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The media industry is undergoing radical changes. With two sets of customers, advertising partners and the audiences they advertise to, media companies require new types of insights and the ability to get them quickly and cost-effectively. Staying in the consideration set of ad agencies, and the brands they represent, is a constant challenge. Syndicated research is expensive and often isn't customized to match the brand of media companies and their partners.

Just ask Linda Lawrence, Research Manager at Smithsonian Media, comprised of its flagship publication Smithsonian magazine, Air & Space magazine, Smithsonian Channel, and the Smithsonian Media Digital Network. Their audiences look to them to introduce ideas and innovations that will impact their world, and an understanding of how they engage with Smithsonian Media’s content and brand is essential to make better informed and faster decisions.

Linda recently shared her advice on navigating the challenges and pressures her industry faces through stories of early wins from their insight community’s first year, lessons learned about building and managing a community, and tips for success.

You've had your community, the Curiosity Council, since early 2017. What’s the biggest impact you’ve had in your first year?

The community is our secret weapon for ad sales. Our team quickly latched onto Vision Critical as a way we could offer a different perspective on our audience that no one else could provide. Enabling a sales person to go into a client meeting knowing they’re providing unique information is priceless.

We've seen dynamic growth with 14% greater revenue YOY in travel advertising. At least 15 of our first 50 activities touched on the travel category.

How did you feel when you first had your community?

I was secretly terrified at first because I didn’t know what it was going to look like. Once we figured out the timing and logistics, we realized it was great. Now the community is my fun toy to play with. It’s an incredibly valuable tool for the sales team, and I’m the one that’s owning it. I’m the sole researcher and having the community really makes me feel recognized as a valuable player in the bigger team. It’s helping to future proof both my role and our business.

What was the most surprising part of getting your community up and running?

Recruiting was harder than I thought it would be. We have nearly 2 million subscribers, but having more email addresses would have been helpful. Vision Critical helped us figure out alternatives, including social media and events, and we've had very good responses to our small email list as well, so we're getting closer to the community size we want.

What do you do to keep members engaged?

Curiosity Council members represent the most devoted members of the Smithsonian Media audience. When we do a good job engaging members, they respond favorably and we're seeing increased member interest in the community. Some things we keep in mind about member experience:

  • Focus on business needs. When we’re working with stakeholders on activities, we only run activities that help us make better business decisions. We don't run activities that are just nice to know.
  • We share back topline results, answers to questions or comments that come up, and ask follow up questions. Most of our surveys end with shareback links either to content on that relates to the survey’s topic, or to results from a previous study.
  • Among the approximately 50 activities fielded within our first year, 10 were purely engagement activities with our members, such as:
    • heads-up on live events presented by Smithsonian magazine
    • “What’s On” at the Smithsonian museums before a long weekend
    • video recaps of live events
    • holiday greetings at Thanksgiving and New Year
    • links to the year’s most popular stories on
  • We’ve fielded 5-6 activities asking members to submit photos of themselves in certain activities or experiences. While our ultimate goal was to use photos in ad sales presentations to help bring our audience to life, we’ve shared selections of photos back to the community so they can see fellow Council members and feel more like part of a community.

Could you share some early wins for ad sales?

We showcased findings in at least 50 pitches (almost half of all pitches) from the Curiosity Council about what makes our audience highly desirable. This is unique information for our advertisers that they can't get elsewhere. Some findings were based on custom studies for the particular prospect, others were based on category-related or more generic studies.

Our sales materials have been enhanced far beyond what traditional syndicated audience research could provide, and supported 10 members of our ad sales team by turning insight around in as few as 1-2 days. In one example, we did a 24-hour turnaround custom research project for one of our sales people. The fresh information helped us get the $150K win.

We gathered insights we would never have been able to get before. In the first year, we did projects that we wouldn't have previously had budget for and would have required going to an outside vendor. We estimate the replacement cost would be $500K+.

Now that we have the ability to field our own ad recall surveys for requesting advertisers, we were able to drop a syndicated service, resulting in immediate cost savings.

Have you also seen wins outside of ad sales?

Yes, definitely! For our consumer marketing and editorial teams too. And especially because we’re providing fast insight we would never have budget to do outside of the community.

We field surveys asking about readership of each issue of Smithsonian magazine, and also ask about likelihood of subscription renewal and overall satisfaction with Smithsonian. Verbatim responses help inform management about subscribers’ concerns and reasons why they might not renew, some of which may be actionable on our part in order to minimize any loss of revenue.

One issue of Smithsonian magazine had a cover design that alarmed management. They thought it could polarize our audience and might trigger subscription cancellations. By 8:00 the next morning we had over 2,000 responses to a cover test confirming concerns about the cover. With just hours to spare before the press deadline, the cover design was modified to a much “softer” version that still conveyed the essential message and averted the potential loss of subscription revenue.

We also have several examples where we collected stories and photos from people to contextualize knowledge about a category, especially travel and vacations. Results from one study were so colorful, positive, and insightful that they became the core content of a domestic travel brochure that was distributed at an industry function and since shared with multiple travel clients.

Through forums, we collected some extensive verbatim responses to moderated questions that probed for specifics about a particular category. We would never have had budget for in-person focus groups or in-depth interviews, and these forums cost us nothing. For an industry breakfast we hosted, select verbatims from this study were paired with bold visuals in a presentation that instantly brought our audience to life with credible insights.

How do you keep stakeholders in the loop about projects?

We focus on selling results internally. Besides our CRO who sees everything, our ad sales team is routinely updated with new learnings at weekly sales meetings. This helps keep the Curiosity Council fresh in their minds as a resource, as well as giving them deeper perspective into the audience they’re selling.

Thanks for sharing these valuable tips, Linda. Your journey from being terrified and overwhelmed with the pressures of being successful to being a valued voice of your audience within the organization is a huge transformation in a year.

 How media companies monetize insight and drive revenue with research

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