By Patricia Torres-Burd, Managing Director, Media Services.
Ever since we made our first loan in 1996, we have provided strategic media advice and venture support alongside our investments. This capacity support in the form of coaching, training, and consultancies in all aspects of media management and strategy is an integral part of our mission, reflecting our commitment to helping clients leverage the financing we provide to build sustainable businesses around their core values.
Though advice and assistance were always necessary, we have seen their importance increase sharply in recent years. The complexity of a modern digital or multimedia business is incomparable to a legacy media operating 25 years ago. In decades past, we would typically provide a loan to a newspaper publisher to purchase a new printing press, then provide advisory support in running a printing operation. Today, a newspaper publisher with a printing operation would also need to master digital infrastructure (newsroom workflow, web hosting, IT security, CMS, ad serving platforms), digital marketing, digital ad sales, product management, and much more. This situation has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, with the media industry globally forced to restructure and find tools to adapt to a new reality.
It is unrealistic to expect any media owner, manager, or editor-in-chief to understand every detail of running a media business in this complex environment. We see our job as helping them identify what they do not know and what skills they need; we help them plug that gap. It is about equipping media leaders and their executive managers with the information and know-how they need to make an informed decision and implement it. Especially in the face of such an unprecedented crisis like Covid-19, we try to give direction to clients’ business decisions, help them transform and, hopefully, come out stronger on the other side.
What is strategic media advice and venture support?
For us, strategic media support comes in many shapes and sizes, including one-on-one consultancies, long-term mentorships, workshops, conferences, and peer-to-peer learning. Issues covered range from the granular to the strategic, from optimising ad networks or SEO to assisting in designing and launching new products. It also includes assistance provided to media startups, such as in governance and business plan development. In all cases, we believe that a news organisation must continuously improve its performance to achieve its full potential. So, we work to help clients build a culture of ongoing reflection and improvement.
We deliver these services and support through a dedicated department, Media Advisory Services (MAS), our in-house specialists who assess needs and develop a work plan with the media company receiving assistance. If our in-house team has the specialist skills to provide support, we will deliver direct interventions and, if we don’t, we will identify an external expert consultant who does.
Looking back over hundreds of MAS interventions – delivering more than $30m of strategic media advice and venture support over a quarter of a century while witnessing massive changes and challenges to journalism and the media industry – we can identify patterns and recurring themes, including careful client/expert matchmaking (it is essential that there is both a connection and trust between the trainer and the media leader), through setting agreed milestones and deliverables, and on to post-intervention follow-up.
But as no two media companies or markets are the same, each intervention is unique. Let’s look at three very different interventions to see the types of change that tailored MAS support can bring about and a sense of what can be achieved.
Strengthening digital presence to grow revenues
El Búho is a regional media company based in the second biggest city in Peru, Arequipa. Founded as a printed weekly magazine in 2000, El Búho became a digital platform in 2014. Today the outlet is a well-recognised and influential local brand synonymous with quality journalism. In addition, it has earned a reputation for standing up for the rights of local people, particularly when it comes to environmental degradation caused by extensive mining operations in the region.
MDIF first invested in El Búho in 2012 and has since provided further financing and advice and assistance to aid its digital transition and operations. Last year, MAS matched the company with a marketing strategist and digital media expert specialised in the Latin American market, who provided long-term mentoring support in digital advertising and sales. One of the goals was to develop a plan for strengthening El Búho’s digital presence. With training and advice from the consultant and hard work by the El Búho team, the news site’s audience more than tripled, increasing by 301.7% in terms of median monthly users from 2019 to 2020. Search on Google also increased after a successful SEO strategy was implemented to advance El Búho’s brand positioning.
The consultation also helped the company explore new revenue streams and improve its product and sales offers. With the help of the expert, El Búho consolidated a new business plan, created new sales packages and launched a branded content studio. In addition, by adding reporting that could appeal to a more national audience and strengthening its SEO results, El Búho opened up to a new set of clients beyond the usual regional advertisers and has started earning revenue from programmatic advertising.
As for many media outlets during the pandemic, the reader became an alternative income stream to help offset advertising losses. But the shift from a business model reliant on advertising towards reader revenue cannot be done overnight. Thus, the MAS work plan also included developing a road map and identifying the technical challenges El Búho will need to overcome to launch an audience revenue program in the future.
El Búho is a small team and applying for grants can be time-consuming and detract from operational projects, so we provided customised support for grant writing, with the twin purpose of increasing reporting on topics often overlooked or dismissed by establishment media and bringing in much-needed revenue. The support soon paid off, with El Búho closing a new grant for election coverage focused on underserved communities.
As El Búho’s founder and Editor-in-Chief, Mabel Cáceres, said: “After the support received for capacity building, we now have a business plan and concrete strategic actions to advance the sustainability of the company.” She also said that, “the mentoring for revenue generation and strategic management of the organisation allowed us to focus our efforts, discover new sources of financing, and improve at the organisational level in general. Furthermore, the MAS training and mentoring ensured that our organisation will use management instruments and methodologies appropriate to the digital environment in which we operate and to the current world media ecosystem.”
- Understanding more than just the market: It is crucial that anyone delivering mentoring understands the market industry landscape needs. But this goes beyond high-level market data and includes language and political, cultural and socio-economic patterns. Technical and subject-matter skills and experience will be undermined by a failure to understand the context in which the media operates and the cultural traditions of the team. Though English is the world language of consultancy, if a beneficiary of advice and assistance does not have a good command of it, it is necessary to find a consultant who speaks the client’s language, as interpretation dilutes the impact. Informing specific market knowledge with lessons from global trends strengthens performance over the long term.
- Needs not wants: While a particular need may be critical and/or urgent, the recipient is not always prepared or at the necessary stage of development to act on the assistance. Therefore, when preparing for and delivering an intervention, it is vital to fully understand the developmental stage of the organisation, its staffing and its capacity to receive technical assistance. Interventions should be both strategic and tactical. The best outcome may be to postpone, revise or even cancel plans. For example, when working with the media on developing an implementation plan for an audience revenue program, the first decision might be to take several steps back and put better workflows and procedures in place or carry out a comprehensive audience survey before implementing any plan.
Catalysing growth through subscriptions and newsletters
Malaysiakini is the leading political news site in Malaysia, providing news in English, Bahasa Malaysian, Chinese and Tamil to 10 million people each month. Since launching in 1999 it has led the call for political accountability, playing a prominent role in all significant national developments, including the historic 2018 elections, in which the ruling party was unseated for the first time in 61 years.
MDIF first invested in Malaysiakini in 2002 and has since provided repeated rounds of financing and strategic and venture support to help it develop its strategy, management processes and content development. In 2020, two years after ground-breaking elections, Malaysiakini decided that they needed to reinvigorate their subscription programme. They started subscriptions way back in 2002 when few media companies engaged with readers for revenue support. Subscriptions had risen and fallen over the years, with peaks coming during elections. Still, as the euphoria of the 2018 vote subsided, subscriptions were languishing. With advertising dollars shrinking due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it was even more critical to build reader revenues.
To aid the company in this, MAS engaged a mentor in reader revenue and consumer monetisation. Using mentorship and workshops, the specialist helped drive optimisation of the company’s subscription system. The intervention also helped recalibrate the digital subscription offer, which catalysed much-needed growth – in ten months, subscriptions grew by 47.7%. This also helped Malaysiakini’s overall revenue mix, which shifted from a 70/30 split between advertising and subscriptions to closer to 50/50, in line with longer-term ambitions of reducing reliance on advertising.
The mentor also worked with Malaysiakini to improve newsletters as a tool to build audience habits and engagement, among them ‘Nifty ‘Notes.’ Below is an excerpt from the newsletter on Malaysiakini’s mentoring experience:
“[The mentor] turned out to be a walking encyclopedia on just about every aspect of subscription. For every question, he had case studies, examples, and anecdotes and delivered like a stand-up comedian! Using his insights and with the hard work from our membership and engineering teams, we revamped how we presented our membership offer. Combined with Malaysiakini’s news coverage of the year’s political dramas, our reader revenue outperformed expectations. What was looking like a disaster turned positive. We were able to retain all our staff, avoid the industry-wide retrenchments and even give a little extra to the team at year-end.”
- Careful matchmaking: Finding the right expert to assist Malaysiakini in their efforts was critical. Any intervention will face an uphill struggle without careful matchmaking right at the start. Matching the consultant with the media is more than aligning technical skills and needs, though this is vital. If possible, there should also be an alignment of personalities, particularly if the intervention requires an ongoing relationship, like coaching or mentoring. Time spent in getting the right combination can save headaches later. And if you get it wrong, it may be in everyone’s interests to change consultant rather than persist with a bad match.
- Open lines of communication: Supporting performance evaluation with frequent personal communication builds trust and enables frank conversations, which leads to better understanding and more effective project assessment. We have found that creating an open line of communication (pre-, during, and post-intervention) and regular (weekly and monthly) reporting and feedback allows for monitoring progress and issues that may arise and affect the plan. It is also important that the client does not perceive reporting and measurement requests as a self-serving exercise, but as actionable control points that help manage the intervention’s progress.
Building strategy around the mission
Mail & Guardian (M&G) is an award-winning South African title founded in 1985 and born out of the need for a truly free and independent press in the dark days of the apartheid regime. In 1994, it became the first news organisation in South Africa to launch a website. Throughout its 36-year history of excellence in journalism, M&G has defended and promoted the organisation’s core values of truth, freedom, justice, and equality.
MDIF has been a long-time partner of M&G, starting with a loan in 2003. In 2017, we acquired a majority stake to support restructuring the company’s ownership and help turnaround the iconic investigative weekly. Most recently, as part of our crisis Covid-19 outreach, MAS created a two-pronged, custom-designed set of interventions. The work was co-designed with M&G’s CEO and aimed to help the team innovate and find ways to supplement the pandemic revenue shortfall.
First, a highly experienced media leader and innovator in digital transformation and strategy leadership oversaw a transformation of the team and repurposing internal processes to underpin a digital-first strategy. The mentor also assisted the team with subscription and strategic planning for revenue growth; the aim was to refocus the organisation’s strategic objectives and formulate its North Star, its subscriber goal for 2021.
Second, a marketing and business strategy expert specialising in digital marketing and advertising led a change in M&G’s commercial approach to advertisers and sponsors by modernising their commercial proposition, focusing on the journalistic integrity of the M&G brand, and improving sponsorship and the branded content offer and SEO implementation. As part of the work, a new CRM system was implemented that allows for the team leadership to have better insights so that the planning and revenue pipeline translates more meaningfully into budget forecasts.
“We are grateful that we continue to exist today, a year later into the pandemic, where many naysayers predicted the moment to have hastened the end of the Mail & Guardian. And while the pandemic is far from over (we have just entered our third wave), we are eternally grateful for the support we have received from MDIF’s Media Advisory Services team and the two mentors in keeping us all focussed on our North Star and for not allowing us to be side-tracked in any way by any other distractions that may have appeared to be enticing but deviated from our core of the quality journalistic output,” said M&G’s CEO, Hoosain Karjieker.
- Holistic and agile approach: Capacity support should consider the media organisation’s personalised needs and current status. To ensure maximum effectiveness and impact, it must be holistic in many cases, meaning it needs to cover different aspects of media operations, from business and financial management to audience, product and revenue development. At MDIF, we have found that a unified, multi-disciplinary team approach to each project, offering comprehensive support that considers all aspects of the company, is most effective. Given the dynamic environment that media operate in, the ability to pivot in terms of needs, urgency and even in terms of intervention as needs change is also vital.
- The media leader must buy into the intervention: It is critical to have buy-in from the receiving organisation, both its leader and those taking part (if they aren’t the same person). The exact scope, timing and conditions should be thoroughly discussed well in advance to specify the need in detail and ensure the client’s commitment. Pre-intervention discussions, surveys and intelligence-gathering should be carried out and the timing of the support must be aligned with the receiving organisation’s workload, schedule and deadlines.
This article is part of our series, ‘25 things we’ve learned’, marking MDIF’s 25th anniversary.