Not Just New, but Necessary

Given the rapid evolution across all things digital, remaining competitive requires constant reinvention of your product. Of course, everybody knows that old saying, that necessity is the mother of invention. The problem is, that adage doesn’t get at the real problem. The challenge lies not just in the inventing but determining what’s necessary.

Nowhere is that truer than in digital advertising, where all too often the compromises made in determining necessity cancel out the advantages. Achieving great scale can end up hindering quality, and focusing exclusively on efficiency often limits effectiveness. While there’s clearly no single road to becoming a successful ad-supported digital publisher, there are a few signs along the way that will guide you in the right direction. Can’t see them? Let me point a few out.

First, know there are times when algorithms, engines, servers, bots and scripts are simply not an effective substitute for human intervention. Consider creating systems and processes where your best and brightest people have ample opportunities to impart your brand essence across your digital experiences.

For instance, instead of relying exclusively on algorithmically identifiable search trends to determine content direction, take the time to analyze what industry leaders are doing. What’s working in print, television and radio across related topical areas? Review content that’s currently ranking well in organic search for topics you want to cover and determine what kind of high-value content you can create. Figure out the right voice and tone to make this content most meaningful. Getting digital content right requires a blend of art and science. Much as we all appreciate the efficiencies technology can offer to get the science part right, the art is still best left to real people.

Another sign to watch out for is the one held up by your users. Let’s say you were the mayor of a small town and you had to figure out which paths to pave.

The logical first step would be to pave those worn down the most, right? OK, so allow users to point out your battered routes. In other words, don’t just pave where you think users are driving, but where they actually are. Find the worn-down grooves across your sites and make them into a smoother ride.

Here’s an example drawn from my own experience at Discovery. Following the acquisition of, we recognized overlap between HowStuffWorks and TLC. Users coming to for content related to cooking, recipes and family topics also consumed similar content across But instead of forcing users to navigate between two site sections to consume this content, we consolidated large collections of content under the TLC brand and worked on tying it all together. The end result increased content consumption by 30 percent, improved return visitation and enhanced advertiser opportunities.

I wasn’t kidding when I talked about following road signs. Examples of how to inspire consumption are all around us. Have you ever found yourself at the checkout line in a big-box store puzzled by all the items in your cart that you had no intention of buying when you walked in? Well, then think of the Web the way a brick-and-mortar retailer thinks of a store layout. Figure out and optimize the digital analogs to end caps, impulse buys and seasonal items across your sites; you’ll give users a deeper experience than they initially expected when they came to visit.

Remember that consumers gravitate toward recognizable brands, so find ways to sell your key advertisers more than just access to your media; give them access to your brands, talent and capabilities. The best way to decommoditize your media offerings is to include more customization, services and consultation across key campaigns. Don’t just enable a media buy across your site—participate in developing, executing and optimizing it.