Distributive media and why media companies need to tool up or get left behind [interview]

Distributive media and why media companies need to tool up or get left behind [interview]

Publishing has changed dramatically over the last few years, with the dominance of platforms in the distribution chain - with Facebook and Google now very much the life blood of any publisher, and both requiring publishers to adhere to their proprietary publishing formats Instant Articles (Facebook) and AMP (Google).

Given the radical change in how media is distributed online, there’s been very little change / innovation in how publishers publish their content.  Unlike Google and Facebook, publishers still (mostly) have stuck to their old CMS (Content Management System) platforms - often the same CMS that they adopted 10+ years ago, with little recognition of the dominance of social and mobile in the world of publishing.

This lack of CMS innovation is starting to change, thanks to a New York start-up called RebelMouse.  RebelMouse not only has an interesting name but also an interesting history, having been founded by the ex-CTO and co-founder of the HuffingtonPost, Paul Berry.

Whilst in New York late last year, Hackers.Media took a stroll around Manhattan’s Soho with Paul, discussing how he got to where he is with RebelMouse and where they’re going next.

Q: Background: Tell me about your adventures at the Huffington Post, and how it led you to founding RebelMouse.

A: Building HuffingtonPost was a lot of fun. We were coming at media and news from a very different perspective, based on the work that Jonah Peretti and I had done (in part with Ken Lerer) during the Contagious Media Research Group and other projects. It was the very early days of big data for media and we got way out ahead of it, building internal stats that helped editors build traffic.  There were a lot of divisions media had established between roles that we didn't realize we were breaking down. Fundamentally writers weren't supposed to care about (or often even know about) traffic - they wrote and someone else was in charge of the traffic for it. Editors didn't talk to tech teams directly but through product groups and often didn't talk to them at all. We let the writers understand how to win in search (and then later in social) and how to understand distribution with every story. We had no product team, but editors and developers working together. 
When we sold the company to AOL, I headed up the product and engineering groups for the media properties at AOL. It became vividly clear to me that there was something lacking in all the CMS systems in the world, something we had come to understand very deeply which was distribution. We saw this change coming to mobile and social and with native content on the platforms and also realized the inadequacies of the CMS world was going to become a significant problem, not just for media companies but for the entire world. Everyone is a publisher now, brand or media company and everyone has to understand their own distribution and do it efficiently. That's the mission we set out on 5 years ago. 

Q: Distribution: Talk through your view of how the media distribution paradigm is changing, and how what you think publishers are doing wrong (and right).

A: The most fundamental change is in the role of websites. Media had understood websites as the primary goal, the only place they could monetize and create loyalty. Every distribution platform (Google, Facebook etc) was seen as a way to drive traffic to the website. Today's world now requires a totally different approach. The website still plays a role, but the role of the site now is to help support the reach of native content across all the social platforms. Great publishers are ditching their custom video players and realizing every view on Facebook and YouTube they can generate helps them dip into the viral loops of those platforms better. The Dodo is a great example of a property that did it right - they stayed tremendously lean on technology, using RebelMouse as their platform and ended up a few years later as a key part of the $600 million dollar Group 9 roll up. 
What most media companies are doing wrong now is chasing the HuffingtonPost model today. Building a big custom tech team and dedicating a big budget to that and focusing on Page Views and Unique Visitors to their websites. That costs too much, takes too long and 99% of the time the wrong product gets built. Really awesome new media companies are staying incredibly lean, learning how to become a video company obsessed with distribution and are reaching jaw dropping audience numbers. 

Q: The product: How is RebelMouse tackling this publishing paradigm shift head on - and tell me a bit more about the product.

A: What makes the product unique is how it builds distribution into the process of creating content. Having the right big social accounts on topic share your content is the key to distribution across social. When those pages and accounts are sharing, their audience is getting a chance to see it and when that content clicks with them, you are dipping right into the viral loop and creating new organic reach. Every time creators create or remix content, we grab tags around the media and content  and look for  the social accounts that love sharing that type of content. We've built in the relationship management tools that can turn content into a way of finding audience. Social is about being generous and not just posting about yourself, so we help creators discover the content they should add to their own articles and the content they should share with their own audiences which isn't theirs. Doing this strategically helps you become the center of the universe on the topic you are trying to own. We learned the power of sending traffic out at HuffingtonPost and this principle is even more important today. 
It is an exciting time for us because the paradigm shift has happened. When we started, it was a prediction and we had a lot to build to solve all we had in the vision. Now the market is there and the product is really deep and mature. One of the most important core things we solve is the ability to iterate rapidly. The right product today is not the right product in 6 months and what we  have developed is a platform that can evolve with a network scale that in house tech teams can't keep up with even on huge budgets. But we've done it in a way that can massively change the P&L for media companies, drastically reducing costs and giving companies significant growth opportunities with the right modern product in place to handle cross platform distribution. 

Q: Proof: This all sounds great in theory, but do you have any proof / case studies of Rebel Mouse really working / changing how media companies publish content?

A: Properties are growing on our platform. Perhaps the most spectacular story is The Dodo which was built entirely on RebelMouse, without any in house tech teams and reaches up to 60 million people in a day now. We have properties like EcoWatch that have grown nearly 4x on website traffic and much more then that on Facebook after joining just 5 months ago. We also power United's content hub which replaced Share Point at hub.united.com and now makes the art of ingesting content and redistributing for social easy and native for the teams there. 

Q: What next: How do you see media distribution changing in the future, and how will that affect how publishing companies operate, and what next for the RebelMouse platform?

A: We have a lot of work ahead of us. As these tech giants have come to dominate, the world needs a strong Switzerland that can keep up with them and help companies understand how to take advantage of the platforms systematically. We will never be done because the velocity of change in tech is only accelerating. But our core mission is  going to be the very same one 25 years from now. 
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