Digital Conversations: Slate’s John Harvey

November 02, 2015

At Signal, we’re on a mission to help publishers reinvigorate their premium ad space. By connecting and activating data and identity, Signal makes it easier for publishers to deliver premium audiences and drive higher CPMs. On the heels of releasing the results of our research, Digital Publishing: Increasing Advertiser Value Through Data and Identity, we’re interested to share what high-growth publishers are doing right.

John Harvey
John Harvey, VP of Marketing at Slate

That’s why we talked with John Harvey, VP of Marketing, Planning, and Events at Slate, about what he’s found to be successful. The online magazine was founded in 1996, and is known for its engaging writing on everything from politics and culture to sports and technology. As the publication has expanded into video, podcasting, and custom content, Slate has always been at the cutting edge of digital publishing. Here’s how they’ve done it, and where they’re headed next.

What are the biggest challenges right now facing Slate and other digital publishers?

I think one of the biggest challenges is that there’s just so many opportunities out there. There are just so many sites in every category and it’s an always growing number.

Some of the other challenges are obviously advertisers buying programmatically. Fortunately, we’ve been able to upgrade our programmatic efforts so that we’re capturing more money than ever before in programmatic. You have to be able to adapt to that.

Your sales people have to be more knowledgeable about programmatic, as well as the regular display, custom, and social publishing that we’re doing. You have to be able to connect the dots for clients and agencies and to make it a plus—to show that we can create more touch points and engagement opportunities.

It’s pretty clear that all publishers are going to have to do a better job in programmatic, and do an equally strong job on the premium side to really maximize revenue.

Do you feel that Slate has been able to buck the trend of falling CPMs with these different tactics you’re driving?

I don’t think we really have seen much erosion at all of CPMs. We are in a premium space. It’s hard to reach the kind of people who read Slate: people who have a graduate degree, very politically active, influential, cultural trendsetters, highly enabled in social media. They’re busy people.

We really punch above our weight and we deliver a great bang for the buck. Readers come to us because they really love what our content is. People become extremely strong fans and advocates of Slate. Engagement is what advertisers are looking for, and we have that. 

What have you found to be the most successful of the things you’ve done in the last year or so?

Slate has been successful on a number of fronts. In order to win the business, you have to be able to come up with interesting, relevant, innovative editorial ideas. Custom content has continued to be very important—it has become a standard request on the RFPs.

Slate has capitalized on the huge growth in podcasting by establishing the Panoply Podcast Network. We’ve built on Slate’s decade of experience in doing some of the most award-winning podcasts, in politics, culture, sports, finance, and parenting.

We’ve had over 6,000,000 downloads just of Slate podcasts, and I think with the Panoply group we’re nearing or around 10,000,000 already. It’s soon to become much, much larger. We decided to grow beyond Slate‘s own podcasts by reaching out to other quality partners with a pretty unique proposition to help them create podcasts in a really turnkey fashion. We get them up and running, help them tap our expertise to create podcasts that have a very successful format. We know what works in that space. And then we also have a promotional machine in that our podcasts are able to drive traffic to one another.

Virtually every sizeable request for proposal is likely to have a custom component, and custom podcasts add another innovative element to our arsenal. 

Do you find that you still need to explain the value of podcast advertising to advertisers?

No, I think the awareness level has got to the point where everyone’s interest has been piqued and they want to know more about it. Podcasts are really unique in that the talent is doing the host read and telling you about the advertiser. It’s kind of similar to what happens on radio, or what happened in early TV.

Everyone’s looking for integration into your content and what works about podcasts is that integration element. People want more than banners and buttons, and a podcast is a way to get more.

 You’ve been in this industry a long time. What are the principles that endure?

The publisher/reader contract is based on trust and integrity, and that core relationship really hasn’t changed. What’s made it tougher is that the cost structure has changed.

In the past you had a subscription model and you had your newsstand sales and there was a direct payment structure. Only a few people have really been able to do that well. The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are doing an increasingly better job on that. The Journal makes their money online now, which I think you have to respect them for.

Hopefully more subscription models will continue to grow and be more successful; they could be wildly successful in the future. Who knows? But I think advertising will remain the backbone of what most publishers are doing.

Either way, you’re going to have that core relationship and trust between the publisher and the reader, which I think is paramount. I’m very happy to be at Slate because the people here could not be more passionate and love what they do more, and that’s reflected in the way our readers feel about us.

To learn more about how savvy digital publishers are driving higher CPMs and helping advertisers reach their customers in new ways, download our report, Digital Publishing: Increasing Advertiser Value Through Data and Identity.

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Laurel Wamsley

Laurel Wamsley was the Marketing and Communications Manager at Signal, and the editor of Signal's blogs. She worked previously at the University of Chicago, Rackspace, and NPR.

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