Industry Innovator: Breaking Media CEO John Lerner on the Ripple Effect of Good Content
The B2B magazine sector was hit hard when the economy sputtered in 2001 and tanked in 2008. Advertising dollars simply dried up. The prevalent reaction to the revenue drought was to keep existing advertisers at all cost, even if it meant diluting content to curry favor with clients. “People were more conservative as the dollar shrunk,” says Breaking Media CEO John Lerner. “They couldn’t really push the envelope with irreverent content because if you offend, you usually lose advertisers. The content became bland, mostly rehashed press releases, and it was tough to be engaging.”
Breaking Media, which publishes websites covering the legal, finance, fashion, medical, government, defense, and energy industries, took losses during the recessions too. The company was forced to cut away brands that were unable to thrive on the web.
Lerner, who joined Breaking Media in 2010, worked to strengthen the company’s stance as a B2B publisher. But in stark contrast to many of its B2B contemporaries, says Lerner, Breaking Media increased its investment in content by gathering top industry experts and encouraging content with a strong point of view. The objective was to create content that was helpful but also irreverent and unique. “We want to bring sexy back to B2B,” says Lerner.
Provocative content creates a ripple effect, says Lerner, enabling Breaking Media to achieve deep market penetration in specific verticals, which is attractive to advertisers. “50,000 in circulation in print is really great, but 50,000 monthly uniques online is nothing. We need the reach of the entire market to get the numbers that give us scale and size as a company.” Breaking Media’s dedication to strong editorial voices has garnered it ample engagement in its respective industries—in the legal space Above the Law boasts over one million visitors each month.
Critical to the mission of delivering helpful content to readers and valuable prospects to advertisers is Breaking Media’s use of Hubspot for customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing automation. The platform is used to track how specific visitors engage with the site and can pinpoint what content is read by which readers. Breaking Media uses this data to improve its content and develop audience profiles that enable advertisers to drill down to the specific groups they want to reach—what Lerner calls a “niche of a niche.” Lerner’s goal is to collect enough data around individuals’ content interests that Breaking Media can effectively market to readers on a one-to-one level.
Following Lerner discusses the execution of Breaking Media’s content- and data-driven strategy and shares how the company has monetized its digital content by creating a diverse mix of advertising opportunities.
How has Breaking Media changed in the last five years under your leadership?
It’s gotten a lot bigger. I was actually an investor in Breaking Media so I came on having known the company for a bit. It was initially really focused on launching sites in different verticals, and I think the distinction of B2B was not as defined in the verticals as I have made them. I really wanted to focus on the industries we serve and make sure that we are a B2B publisher. It was not the best of economies in 2010, so we really focused on the markets that we thought were the strongest, DealBreaker our site in the finance industry, Above the Law in the legal industry, and Fashionista [in the fashion industry].
What we really wanted to do was talk to people in the voice of their actual industry. We want to make sure our sites are written by people who understand that space and often come from that space. It’s interesting in the world of web where everyone thinks bigger audience is better, for us it’s the market penetration that’s important. We want to have the biggest market penetration possible, but it’s a finite market.
What are the biggest drivers of revenue at Breaking Media?
I would say the majority is some form of advertising, but it’s not one single type. We do banner ads, native advertising, lead gen campaigns, and we sell sponsorships for events. Even content marketing has become a big part of our mix, where we’re generating content for third parties.
What types of ads are brands buying the most?
Everyone is looking for something in the native spectrum. It ranges from someone sponsoring a weekly column to us writing the content for them. They can build a great site, but they need to get people there and populate it with great content. And we can help. We’re very good at communicating with the audience and we can help our partners do that in many different ways. We’re trying to act as an agency.
We’re not necessarily seeing one thing growing over the other. We’re seeing the mix of advertising and marketing opportunities become more diversified. We’ve had to increase our offerings as our clients become smarter and more online savvy. I think it’s a great time for that.
Could you talk a bit about your CRM initiative?
We are using Hubspot for the CRM. A lot of what we are doing is similar to marketing automation, but we view the tool as a CRM since we want to treat all of our visitors as customers and help them interact with content and marketing partners more efficiently. Anytime we touch someone for an event, an email sign-up, or any interaction they have with us, we put it in the CRM. In a perfect world, every single reader who visits our site would be added to our CRM. That’s not the case yet. Maybe it will be at some point.
When we do that we try to continue to know more about them in a way that we can give them more valuable information and give them more targeted emails. So instead of blasting everyone in our list about a certain subject, we’ll only blast those who have an interest in it. That is the problem you have in a lot of spaces. Because you can email everyone and because it is cheaper than snail mailing them, normally you blast everyone. We try to be efficient with our messaging and not inundate them.
What have you learned from growing your various verticals online?
It’s a long list. The mistake list is pretty long too. That is one of the lessons we’ve learned: You’re going to make mistakes, and you have to suck it up and move on. It is better to cut and run early if something isn’t working, but we have to experiment.
I think that on a more positive note, you constantly have to update and improve your editorial content. More readers have moved online in the B2B space. You have to be up to speed on how to entertain them and engage them. From an audience standpoint, we don’t know what is coming next.
When I started here we had a Facebook and Twitter presence, but it wasn’t that important. Now they are huge drivers of our traffic and of our brand. We’re doing things with Instagram that we wouldn’t have thought of three years ago. We are always looking for what is the next thing that we need to be aware of.
What is your plan for growth at Breaking Media?
We want to continue drilling down that niche of a niche and being consultative to our clients. If our advertisers want to reach 1,000 people in an audience, we’ll get them those people. We believe we can get to a one-to-one marketing level at some point. As we continue to drill down with our audiences and learn more about them and serve their needs, I think we’ll get there.
Related story: Is Good Content the Answer for Publishers? Yes and No.