Cover Story: All Charged Up and Ready to Grow (More)
Back in the 1990s, before blogs, Twitter and a host of upstart Web sites transformed online debate into a raucous convention anyone could gate crash, David G. Bradley decided to build a media company around the "influentials" market. The guiding notion was that opinion leaders—people who formulate, shape and promulgate important ideas—rather than gatekeepers or copyright owners, were the true heirs to the digital kingdom, and that a lucrative consumer market could be constituted by those charged with putting good ideas into action.
Bradley, who built his fortune as a founder of the Advisory Board Company, was on to something. His first media venture was to buy the National Journal, the most influential and respected publication on Capitol Hill. He followed this by purchasing The Atlantic Monthly in 1999. Over the next decade, his Atlantic Media Co. (AMC) would transform a 150-year-old legacy print product into the flagship of a vibrant suite of consumer properties.
According to Justin B. Smith, president of AMC's consumer media division since 2007 and recently named company president, success has come from building and leveraging a strong brand across the print and online landscape.
"The reason why Web traffic and revenue is there is the basic notion that our brand—rooted in intelligent ideas [that can be explored quickly] on the Web or deeper in print—is equally well expressed in print and digital," says Smith. "Each of the mediums serves the brand expression in a different way, but it's the same core concept."
The numbers tell the tale. In the depths of a recession that has meant death to many a media venture, AMC saw an overall advertising-revenue surge of 16 percent in 2009, with a digital revenue gain of 115 percent. Print revenues last year were flat, "which we consider a great success relative to our competitors," Smith notes.
An Engaging Sales Strategy
An important component of the company's success has been growth in its events sector, up 27 percent in 2009. The company created a separate events division (with a separate sales force), called Atlantic Live, which has allowed the company to make significant investments in an expanding events business. "Thought leadership" forums, such as the State of the Union for Health Care and the Washington Ideas Forum, constitute a free-standing, independent revenue stream.
To facilitate a collaborative cross-platform sales environment, the Washington D.C.-based company has built a strong marketing and sales operation in New York. The sales strategy is built around "creative brand-marketing packages," Smith says, rather than the direct response model currently in vogue. "While everyone is competing with Google and the ad networks—and we are too, certainly— we think that we can best compete by understanding our brand marketers' companies, their brand values, their marketing objectives, and integrating those … with our site and content in a way that engages our users in two-way conversations."
A partnership with Porsche on a month-long digital editorial program ("inspired by Porsche's brand focus," according to a company spokesperson) is an example. It showcased an interview with Andrew Sullivan—The Atlantic's marquee blogger—shaped by TheAtlantic.com's user-submitted questions. With 60,000 video views at press time and 400 question submissions, the interview ranks No. 2 among the site's most-viewed videos, and positioned Porsche as a facilitator of the discussion, according to AMC.
The company's audience is one of the most coveted on the planet. According to Mediamark Research Inc.'s "Influentials" index, which tracks the reading habits of consumers highly involved in activism or the public sphere, The Atlantic enjoys the most influential magazine audience in America.
Key to AMC's success with this market, Smith contends, has been a focus on quality editorial content. "Not many brands … have the luxury of thinking through issues really deeply," he says. "It's a bit of a dying art …, and I think this is what a lot of people are worried about with the decline of journalism. The number of organizations that are paying people to think deeply on an issue, and then report it ... is dwindling by the second. As the competition dwindles, we are certainly doubling down on this.
"We are trying to make sense of what's to come, [and] I think in the last two years we've done a great job of that," he says.
Others agree: Atlantic Editor James Bennet was named Advertising Age's "Editor of the Year" in 2009; TheAtlantic.com Editorial Director Bob Cohn recently made the list of GQ's "50 Most Powerful People in D.C."; and TheAtlantic.com won last year's Webby Award for Magazine Site of the Year.
Designed for Digital
What sets TheAtlantic.com apart is the site's real-time focus on "breaking opinion" on news of the day, says Smith. "If the magazine is a long-form, low-frequency place for learning about great ideas and arguments, the Web site is a real-time environment for conversations about ideas," he says. "I think the main reason for our success digitally, in terms of building an audience, is editorial that is very much designed for the digital medium as opposed to print editorial that is then transferred to the digital environment."
The Web content is like the magazine's, "but at a … velocity … and urgency that would never be possible in print," Smith says.
"Our editors use an expression—The New Yorker is like taking a warm bath," he says. "It's 'lean back,' it's entertainment, it's enjoyable. The Atlantic is like drinking a cup of espresso or strong coffee. ... You're generally reading content that is pretty charged with an idea. …"
For more than 3.2 million unique monthly visitors, TheAtlantic.com's approach seems to be working. The site's Atlantic Wire feature aggregates opinion and analysis from the Web into a searchable database of the nation's 50 "most influential opinion makers." Successful Web channels launched last year focus on politics, business and food. According to a company press release, the Web site attracted 40 new sponsors in 2009, including Porsche, SAP, Cathay Pacific and Louis Vuitton.
Building a Barrier to Entry
This year, Smith says the company will make important investments in free and paid iPhone apps around The Atlantic and its Atlantic Wire brand. In the e-reader space, the company was the first to develop a content-specific package for the Kindle—Atlantic Fiction on Kindle, which features two short stories released exclusively on that device. It plans further expansion into the e-reader market this year.
By continuing to build on all fronts, including additional investments in print, AMC hopes to solidify its market and brand position.
Echoing the ideas of Columbia economist (and Atlantic contributor) Jonathan Knee, Smith says that publishers today must practice this sort of brand-centered, integrated and highly flexible approach. "In a [media] world with no barriers to entry, you're going to need multiple advantages, which together add up to some sort of barrier, some sort of advantage," he says. "The field has been so flattened by technology, content alone is not going to do it. Brand alone is not going to do it. Talent alone is not going to do it. I would argue [that] it's a combination of these things—great content, brands, strong community and audience engagement."
All pursued with an eye on the bottom line. "You have to be hyper-efficient," he adds. "It's one of the last remaining differentiators in a world with no barriers to entry, and is what a lot of the insurgent new media brands are doing. Finally, be nimble [and] flexible, and have a culture that rewards that."