What do you do when you’re tasked with expanding a successful publication?
For Noah Robischon, Fast Company’s executive editor, it meant creating a suite of digital publications where the brand could share in-depth articles with its loyal audience on the topics they cared about. The Co.Design, Co.Exist, and Co.Create sites were born as places readers could find original stories on business and design, world-changing ideas, and branding, entertainment, and technology.
As one of the leading media companies in the world, Fast Company attracts millions of visitors every month. Co.Exist, according to the company, attracts 3 million visitors per month, and its print edition is still strong, with a circulation of 725,000.
I recently spoke with Robischon about the media brand’s marketing strategy in the age of ad blocking, his editorial focus in serving a loyal audience, and more.
Back when I took over Fast Company on the digital side, it was actually trying to be a LinkedIn competitor. Even though the timing was right for that move, it was a really hard battle to win, and so there was a decision to switch back to focus on editorial. When I came in, I had to come up with the strategy, so I started with the underlying mission of Fast Company—which surrounds the idea that we spend so much of our lives at work, and it should have meaning beyond a paycheck. [Our work should make] a bigger impact on the world—you shouldn’t need to look to something outside of work to be the place where you make a statement or try to achieve the way you think the world ought to be.
I started reading back issues, looking at some of the classic features from Fast Company over the years, and deconstructing their elements. Something that people have trouble grasping about Fast Company is that our features are these great, people-driven stories, but inside of them you will also find that they have leadership lessons, elements of design thinking, passionate, mission-based approaches, and creative thinking. They’re not limited to people in traditional business roles.
In going through the features and teasing out all these parts, I realized that there were these very distinct elements that occurred over and over again, and that each one of those lent itself to a much deeper dive. And so knowing that on the web things that are verticalized tend to have a lot more loyal visitors and return readership, I started to think about how we could take those elements and go deeper.
Knowing that we had an audience that liked to meld all these things was part of the power, but at the same time, if you were a designer, you really wanted to just hear about design and have design be the focus and the in-road to the topics that Fast Company writes about. That’s where Co.Design came from—this idea that we could dive much deeper on that topic and write about it in a way that other sites weren’t. At that time, no one else was covering design and business. Even now, there are lots of great design sites out there that are just focused on here’s a new thing, it looks really great; here’s who designed it; here’s what makes it interesting from a design perspective. But nobody was actually covering how to get designers and business people talking to each other about what matters, so that we could further the aims of both sides of that conversation. That’s where we came in, and a lot of that thinking was thanks to Linda Tischler; I mention that because we’re giving out a Linda Tischler award at our conference this year to a designer who we’ve deemed to have done fantastic work in furthering the goals of great design. [Tischler, after a long and successful career in journalism including 13 years at Fast Company, passed away after a battle with cancer at the age of 67 in April of this year.]
From Co.Design, we realized that, kind of surprisingly, there’s a lot of entertainment coverage that fit the Fast Company mold. Again, here was an area where you had a lot of trade press—who was making movie deals, what actors were doing which things—and you had some personality-driven things where stars were on the cover of magazines, but there was a real lack of two [kinds of features]: celebrities being taken seriously for their business acumen and their mission, and this layer of people who often don’t get noticed—like the person who created the series.
Right. You focus on the stars or whatever, but the creator of the series’ name pops on the screen and you don’t know anything about them or what brought them to create it. There are all these important, creative people running things behind the scenes, and we wanted to know how they get it all done.
Co.Exist was a natural fit because that is still the soul of Fast Company—in the sense that it’s a mission-based approach, the sense that we can solve the big problems of the world even though they’re not easy. We may not even always like the real answers, but we’ve got to keep trying to keep improve things for everybody and not leave people out. Progress, especially technological progress just for the sake of technological progress, isn’t always in and of itself a good thing. There are certainly consequences that need to be talked about.
They are their own entities. There’s certainly a lot of sharing across our network, but the goal has always been for them to be their own. Fast Company is still the largest, and because it’s got a lot of power to send traffic to different places, there’s a lot of sharing. It’s also because my editors are tightly knit and they understand the value in helping each other out. Someone else might have a good story, and we should all benefit from that.
I’m glad you brought it up because it’s a really interesting story and learning experience, and in some ways a failure—a good failure. I launched [Co.Labs] with the intention that it would be technically focused, writing about software and the emerging technologies that were making the web work. I continue to believe that we are in an era when some amazing things are becoming viable for us to use, and I wanted it to be a place not only where we could write about that but also experiment and come to understand that. That mission was good, and the staff involved did a very good job executing that mission. What was hard about it was that our entire business operation and editorial operation were moving at a certain pace and were growth focused and advertising based. Each site had its own P&L [profit and loss statement] and was working at its own speed, and then we had Co.Labs. Labs, because of the nature of what it was doing, took more time. It took a long time to do that stuff well, and you had to do experiments that failed to find out if they worked or not. You had to also do things that would take longer to catch on—longer than the time of an article going viral. But the purpose of that site wasn’t to create viral articles; it was to create experiments that people who knew what was going on in the web publishing world would understand and appreciate and join us in learning from.
That was an unsustainable model given that so much of our other work was being fed by a different kind of model. I’d love to still be doing it, but it was really hard to support from a budget standpoint and also a staffing standpoint. I wanted to see it grow, but I was stuck because I couldn’t justify hiring more people over there.
I also think one of the biggest things I took away from there is that we were measuring data for us. Some businesses continue to be built of a scaled model of how many impressions you’re serving, but I realized we need to look at data in a different way to evaluate what was a success and what we wanted to do as a business. This idea that everyone needs to scale to be massive, I just don’t think is the only model out there.
One of the things we came to realize is that we have an audience for each of these sites that has high loyalty and engagement. We wanted to figure out how to make more out of the value of having people who are so dedicated, a return audience, and people who were willing to do things alongside us—versus this idea of: hey, I don’t care if you bounced, I just want more eyeballs. We asked: how do we change our model and take advantage of loyalty? That requires a shift in your business. I became very interested when sites like Chartbeat started to do experiments and The Economist started to sell engagement and time on site. I actually like that model a lot, but I also knew that it wasn’t going to be the winning model because it was predicated on the idea that advertising was the only way to extract value from your loyal audience. I’m not saying that we’ve figured it out entirely or perfected it, but I think there are people out there, like The Economist, The Times, or even The Wall Street Journal, that have started to understand how to get a deeper relationship with their audiences and make it valuable to their businesses. Now I’ve gotten into an area where I seed this to other people here. I’m still on the editorial side and I love thinking about this stuff, but the business now has to change and move to meet that idea, but that is indeed what we’re doing.
Definitely a concern. Definitely something we have considered what we could do—whether we should ask people to whitelist us or something else. It’s something we’re going to have to address as it gets to be more of a problem. For now, I would rather spend my time looking for other ways to get you to subscribe to one of our events or basically any other way for you to give us confirmation that you are a loyal reader—even if that’s signing up for a newsletter.
If you look on the site right now, you’ll see that we just swapped out our site newsletter sign-up boxes at the end of every article for the Innovation Festival newsletter, because we’re in the final stretch to get people to sign up for the event. That’s not ad-served. I would rather get you to sign up for that and develop a relationship with you than spend time trying to devise some pop up thing that’s going to make you whitelist us on your ad blocker and get back that 10-20 percent—and much less when you take out the international traffic—of people using an ad blocker. The value is much higher if I can get you to do something else. We have to do both, but I still think the other route is long-term more valuable.
Such a hard question to answer. In terms of the future of print sustainability, you can look at it purely from a resource standpoint and it seems hard to sustain. On the other hand, from an audience standpoint, the people who love print love print. The two [print and digital publications] complement each other. Robert Safian [editor and managing director of Fast Company] and I often ask each other: does the website help sell the magazine, or does the magazine help bring people to the website? The answer is both—and as long as that is the case, having both is a really good thing, because you need to be wherever people are. In the same way, we’d love to have a TV show. You need to think beyond the form that your delivery of content is taking and realize that you need to be a little bit everywhere.
Now, from a business standpoint, does that mean you have to change how you deliver these things? Absolutely. Print is very tradition bound, in terms of the models that have existed to deliver it; what I think is that there do need to be some changes, but we change the website all the time. You have to accept that this industry is shifting, think strategically about what your next moves are, and make sure those are the right ones overall for your business.
Print is still robust for us; it’s still working. I don’t see any imminent changes, but all I can say to other publishers is stick it out if you can. It’s impossible for me to see what their businesses look like. There are so many different formats that the business side of the print piece can take. But for now, we see it very much as someone that is key to our strategy going forward.
Right now we’re very selective about what we reprint. In years past, we had set up more codified deals with people about sharing articles. Ultimately, [guest posts] still require a fair amount of work to do, and the result is often lackluster. When you’ve agreed to publish X number of articles per week from another site, a lot of those just aren’t going to hit. They weren’t written for our audience, they’re not necessarily going to work, and every once in awhile one does and that’s great. But in aggregate, you’re going to look back and say “neither party is super happy with how it went.”
The alternate is to what we do now, which is to say “that [story] will work for us, that would be a hit, and I bet a lot of our readers have never read that.” Then we’ll pick it up and reach out on that basis and ask if we can use it. By and large, people are happy to do that, and they’re happier because the outcome is better. I rely on my editors to figure out which pieces are going to work and bring those over. I get questions all the time: “What’s a good article? What do you look for?” And I’ll be honest, my editors are the great ones at picking—they know what’s going to connect not only because it’s of the moment but it’s also executed in a way that works for us.