Corner Office:: Say Media CEO Matt Sanchez on Building A Robust Digital Infrastructure
Although it was launched back in 2005 as a video embedding platform known as VideoEgg, and has spent a good portion of its decade-long life as a digital advertising network, New York City-headquartered Say Media has lately been making headlines for its prowess in the online publishing space. In fact, there's a good chance that at some point you've been sucked into the digital rabbit hole of one of Say Media's 16 online magazines, which it refers to as "brands."
Among the best known are the sites in the publisher's "style" vertical, which includes xoJane and Fashionista. Say also lends its services to community-heavy sites like Catster and Dogster, and to design, home, and lifestyle properties like Remodelista and A&E's Biography.com.
The common thread that holds them all together? Co-founder and CEO Matt Sanchez refers to it alternately as "point of view publishing" and "blending community with content." The idea, says Sanchez, is to cut through the internet's endless digital clutter by creating highly-subjective and opinionated content.
Notably, part of Say Media's uniqueness results from its hybrid business model. Say owns and operates some sites in its portfolio outright while others, like Biography.com and Lifetime Moms, are published through a partnership model. Say also lends its advertising and sales engine to sites like Fashionista and Gear Patrol, which also benefit from the company's marketing and technology assists.
Perhaps most important, Say Media's sites all live within a proprietary online publishing platform known as Tempest. More than just a beefed-up content management system, Tempest offers a scalable digital experience that integrates content, community, commerce, and marketing -- the so-called "four pillars" of the platform -- across any digital device.
Sanchez recently spoke with Publishing Executive about the ways in which his roughly 300-employee team attempts to build the media company of the future each day.
What does Say Media bring to the table when partnering with a publisher?
I think what's really interesting about the media business -- particularly in digital -- is that we create lifestyle content around the things we're passionate about. And there are all these great independent publications being created because people have a real passion for a certain topic. [Our work] is really about bringing to life the voice of a small collection of individuals that really care deeply about a topic, and then building a community around that. And that's a very personal thing.
There are parts of the media business that are about scale, and those include the technology challenges of building a website, making sure it works on mobile, understanding your Twitter strategy -- all the pieces that are actually true of every publication. And so what we were finding was that Say had an opportunity to solve some of the scale challenges of media for a whole set of independent publishers, whether those were technology challenges, or marketing, or back office, or whatever. And then that would allow these publishers to really create the concept they loved to create, and to do what it is they're passionate about.
Can you explain how Say Media transformed from a digital advertising network into a digital magazine publisher?
The company is almost 10 years old and we actually started by trying to solve the publishing problem around video. This was before YouTube ever existed, and we thought there was a big opportunity in consumers being able to share their video content online. So we built out a platform that made it easy for services that were already in existence and had large audiences -- a blogging platform, or a social network, or a listing site like eBay -- to embed video really easily into those services.
We ended up studying the video platform and got very focused on the ad technology piece of that: How do you help brands tell stories? How do you create rich experiences that are about emotion and that are beautiful and clean and really accountable when driving attention?
So we were trying to innovate, but we were stuck inside the hole on the page that the publisher allowed the ad to live in, and we couldn't really break out of that. We began seeing opportunities to create much more engaging experiences for readers -- experiences that would work a lot better for marketers, as well. So about three-and-a-half years ago, we said, "You know, what was once blogging is turning into all these great independent publications, and those publications all need scaled business services. There's an opportunity to build a modern media company around this emergence of great lifestyle brands."
And if we can do that by controlling the entire experience -- not just the advertising experience, but by giving editors tools to create really beautiful content and in a way that's standard across a bunch of publications -- then you can build something super interesting. That's what we've been focused on for the last three-and-a-half years.
Are you referring to the development of your publishing platform Tempest?
Right. And as I think about the next couple of years, what starts to put more and more distance between some of the more innovative digital publishers and the rest of the market is this kind of "whole product" approach, where you're thinking deeply about reader, editor, and marketer, and how you build your end product.
Tempest is an advertising solution, a content marketing solution, and an editorial solution all in one. At the end of the day, that should feel like one magazine to the reader. And so we're really starting to say, "OK, forget where the market's at. What's right for the reader and for the marketer if you think about how content consumption is changing?"
So we're moving mobile, we're moving to more of a single-column, stream-based content consumption mode. We're really trying to play with the ad formats that are going to be premium and high-impact and that help brands tell stories that work on every platform -- so marketers don't have to plan their budget differently for your phone, your tablet, your desktop computer.
We're also really trying to push the envelope on how we think about content marketing and how we make that more effective for brands. And that's the process of getting our editors a lot more involved in programs we put together. The editors know their communities so well that they can actually create a better product, and one that ultimately their audiences are more receptive to, because it's been done tastefully and in the voice of the publication. So as we think about how sponsorship and branded content and content marketing all evolve, bringing the editors into that conversation early is another area where our approach is really starting to set us apart.
Can you explain your motto "Point-of-View Publishing"?
It's really easy: You're trying to carry content that breaks through -- that people react to. We live in such an over-mediated, fragmented world where there's just tons of clutter, and where the only way that you're actually going to get people's attention is if you say something provocative. And that doesn't mean salacious. It just means that you take a position.
If it's for Remodelista, that might mean, "I think this is the most beautiful drawer pull that I've found from Germany." Or it might mean that we're breaking a really important story at xoJane about a women's rights issue. It's going to mean different things to different brands, and to different editors. But the through-line in all of that is that you aren't blasé and middle of the road, but that you actually let your passion come through in how your write.
And what we find is that people just engage differently with that sort of content. They spend more time with it, and they share it with their friends more. And this is true in television as well -- it's why The Daily Show does so well, it's why Fox News does so well -- people become tribal around it. So you either love it or you hate it, which means the core audiences are incredibly passionate and engaged.
Why do you think community is an important part of digital publishing?
I think that what ends up being most important about digital magazines is that they're two-way. You have nearly immediate feedback from your readers about what you've written. And you sense that in some small way, you have ownership in the brand as a reader, because [with digital], there's a way to get that conversation going between editors and the readers. And I think that changes all the rules.
How do Say Media publications ensure a strong point of view?
Well, one of the things you'll see in our publications is that we try to bring the voices of the editors through, and make them almost a cast of characters on the site. And I guess I would say that if you find that difficult as a publication, then you're probably not getting there. If you can't authentically say what you have to say -- and use personal pronouns, and ask people to talk back, and get into the comments and react to what people say -- then you're probably not pulling it off.
As we've built these editorial teams, we've definitely seen people who were very uncomfortable with using their voice, or putting themselves out there in that way. And you can feel that in the writing, which just ends up being less interesting in some cases.
Any final thoughts about the future of digital publishing?
To me the future is about pushing a lot of the ancillary costs in traditional publishing into the platform and solving [problems] with technology. That way, you can give a voice to really talented content creators.
At the end of the day storytelling and great content creators will always have something unbelievably special to share with the world. What's been challenging about the evolution of the ecosystem over the last decade or so is not the creation of high-quality content. I think it's the infrastructure behind it that's killing us. That's the stone around our necks and we have to somehow take a different approach. So that's what we're doing.
Related story: 14 Ways to Enhance the Marketing Power of Printed Magazines
Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.