HBO Chief on Attracting Audiences: Talent + Content = Subscribers
At last week’s American Magazine Media Conference, perhaps the best wisdom shared didn’t come from the mouth of one of the many magazine publishers that took the stage, but rather HBO chairman and CEO Richard Plepler.
In a session titled Building Addicts: How HBO Hooks Subscribers, Plepler revealed how HBO managed to more than double subscriptions to its standalone digital streaming service HBO Now from 2015 to 2016. In his conversation with Time Inc. content chief Alan Murray, Plepler didn’t harp on data or digital marketing strategy. He did speak to the importance of content, but what he really keyed in on is the thing that comes before content: talent.
Below are some highlights from the conversation and Plepler’s formula for attracting consumers in the Digital Content Age: talent + content = subscribers.
You Need to Follow the Cord Cutters
There’s probably no better example of a legacy content company that has managed to transform its brand for the Digital Age. HBO is dead center in the cultural zeitgeist and has gained this position in part by making its content available to the up-and-coming generation of cord cutters with HBO Now. (HBO Now requires no television subscription like HBO Go.) Launching HBO Now was not an easy decision, says Plepler, because it risked cannibalizing its cable business and alienating partners.
Yet the imperative to adapt to major shifts in media consumption habits was more important. While HBO Now only accounts for a small portion of the company’s 49 million US subscribers, reaching those cord cutters now is paramount to its long-term growth. HBO Now is a “millennial missile,” says Plepler, and the service’s subscribers are disproportionately millennial.
While talent and content reign supreme, not having its content available for on-the-go users would be a nonstarter. "We simply want to make sure that however you want to access HBO, you can do it, wherever, whenever and however you want to watch it," says Plepler,
You’re Probably Too Old to Know What Young Audiences Want
The HBO brand, a beacon for quality viewing entertainment, is a “magnet” for attracting subscribers, says Plepler. “Our implicit promise is that there’s a lot of terrific content out there -- we’re going to curate quality content and we’re going to do it across a wide tent.”
However, the inciting incident for creating great content is attracting the best talent, says Plepler. “We’re as good and only as good as the writers and talent. To me talent is sacred.”
And attracting talent requires the kind of culture that encourages the best creative ideas to rise to the top, instead of the word from the top being the final word. Citing the adage that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Plepler suggested “pushback” is crucial to a creative content business. “A healthy culture where pushback is permitted is a culture that is going to produce better results each and every time.”
The idea that a 58-year-old guy from New York City is going to curate all of the programming and his sensibilities will resonate with the culture is absurd, says Plepler. Rather, HBO’s success is dependent on Plepler taking others’ recommendations over his own.
Plepler cited the HBO series Eastbound and Down as an example of why pushback is important. Plepler says he was initially unimpressed with the series and probably would have passed on it if he had his druthers. However, president of programming Casey Bloys said to him, “You’re old and you think Larry David is the epitome of comedy. But here’s why it’ll land.”
Bloys was ahead of what the millennial comedy sensibilities would be, says Plepler, and HBO benefited from Eastbound and Down’s offbeat, hip appeal. Without an environment that rewards pushback, HBO would have missed out.
In A Noisy World, Context Is Valuable
Plepler put a button on the conversation by pointing out the role content businesses from NPR to 60 Minutes play today. Simply put, in a noisy world content is valuable, and the world is noisier than ever. “There’s a lot of noise out there, and more than ever there’s a need for smart, quality journalism and storytelling.”
The challenge remains, says Plepler, that publishers need to find ways to monetize digital that don’t run against the objectives of creating good content for an audience. HBO has the luxury of focusing entirely on producing the best content. Still, publishers that chase advertising dollars run the risk of miscalculating the digital content formula.