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Unseating a King: At Meredith Corp. Data, Not Content, Reigns Supreme

EVP and chief digital officer Liz Schimel on how data drives decision making and forms the underpinning of the company’s content and sales strategies.



New analytics abilities have allowed for the collection of giant swaths of data, but effectively assembling this information into useful insights is a skill that is still being learned by many content publishers. According to IBM, every day humans create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data. About 90 percent of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. That number doubles about every 40 months.

There has never been more information available, but managing that data to transform it into tangible insights can at times be a Herculean task. At the present moment, it seems the job of an audience development and marketing professional has become both easier and more difficult. It sounds oxymoronic, but the modern analytics tools that are constantly collecting data have transformed the industry and shed light on avenues not previously available to any generation that has proceeded it.

Data has performed a coup and ousted content as king, at least according to Meredith’s Liz Schimel, the company’s executive vice president and chief digital officer.

In this wide-ranging Q&A with Schimel, she details Meredith’s data collection and implementation strategy and the various ways her team is using data to support the growth and development of both existing and new products.

Audience Development [AD]:During the MPA’s Swipe conference in March you said data is king and content is queen. Explain what you meant by that.

Liz Schimel: Our company is about content for women. So for us content is queen, but the data we derive really underpins our strategy. It’s what drives decision making about how to create better content and products, and how to work in a more insightful way with our advertisers.

Both the king and queen are extremely important, but we feel like we can’t be great at our core business of creating great content and amassing scaled audiences without depth of expertise on the data side.

AD: How does data impact strategies for Meredith—from sales and marketing to content creation?

Schimel: Our editors are looking at swarms of audience data, which drives our content creation strategy. On the digital side, it’s very clear: We are tracking usage and we are deep SEO experts across our whole portfolio. We are understanding both our audience sources and their behaviors, and from there we design an entire audience development strategy. We’re diversifying our audience sources between SEO, social, our own newsletters and our CRM strategy.

We leverage those insights to better understand what content to create to drive a lot of engagement, but also what products and features are most important and heavily used. We’re continuously analyzing data that comes directly from our audience. For our print content, our editors use a lot of research and quantitative insight to drive their thinking. We’re increasingly using data we get from digital to inform and educate our editors who are working across all of the screens and products—whether it’s print, tablets, video or online.

AD: Explain how you are using data to support the growth and development of both existing and new products.

Schimel: Understanding the use case, and the geo-location of our audience to drive product development, is one example. As we thought about what the mobile product experience should be for Allrecipes, for example, we looked at usage patterns and data around smartphones in general, and particularly data that we were seeing regarding how and where consumers were accessing our site.

We learned that about half of our rapidly growing mobile audience was accessing the Allrecipes site while they were shopping. As we thought about developing our mobile product, we took the insight of people using recipes as a shopping list and basically developed our mobile site around that. When you come on to Allrecipes on a mobile device, each recipe becomes a shopping list that you can check off as you’re going through the supermarket.

AD: From a sales and marketing point of view, how are you presenting data to potential clients to help them come on board?

Schimel: Data is inherent in all of our sales and marketing efforts. We have the largest audience of American women—100 million women, 40 million of whom are on digital. It’s a very broad audience and we have a massive database with a ton of data on this audience. As we talk to advertisers, our big differentiator is the extent to which we’re able to provide great context in our products for women—whether that’s in print or digitally—we create highly valuable context and we have a lot of insights around who she is, what she buys and what she is thinking about buying.

Data helps support our advertisers in their goals as they think about what products they’re trying to sell or what behaviors they’re trying to drive. It underpins our whole go-to-market strategy. We’re very focused on the fact that our data is actual, provable ROI.

AD: Can you talk about why you view your brands as a CRM portfolio?

Schimel: We set up our whole company around the lifecycle of women. We start with fairly young women that are thinking about starting a family and home. We cycle through all of these life phases and focus on things she’s passionate about—her health, home, children, career and how she juggles all of these things to have a fulfilling and satisfying life. Each of our brands takes a lens on these issues. We’re continually deriving insights on all of those passion points for women, and we’re also continuously upselling and cross-selling her as she moves through this lifecycle. From there, we understand more and more about our customer.

Unlike companies that have a portfolio of assets that reach many different demographics, our portfolio is highly consistent and targeted toward a consumer as she moves through her life. That, essentially, is what CRM is all about—understanding your relationship to your consumer and continuously building on that. That’s what we do with our content and brands, and we are building insights and developing programs that enable us to introduce her to the new products and services we’re bringing here at Meredith.



AD: You mention that Meredith brands touch women through all stages of their lives. Can you provide an example of the strategy behind this?

Schimel: All of our online and offline marketing is driven by understanding data points so we can upsell and cross-sell products and experiences along the lifecycle. That is what drives our marketing strategy. We have a very clear and historically tested view of how to upsell and cross-sell based on life stage for the women in our portfolio. As we think about developing digital products, we look at capabilities that are cutting across her entire life experience.

Food is a big centerpiece of this—it’s something that is universal, and is both a passion point and a challenge for women. We love to cook, but there’s also the responsibility of dealing with that, especially if you’re a busy working mom. When we think about products we create, like the ability create recipe boxes and shopping lists, those are products that can follow through a life stage.

We can also recommend and showcase healthier food from brands like Eating Well, for example, and we can show special recipes for children, or things that are quick to put together after work. As we think about our food portfolio, we’re thinking through all of the life stages and needs of a busy woman, and making sure we’re providing the content and tools to make her life easier and more efficient. Being able to take that on the go is another core product that takes her through a lifecycle.

AD: You said data leads to insights, which leads to ROI. Can you provide an example of this?

Schimel: There’s a lot of talk about native advertising and we took that on board a long time ago, particularly as you get to mobile devices—there we think about integration from the beginning of content that will tie into our reader’s shopping experience. Integration of recipes, where ingredients can be called out from brands, because we know she is in the store when she is looking at it. That is a type of very integrated advertising product that starts from the insights we’ve developed about how our audience is using their mobile devices.

We use insights to come up with advertising solutions that are very inherent to how she is using the device. This creates an opportunity for the advertiser to be front and center when she is in an aisle making a choice, but in a way that feels very contextual to the product.

AD: You’ve said the advent of touch screens are changing the way consumers interact with content. Can you explain what you mean and how this knowledge is impacting your business?

Schimel: I think we’re all watching a massive shift from the Internet to the mobile Internet, and a blurring of the lines between what a PC is and what a tablet is. The thread that is very common in this shift is the movement from keypads to touch screens. That started with mobile devices, and was really pioneered by the iPhone, and it is now driving PC designs for the newest computers that are coming out—they all have touch screens. We have taken that on board in our product development, creating magazine experiences on tablets that are touch-enabled.

As we think about how to re-design products—for example, we envisioned the Parents.com experience using responsive design, so we started with a mobile-first universe. We were thinking about the on-the-go millennial mom and her use of the tablet and smartphone. That became the driver of the entire product design, as opposed to starting with the thought of someone at a computer on their desk. All of these insights come to bare on how we view our products, which makes them much more usable for today’s millennial mom, and therefore much more valuable to the advertisers that are trying to reach her.

AD: Have there been any surprises along the way regarding the data you discover?

Schimel: We’re sort of surprised every day by things that we learn. Allrecipes has the largest global food footprint, so seeing regional differences is extremely fun. We see differences in the type of content people consume about parenting and gardening, and we drive these insights back so we can make sure that we’re really developing the right targeted offerings for the right consumers.  

AD: What kinds of data trials is Meredith conceiving?

Schimel: The way we decide what new initiatives we’re going to take on board is driven by how much insight we’d get from the data. For example, we acquired a company that has a lot of e-commerce expertise and we’ve been deploying integrated and curated commerce experiences. A lot of the rationale for that is—partially it’s another revenue stream, but we could do that through other types of affiliate deals. We wanted to own that end-to-end experience so we’re able to capture and understand the path to purchase, and what different consumers are looking at or shopping for. We want to know what kind of content triggers someone to make a purchase, and we’re flowing that data back into our database.

Unlike a lot of our brethren, we really in-source our database capabilities and we have a large team of data scientists. We have that team very focused on taking all of this massive online data and flowing it into our database so we can get a 360 degree view of how our consumers are behaving with online and offline experiences. We’re going to initiate some big data trials with a focus on looking at the path to purchase funnel, and deepening our understanding of how consumers make decisions around purchases down the funnel from the inspiration of content to their action of purchasing.

The content we produce is inspiring women around what they want to do, what they are excited about for their families and a lot of it is also guiding decision making around purchases. Whether that be things for kids, food for cooking or workout gear—our editors are guiding and inspiring a lot of purchase decisions. We’re now able to track that and turn that into very guaranteed ROI. The data that’s coming in is where my team is focusing a lot of investment and new trials. We’re working with partners in the big data space to make sure we’re leveraging best practices on the data side. It’s a very exciting journey for us.

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