As the Executive Director of Global Consumer Insights at The Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Nann leads a team of media researchers and helps better understand the Journal’s readers. With over 30 years under her belt, Nann is a media veteran—an award-winning sales and research professional who’s helped build some of the world’s most renowned media brands. Her impressive career includes stints in Conde Nast’s W and Brides magazine.
Nann recently sat down with us to talk about the challenges facing the media industry and reveals the skills media researchers need to thrive in their role.
What are the most pressing challenges facing media right now?
The media industry is rapidly evolving, and the challenges range from convincing consumers that premium content is worth paying a premium price for, to building different monetization models, to leveraging data.
Monetization is an interesting and timely issue. After the 2016 elections in the U.S., concerns about “fake news” grew. Suddenly, more people were questioning the integrity of the free content they see on social media. It’s a wake-up call that not all content is equal. After the elections, established and reputable media companies like the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal all saw a boost in subscriptions. People are realizing that we shouldn’t take for granted that we have a free press. Whether the Facebook and fake-news backlash is a long-term trend is something the industry will have to watch.
Ad-blocking and privacy are two interconnected challenges. Consumers may not want to see ads, but they also may not want to pay for content. Consumers also seem to be comfortable with less privacy as long as there’s something in it for them, like timely ads, relevant content or customized offers. As long as marketing messages are contextually relevant and helpful, consumers will welcome them for now.
On a broader sense, media companies are challenged with rising consumer expectations. Consumers want media companies to be “always on” and expect content and information to be always available on every platform: print, digital, apps and social media, just to name a few.
Of course, the threat of more disruption is very real. The future looks like it’s going to be mobile-first and video-first, but what it exactly looks like, no one really knows yet. Content will always be important to consumers. Media companies need to have a pulse on their consumers because the solutions for monetizing content today are going to be different tomorrow.
How does the consumer insights team at the Wall Street Journal help the company drive subscription and revenue?
My team supports the ad sales team specifically, but we are at times called on to provide information to different stakeholders who need insight about our audience. At Dow Jones, there is a group entirely focused on our members, the Customer Knowledge Group, who are involved in understanding what our subscribers want and need. We partner with that team in managing our Vision Critical insight community.
At the Journal, we are pivoting from thinking about “subscribers” to “members.” We focus on delivering more value while creating a unique and great membership experience. For example, and the company has developed WSJ+, which are exclusive events and opportunities for our members to meet our editors as well as outside influencers.
Providing these membership experiences helps to grow engagement. Launching new compelling products ensures members can access quality content in whatever platform or medium they prefer.
Could you share some thoughts on how media companies can create better relationship with advertisers?
Advertisers are not looking for products—they’re looking for solutions. They’re looking for ideas that solve their problems. Different advertisers have different problems, so they also require different solutions. Today, Uber’s problems aren’t the same as Wells Fargo’s, for example; what a CMO is looking for might also differ from an advertising agency needs.
“Advertisers are not looking for products—they’re looking for solutions.”
To keep advertisers, we think of our products as the the tactic, not the strategy. We aren’t selling “pages” or 300 x 600 ad units—we’re selling customized solutions. It’s not just about selling print versus web ad space.
You have to understand who the advertiser is trying to reach, to motivate what action, and then offer a comprehensive solution that lets them engage that audience. That could include running ads in a section relevant to the target audience while also offering related experiential marketing opportunities, or custom content.
How can media companies best demonstrate ROI to advertisers?
While proving ROI is challenging, it’s more important than ever before. In the early days of the digital era, advertisers and media companies focused on click-through rates to measure digital ad effectiveness. But many advertisers quickly realized that approach only provided a partial picture. If a consumer sees an ad but doesn’t click right away, he or she could still take action a few weeks later. The consumer journey isn’t linear, making attribution a real challenge.
Smart advertisers today are working hard to build models of attribution and on metrics like brand lift and consideration. One way media companies can prove ROI is by measuring brand awareness and perception. While that approach is better than measuring clicks, it’s not perfect. Moving brand metrics take time and there are a lot of factors that are part of brand reputation; advertising is just one of them.
The industry will need to improve how it proves ROI; the survival of many companies depend on it. Companies need to get better at understanding the data they have and leveraging consumer insights to be more effective at it.
Early in your career, you were in sales, but now you’re in research. How and why did you make that transition?
As a young sales person, I noticed most salespeople had one of two strengths: those who were good at building incredible relationships with clients and those who were more marketing-oriented. I belonged to the latter group. I was always about the narrative. I dug into the numbers and worked closely with our research team to tease out the stories we should tell our clients. In the early days of my career though, the idea of using narratives was new.
And then I got to work with a publisher who was passionate about market research. This person pushed the organization to use research in a way that spoke convincingly to our clients so they’d choose us instead of another publication. Working with that publisher was a turning point for my career, opening my eyes to the value of consumer insight in driving revenue.
You’ve successfully navigated huge changes in the industry. What’s your secret to thriving in this industry?
Flexibility is key. It’s important to develop competence in many different skills and to continuously learn. In my case, I’ve developed a wide range of skills that allowed me to learn and foster a broad set of abilities that aren’t necessarily related to each other. Developing many skills has allowed me to move to different roles in media.
There are roles and companies in which specialized knowledge will always be valuable. But as the media industry continues to face disruption, adaptability is key.
You mentioned the importance of developing different talent sets. How can marketers, researchers and salespeople continuously develop new skills?
Curiosity is the antidote to boredom. If you are endlessly curious, you’ll always be motivated to do something differently or to perform better. You’ll always be thinking, “What’s new? How can we do this better? Is there another way of telling this story?” As a researcher, you have to be able to ideate new and relevant questions and be willing to explore where those questions might go, and then understand how to transform them into insight. Doing that well requires a curious mind.
I also recommend reading a lot. Open yourself to new trains of thought and new information. Books, I find, nurture my curiosity.
What are the most influential books that you’ve read or that have shaped your career?
First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham opened my eyes to how great managers develop and work with talented people. I’ve learned from his book that you can teach somebody a skill, but you can’t teach people a talent, like curiosity.
Buckingham’s other book, Now, Discover Your Strengths, flipped my thinking on my weaknesses. The book’s thesis is that instead of trying to change things you’re not good at, you should instead focus on your strengths. Find ways of coping with your weaknesses without focusing on them.
I also like From Good to Great, a great book from Jim Collins on why some companies transform into great organizations while most remain mediocre.
Our thanks to Nann for sharing her expertise and insight with us. For more on the challenges facing this industry, read our article on how media brands use consumer insight.
For more insight on marketing and market research, check out our Q&As with executives and customer intelligence pros.