After spending a decade building
’s online presence, LA tech veteran Sean Moriarty was confronted by a new challenge when he was named CEO of
in August 2014.
Founded by Rich Rosenblatt and Shawn Colo in 2006, Demand Media is a Santa Monica company that builds platforms for its roster of media and marketplace properties including eHow, LIVESTRONG.com, Cracked, Society6 and Saatchi Art.
We sat down with Moriarty to discuss the strategy behind managing a company with multiple verticals and Demand Media’s approach to staying relevant in the ever-growing abyss of online content:
Getting behind the wheel of an 8 year-old startup can be a daunting task. What state was Demand Media in when you became CEO in 2014?
The company went public in 2011 and was quickly hit hard by algorithm changes at Google that brought a strong negative effect on media businesses that relied on SEO. When I got to the company the first thing I did was take inventory on what we had. What we had were things that most startups would kill for. Despite the challenges, we still had high-volume sites in great categories and we had real revenue. What we didn't have at the time, I would say, is high-quality products. Our products didn’t nearly have the level of engagement that I think good, solid brands need to have on the internet, particularly if you’re a media company.
Algorithm changes are becoming more common on social media sites and present a huge curveball for content creators trying to reach a broad audience. How do you combat or plan for algorithm changes on Google, Facebook or Twitter?
It’s a question that can never be clearly answered and put to bed. What any business can and should be able to control is the quality of the content it creates. The thing every organization should be focused on is: Are we producing the best content that we’re capable of and is this not just based on our own internal standards but born out of the way consumers are engaging, interacting and sharing it?
The reality is, in some ways, it’s gotten much harder for publishers and in other ways I’d argue there’s more opportunity than ever to find an audience. Several years ago Google was the only game in town for platform distribution — if you didn’t do well in search or didn’t have the money to pay for it, it was really hard to build an audience. Over the past 5 years we’ve seen the rise of Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest so you now have a plurality of distribution. The way we talk about it internally is that we need to have an engaging presence on every platform that matters for our audience. From time to time [your readers are] going to bounce around a little bit in terms of how they respond to a new algorithm but again if you have a good, healthy brand that people care about, you should be able to surf those waves.
Demand Media controls five major media platforms that each have their own unique voice. How do you maintain so many content verticals while also utilizing high-level practices?
Within each business there's a GM, they are the owner of that business and we try to make sure they have all the resources they need to run that business and maximize the brand. I’m not a huge believer in Synergy across all businesses. What I do believe in is being a good teammate. Especially if you're inside a multi-business business (particularly a small one like ours) where we’re all under the same roof and best-practice sharing. If you’ve got a phenomenal UI/UX practice within one of your businesses, it's a strategic weapon that can be leveraged and it should set the bar across your company because you have that talent inside your four walls. It’s all about the people who care to share those best practices as opposed to some corporate inflicted synergy exercise.
If you scroll to the bottom of most sites or make one visit to the Weather Channel website, you’ll see perfect examples of the types of misleading headlines and images that are destroying online content. How do you maintain headline and brand integrity in this current age of clickbait?
The fundamental reality is that compelling copy and catchy headlines have always mattered. Newsboys used to roam the streets calling out the day’s headlines and newspapers put a lot of time thinking through what would draw readers. What's happened on the Internet has happened because we’ve reduced content production costs substantially so there's a lot of voices so, to separate yourself from the noise, you need to stand out and create something that catches people’s eyes. The way I think about clickbait personally is less about whether a headline is eye catching or sensationalistic, but rather does the promise of the headline meet the expectation it creates when people actually experience the content?
Where people get unhappy on the Internet is when they see a headline, gain interest and go to content that doesn’t deliver. So mismatched expectations, to me, really define the excesses of clickbait and attention grabbing we’re experiencing. That said, it is the environment and it is what users respond to so everyone needs to strike their own balance and recognize that they have a duty to meet the needs and expectations of [their] audience but also attract an audience with a compelling headline.
Another huge frustrations for online publishers is finding ways for people to actually click on articles rather than just “liking’ it or commenting on the headline. Is there a way to change your social media followers’ motivations from “I like this” to “I want to read this”?
It's a consequence of a short attention span and people drowning in a sea of content. But what I would argue is it's also an opportunity for a brand to develop. The “I want to read this” can come from just the provocative headline, regardless of who the brand’s publisher or writer is, or it could come from the feeling of, “This brand always writes stuff that I’m interested in so I want to read this” or “this writer is someone I care about.” Those reactions have been going on since the beginning of the distribution of the written word. People have been talking books that they haven’t read for forever! We can lament that that behavior exists but it’s been with us for as along as books have existed.
New strategies to combat the online reader’s short attention spans include a bulleted recap or estimated reading time placed before the article. Are these hurting online content or are they just natural evolution?
I love to read so those techniques don’t speak deeply to me personally but I think they are very sound in a world where people are very quick to parse and look for clues on whether they want to engage with something. If those contextual clues are helping people engage with more content, then I think they’re great. To what extent they are universally effective, I haven’t done enough work to know, but I think it's a sound thought and practice to at least test. We live in a world where more summary information is better and I think it shows a sign of respecting the audience and trying to help them.