we remember that and we use the discipline of the consumer marketing franchise we built, there’s a lot of money to be made.”
Casey recounts the history of the customer journey at the legacy publication and how direct marketing was integral to building lifetime value: “We brought you in on Reader's Digest. Then we offered you other products—books and select editions, music and videos. We had all these different products that we would offer you. There was real science behind the process.”
That approach still applies, but has evolved to better align with the company’s current strategy. One way marketing is furthering TMB’s goals is to embed the consumer voice into advertising, editorial, consumer, and financial considerations.
Casey has been working to ensure that marketing is putting the consumer relationship in the forefront. This perspective manifests in decisions related to rate base, frequency, and the like. Rate base, for example, is assessed less on advertiser demand and more on realistic projections of consumer numbers, he notes. “If it’s not a two-million-served product, let's not pretend it is,” Casey says. “Let’s make it the best for what it is.”
In terms of frequency, the company has several “funky frequencies” in place, he says. “We have tens. We have sixes. We have eights…. It happened because we worked with the editorial team and the advertising team to marry up [frequencies] with consumer demand.”
Another way marketing is supporting TMB’s corporate goals is by optimizing internal data. That means data ownership and accountability are high priorities for Casey.
“From a data point of view, we need to know that somebody owns that data, is controlling and thinking about how to maximize it, and is working with the market just to do that,” he says, adding that he works closely with the IT team to determine limits, so as not to ask for data that is “unprofitable.”
“Marketers always want more data,” Casey says, “but at some point, it's not worth this piece of data. You can get by on the 80 percent solution.” Accomplishing that requires an ongoing relationship collaboration with IT, he points out.
By focusing on data ownership and quality, internal data and processes have been surprisingly robust. “What we’ve discovered is that some of the best marketing information and insights we have are, in fact, not industry standard,” Casey says. “The data scientists who’ve been here 20 years working on regression models know things about our data and our variables that are not common knowledge. That’s why we get much higher response rates [than competitors].”
Internal marketing intel, for example, shows how often a consumer has received communications promoting a specific publication or product, how often she responded, and if she cancelled and when. With this type of insight, TMB’s data scientists can provide more accurate recommendations to the marketing team for future outreach.
“That sounds complicated but it matters,” Casey says. “[We have to] make sure that that information and those insights continue to live within our organization.”
The content/marketing connection
The next big surge for TMB is to dramatically increase content and transform the way content is managed.
Taste of Home's "Test Kitchen Shorts" is one of the video series TMB's audience is eating up.
Kintzer is focusing on a five-fold increase in digital content—especially video. For example, TMB recently rolled out seven new brand-safe video series aligned with its Taste of Home, Reader’s Digest, and The Family Handyman and Haven Home media properties.
“What we’ve seen is that our content does exceedingly well,” Kintzer says. “It [goes] viral because, if you learn that
thing in Reader's Digest, you used to tear sheet it; well, now you share it digitally.”
Readers sharing content applies to all the TMB properties. Often, however, readers share with the publications, not just with their networks. “Taste of Home was a [user-generated content] magazine before the term UGC existed,” Kintzer says. “We have almost six million Facebook fans.” And those fans aren’t just baby boomers who grew up with the Reader’s Digest brands. “Our audience is over 40 percent millennial digitally,” she says. “That’s amazing for a company that's almost 100 years old.”
TMB seems to be in the right place at the right time. Sixty-eight percent of agency and client-side marketers who respondents to a recent TMB study agree that social media platforms are the most important partners for digital video campaigns. The research also found that social excels at delivering engagement (59 percent), ROI (39 percent), and customer service (38 percent); video platforms, however, deliver best on measurement and reporting (44 percent). Advertisers polled in the study plan allocate 28 percent of their overall 2017 budgets to digital video, an increase of about 3 percent of last year.
Supporting TMB’s increase in content is a push to hire more technical experts and content creators. So far, the company has added nine digital editors and 20 people in other digital roles (e.g., SEO, video, photo editing, social, production).
Additionally, TMB is changing the infrastructure of the content creation and deployment system. Historically, Casey explains, magazine articles were created, followed perhaps by some related digital pieces. “You’d lump the two together and you put it up on the website and everyone's sort of picking and choosing,” he said.
In contrast, the new system will start with content first, and then the decision will be made where to publish it. New content will be created so the publications can present it across any appropriate TMB platforms.
“An article that trends really high on the website will probably show up in the magazine because we know there’s interest in it,” Casey says. “We always knew editorially that these articles [were good], but now we can get the consumer voice in there, as well.”
A winning team
The changes that Kintzer and her executive team have implemented are scoring big for TMB. The company is on track to create five times as much digital and written content and video as last year, when they produced 10 original videos per week and 65 brand videos.
The content and marketing pushes have led the company to achieve these milestones:
10.8 million subscribers
50 million readers
Reach 22.6 million millennials (ages 21-40) across all print and digital properties
88.4 million social reach
1.6 billion page views in 2016; 2.4 billion is forecasted for 2017, which
would equal 50% growth—monthly unique growth is driving this
Millennials account for 30 percent of TMB's total audience
Over the past three years TMB has increased its mobile unique visitors
by 103 percent
“Creating brand-safe content is driving this growth," TMB Chief Digital Officer
Vince Errico said during the company’s NewFronts presentation this past May.
TMB Chief Revenue Officer Rich Sutton added: “Providing great content in a trusted, brand-safe environment is the promise we make every day to ensure a positive experience for our marketing partners and our consumer audiences…. Our brands’ trust by consumers and advertisers is a source of pride for all of
us at TMB.”
The company has built that trust by understanding its customers and delivering
on its brand promises.
“What's been really fulfilling for me is that to make this company successful again, we don't actually need to reinvent magazine publishing. We can improve it. We can update it. We can do cool things,” Casey says, adding that reinventing consumer marketing is buoying the company’s success. “The basic business model of this concept, and the relationship [it builds] with our readers, advertisers would like to participate in that relationship. We're proving every day that that still works.”
About the Author
Deborah Nason is a freelance business journalist for national, statewide and regional publications, including CNBC.com's financial advisor hub. Her primary focus is on emerging business issues. Deborah's specialties include investment industry, and regional economic development. Additionally, she teaches Managerial Communications to undergraduates at Post University.