DMS USA 2017: To create engaging content, experiment, optimize and then try something else

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Speakers from A+E, The Washington Post, Bloomberg and Diply shared their success stories.

The rise of digital content on social media and video sites has also created a deluge of data for marketers to mine. That’s allowed content creators to determine how best to attract audiences in a fractured marketplace. But according to speakers at the Digital Media Strategies USA conference in New York City on Wednesday, experimentation, iteration and especially patience are still key.

"Go where the audiences are and optimize to be the best you can on that platform, and then try to figure out the business," said Jed Hartman, chief revenue officer at the Washington Post, speaking to Jason Kint, CEO of Digital Content Next. "If it doesn’t work, try something else. If it still doesn’t work, then move on." 

The Washington Post is enjoying the largest spotlight the paper has been under since Watergate, after being bought out by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and breaking a series of political stories about the Trump administration. Digital subscriptions to the paper have surged to over a million.

But that process required extensive experimentation with paywall optimization—How many free articles per month? What is the pricing model? Are prices different depending on the referring site? The Post currently has 27 paywall tests running right now. "If something isn’t working, it doesn’t mean no one is going to pay for your content," Hartman said. "It means try something else."

That’s particularly true in the chaotic world of entertainment media. "There is no longer a one-size fits-all content strategy," said Paul Greenberg, evp and general manager at ‎A+E Networks. He described how producing content for social media tweaked from the networks TV shows as well as creating original content requires experimentation. The first episode of reality short "Second Chance" tried to do too much at once. Dialing back the number of spots shown over a 4-minute video drive views to 80 million by the eighth episode. 

One result of all this experimentation, though, has been the creation of best practices. For years, vertical video was verboten in creative circles, but viewers prefer to hold their phones vertically because it’s more comfortable, said Dan Lagani, president and chief revenue officer at Diply. 

Square videos actually perform better these days, said Neiki Ullah, director of accounts at attn:, because it fills more of the phone’s screen. It’s also vital to capture attention immediately. "If those first three seconds aren’t right," she said, "you may as well not make the video."

While those who come out of traditional media companies are used to taking orders from an all-powerful editor, now "we’re in a world where what the consumer wants happens," Lagani added.

But above all, having the right people on staff makes it possible to drive views and engagement in the first place. When faced with fake news and unverified information, "we’re relying on good old human judgment," said M. Scott Havens, global head of digital at Bloomberg Media, speaking to Gideon Spanier, head of media at Campaign.

It’s a caveat Hartman stressed as well. "Don’t hurt your content. The first thing a media company does when they’re having challenges is they get rid of the people that make the special, and that is a bad move," he said. "They want to keep their sales people and their circulators, and they start to trim their newsroom. Why are people going to pay for it if you’re just curating? You’ve got to keep the content as great as you can."