Many print publishers approach digital innovation in increments, preferring smaller, transitional experiments over big-bang transformations. The Daily Tea doesn’t fit that mold.
The Daily Tea is the newly rechristened publication formerly known as Tea Magazine. The rebranding is just one part of a far-reaching business model overhaul that also involved eliminating the bimonthly print magazine and embracing a combination of native advertising and paid content as a foundation for growth.
Graham Kilshaw, The Daily Tea’s chief media officer, believes the new model better positions the brand to capture a broader, younger audience – a new generation of tea enthusiasts, if you will.
“The print audience was extremely loyal – and very vocal about wanting to keep print,” said Kilshaw, who was part of a group that purchased Tea Magazine in 2012. Over the past two years, however, the subscriber base remained flat at around 1,000, while the digital audience – website visitors, email subscribers and social media followers – grew from virtually zero to 30,000.
“It didn’t take a genius to know where the audience was,” Kilshaw said. As importantly, engagement through the digital channels was strong – as much as 30% of the magazine’s Facebook fans, for example, were participating in conversations. “So it wasn’t just quantity – there was a quality component [to the digital audience] as well,” he said.
That was enough to convince the Daily Tea team to replace the existing business model, which was based on print subscriptions and display advertising, with a digital/mobile-first strategy built around a mix of sponsor and paid content. One important step in the transformation was educating existing advertisers about why native ads were a better way forward than traditional banner advertising.
“I believe there’s a desire among an enthusiast audience to be loyal to certain brands – they want to find brands they love,” Kilshaw said. “For this reason, sponsor content works particularly well for niche audiences. The advertisers understood that.”
The Daily Tea made the transition easier for its existing advertisers by locking in their display campaign commitments through 2014 – meaning The Daily Tea will produce all the content for each brand for the rest of the year at no additional cost. For new advertisers, The Daily Tea will sell native ads on a CPM basis, based on a minimum of 10,000 impressions.
Banner ads are still in the digital mix, albeit in more of a supporting role to the sponsor content. “There’s a visual connection between the banner ad and the sponsor content,” Kilshaw said. “It’s not so much to get people to click on the banner ad, but to get readers to more fully understand that this is sponsor content. It’s another way of branding the article.”
The early returns are positive. Open rates for the first round of sponsor content have averaged between 5-10% – far outpacing banner click-through rates.
“Clearly, that’s a very nice engagement metric to take to clients and say, ‘don’t run banner ads, run sponsor content instead,’ ” Kilshaw said.
Creative development for native ads
The Daily Tea is building a small marketing services team to help advertisers create native content. Jamie Santoro, hired 18 months ago as a “brand journalist” who reports to marketing, is part of a weekly brainstorming session to generate story ideas for brands, with an emphasis on content that makes an emotional connection with the audience.
“Emotion creates engagement – and conversely, dull material gets ignored,” said Kilshaw. “If [sponsor content] does not generate a clear emotion, we go back and start again. We’re also clear on what crosses the line – if it’s just a commercial, we won’t do it. That’s a very real part of our process.”
(One criticism I have is that disclosure of the sponsor content is not as clear as it should be. Home page posts are labeled as “presented by [sponsor name]” with the brand logo. Sponsor content on topic landing pages, however, is not labeled until you reach the article page.)
Rethinking paid content
The Daily Tea didn’t just shake up its ad model. It also revamped its subscription offering to reflect its digital-first focus. Subscribers used to pay $24.99 for six print issues a year; now, for the same price, they will get access to premium digital content along with the annual Daily Tea Guide, a 150-page “bookazine” that features longer-form articles, sponsor content, catalog pages and a few display ads. The first Daily Tea Guide will be released in September.
The “bookazine” is emblematic of a trend many legacy publishers are pursuing: transitioning print into a channel for specialized, premium content. Readers will also be able to purchase the guide separately for $9.99.
Kilshaw said about 10% of The Daily Tea’s web content will be behind the subscription wall, and producers are currently developing more original content for the site. A digital-only subscription will be $19.99 a year.
The Daily Tea’s transformation shows that innovation doesn’t require deep pockets – just a willingness to experiment with new models and allocate resources to where the business is going, not where it’s been. The moves carry no guarantee of success, but at least they’re pointed in the right direction.