The content marketing landscape, believes Josh Stinchcomb, has been undermined by “bad advertising masquerading as content” and “non-transparent players” who erode consumer trust by failing to label pieces for what they are.
Publishers and brands have a shared chance—a duty, even—to change this, Stinchcomb told Campaign Asia-Pacific in Hong Kong during his first trip to Asia as Dow Jones’ global chief revenue officer, his title since he joined the media group seven months ago. He wants Dow Jones’ recently rebranded content arm, The Trust, to lead the way in raising the bar.
“We have an obligation as an industry to create interesting, valuable content for consumers and be clear about what it is, and there is a lot of upside if we do that,” says Stinchcomb. “I see this as an opportunity to really pick up this mantel. If not an obligation, given who we are editorially.”
Having joined Dow Jones so recently from Condé Nast, where his latest position in 17 years of employment was ‘chief experience officer’, overseeing the launch and running of the group’s “in-house branded content experience strategy agency” (repeat that after a few glasses of wine), 23 Stories, Stinchcomb is still high on the “privilege” of representing the “essential” Wall Street Journal and the Barron’s Group brands, such as Market Watch and Financial News, whose revenue it is now his job to help maximise.
There may be “no easy job in media right now”, as Stinchcomb says, but he knows his is made significantly easier by the titles now under his charge. WSJ and Barron's Group digital audiences are growing globally and the publications have never had more paying subscribers than they have today, paying, on average, more money than ever, reports Stinchcomb. While there was speculation about the 2017 halt on print copies of the WSJ in Hong Kong and Singapore, Stinchcomb says this had no impact on total paid readership figures and APAC is the fastest growing region in terms of members.
Dow Jones' new CRO would credit this to years of effort to drive membership plus excellent content, but Stinchcomb acknowledges that the changing nature of people’s thinking on news has had its role to play, too. The rise of ‘fake news’ has raised awareness about where information comes from; and news is also becoming more important to people in general. “News is the new celebrity culture, it's what people talk about,” says Stinchcomb. He cites a recent interview in which Rob Norman, former global chief digital officer at GroupM, stated: “It seems remarkable to me that people can consider [that running] advertising in environments that engage the public enormously is of little value.”
“Brands historically have been wary of news environments for fear that they could be associated with a topic or point of view that wasn't consistent with their own,” says Stinchcomb. “But that assumes a world where consumers don’t already know what brands stand for." He is optimistic that news environments will increasingly become "not just brand safe but brand positive."
Securing the Trust
With this optimism in hand, Stinchcomb's approach to the task of boosting the WSJ and Barron’s Group coffers has three prongs, he explains. The Trust is the first. More company revenue is tied to custom content in the Asia region than anywhere else in the globe and Trust employees are already spread across Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. “I think this is a market that has clearly understood the value of content marketing. I think it's mature in that way, innovative in that way,” says Stinchcomb.
Combatting “bad advertising” and “non transparent players” to create better content can sometimes mean hard conversations with clients, he admits. “It doesn’t serve clients or ultimately our custom brand if we create content that isn’t authentic, that isn’t interesting, and that ultimately doesn’t create trust with the consumer.” The higher-standard work he has in mind, he says, must be informed by empirical data about what consumers are really thinking, liking and doing — reflecting “where you have permission to story-tell as a brand” — and must also fit into what Stinchcomb calls the “white space” in content, i.e. not delving into an area that’s already vastly over-populated.
One example is a recent project with Indian IT services firm Tech Mahindra, with whom Dow Jones has had a long-term custom relationship. The latest iteration of this partnership will see The Trust run a survey of global CEOs about “what keeps them up at night”, which it uswill use to create more relevant thought leadership pieces and inform future content.
Other tactics The Trust is using to develop better sponsored content include gleaning data on customer behavior from the WSJ and Barron’s Group's own websites, which attract over 75 million unique visitors a month, and from the social media intelligence company Storyful. A new capability coming soon to The Trust will be a cohabitation with the Dow Jones Innovation team, which currently serves the company’s newsrooms with new content delivery mechanisms such as the Wall Street Journal app, and also helps journalists experiment with tools like AR. While there isn’t an arm of this Innovation squad in Asia yet, Stinchcomb hopes it’ll open up the same opportunities for clients that are currently enjoyed by Dow Jones editorial teams.
Step into my Journal House
Stinchcomb is clear that the line between editorial and sponsorship remains solid and will never be crossed, but in the new era of generating revenue in media companies the two tribes inevitably circle closer than before. WSJ and Barron’s Group events, a second branch in Stinchcomb’s commercial strategy, are already making use of this dual value to full effect. “‘Live journalism’ is how we refer to our editorially-driven experiences,” says Stinchcomb. The packages his team builds around events are growing revenue over 25% year over year.
The pulling power of The Wall Street Journal, something Stinchcomb says he “underestimated” before he started in the role, enabled this idea to ascend to its most ambitious heights yet at Davos, last month, with Journal House, a multi-floor building that hosted some 30 events over the course of the week. These included a 600-person party, a dinner for 40 CEOs and 11 custom panels run in partnership with clients. The whole enterprise will pop up again in Cannes, in the summer.
Such a venture offers much more than the traditional “get your logo on the backdrop” package sponsors were offered in the past, says Stinchcomb. Now, on top of all the promotional material, sponsors can speak—“if we work with them to help them curate their moment... there's no reason it can’t be as interesting as anything else”; they can set up their own data-gathering spaces; and they can buy curated networking opportunities.
Could we eventually reach ‘peak event’? Stinchcomb is unconcerned: with Journal House as the latest benchmark, he believes the experiences his team can generate to maintain interest will keep getting better and better. Plus, he points out, there’s still much growth in events from a consumer interest viewpoint. “I tend to think about events sort of being a response, a somewhat ironic dual response to technology. People who spend so much time on their phone now and their screens kind of crave the ‘in real life’, and I think that is driving some of the consumer interest in events. Ironically, because people create so much content and share so much content from events socially, events have become a lot more valuable for marketers too because there's this whole extension.”
Innovating in ads
One final area of commercial focus for Stinchcomb and his team is in the creation of innovative digital advertising products. The single ad tech lead employed by Dow Jones when Stinchcomb joined the company has seen his team swell to 15 and growing in the last seven months. Their focus is on using the same first-party-data that helped the group understand reader habits and grow its membership (paying subscriber) base to historically high levels, for advertising, which Stinchcomb hopes will set the titles apart as having “a pretty rare capability in the market”.
One product just coming out of a beta period, for instance, is called “DJID” (Dow Jones Intelligent Identifiers), and is expected to generate big returns. An AI tool was trained on another Dow Jones offering, Factiva, a huge library of articles and company information, teaching it how to understand the topics in any story to very accurate, in-depth levels. Thus educated, the tool can now assess new stories journalists are writing and, even before they are published, offer a highly contextual adjoining ad slot for advertisers to consider buying. Stinchcomb says the product is “incredibly” accurate—“as judged both by us and our clients, who continue to buy more and more of it.”
“It’s not just the ability to say ‘here’s a segment you can buy’ or ‘here's a topic you can buy’, it's ‘here's a topic you should buy because I know, given who you are and given what our audience wants, that this is a decision trigger kind of topic for what you do.’”
Stinchcomb may have a lot to be optimistic about but he is, in the end, still a media executive in 2019. Challenges remain, and they’re the ones “everyone who is not Google and Facebook has”. “A lot of the money in the digital ecosystem is being sucked out of it. We are competing with just as many players as we ever did for an increasingly small part of the pie. The good news is the pie itself is growing and there's still upside for us, but it's a hyper, hyper competitive space.”
There’s no easy job in media right now, but Josh Stinchcomb may yet get the chance to look back and say he had one of the most effective.
Josh Stinchcomb at Campaign360
Now entering its third year, Campaign360, held on March 5, 2019 in Singapore, gathers the most influential global and regional media and marketing heads in a forum to ignite change. You can see the full Campaign360 agenda here; Josh Stinchcomb will be speaking at 12.20pm about technology, creativity and data.
Campaign360 is an invite-only event with a limited supply of VIP passes available for senior brand marketers. To register your interest in attending, please contact Lucian Mashobe on +852 2122 5238 or email.