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From $100M in debt to 98% growth in digital revenues: Lessons from Trusted Media Brands’ remarkable turnaround to profitability

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Trusted Media Brands, the publisher of Reader’s Digest, has gone from being bankrupt twice (2009 and 2013) and struggling with 100M in debt, to becoming profitable again. Its digital ad revenues are now growing, and the company is diversifying into direct-to-consumer products and membership programs. 

TMB’s total digital revenue grew by 98% from January 2015 to December 2019, with a compounded annual growth rate of 19%, according to CNBC. 

The report adds that the company’s print and digital products now reach nearly 1 in every 4 adults in the US. And according to Comscore’s 2019 rankings, 1 in 3 of the company’s digital audience is millennial. What’s more, 27% of millionaire households in America read or visit a TMB property. 

Overall, the publisher has an aggregate audience of more than 80M unduplicated consumers, including a monthly digital reach of over 64M unique visitors, according to MediaPost.

The company did not disclose revenue figures but said that it’s expecting 6% increase in overall revenues and 48% growth in digital ad revenue for FY20.

“What really runs through our brands is trust”

This impressive turnaround is attributed to TMB CEO Bonnie Kintzer’s rebranding and digital initiatives. She has been successful in monetizing digital content and continues to create new products for the publisher’s audience. 

The company was rebranded from Reader’s Digest Association to Trusted Media Brands in 2015. This was part of a broader growth strategy to transform the business into a digital-first, multiplatform media company. It was also done to counter the common assumption that RDA was a single-title publisher. 

The new name represents the company’s full suite of brands, which expanded significantly when RDA bought Reiman Publications for $760M in 2002. It’s titles included “Taste of Home,” “Country” and “Country Woman.” 

“It shows that we are a modern, current company with many brands, and what really runs through our brands is trust,” said Kintzer about the rebranding. 

“Our customers are trusting us to give them a recipe, health advice and craft ideas. Part of the genesis of this really started before the name change. How do you go to market to position the company with advertisers? What’s the common thread?” 

“We could attract new audiences from across generations”

The revamp has also made digital publishing more central to the company’s operations. “We discovered that by investing in the brand’s digital presence and expanding its content from a few hundred pieces to thousands, we could attract new audiences from across generations,” says Kintzer. “The results have been impressive and beyond our initial expectations.”

We looked for growth and the answer was clear – digital. 

Bonnie Kintzer, President & CEO, Trusted Media Brands, Inc.

A critical part of the transformation was bringing the right people onboard. Among Kintzer’s most important appointments was Vince Errico who joined TMB as Chief Digital Officer in October 2015. 

Errico began building the company’s digital business by overhauling its sites. He had told Marketing Land earlier that they were focusing on “improving the user experience across all brands and devices, and making it as engaging as possible for our users in order to drive revenue.” 

Errico also doubled down on growing the digital editorial team. He began recruiting people who understand the metrics of SEO and social media, and can use it to shape content. He has hired over 300 tech-savvy employees over the last three years, according to CNBC. 

It took about a year for the results to show. “We saw significant growth that continued beyond that as well,” says Errico. 

Content production has also been ramped up. Earlier, content would flow from magazines to the websites and the magazines produced between 30 to 75 articles a month. Which according to Errico was “just not enough.” Digital and print editors now work together to produce 500 and 800 stories per month for each website.

“The engine that drives the company”

The publisher has a strong built-in customer base which accounts for three-quarters of its revenue. It is generated from subscriptions, book sales, events, newsstand sales and licensing, among others. 

That makes consumer revenue Kintzer’s top priority. Previously, in an article highlighting her vision, she said, “It is the engine that drives the company because it engages the customer with the brands on many different platforms, which in addition to revenue helps fuel new customer activity and acquisition,” 

Kintzer told MediaPost last year that Errico is developing a new product every month or so. She added that the company is focusing on “what [consumers] want and need,” and most importantly, are willing to “pay for.” 

They often test new verticals through newsletters. The publisher also uses surveys to determine which products readers might pay for. Readers are not charged initially as the strategy is to build a community first. The publisher gauges interest from newsletter topics and uses its first-party data to inform the consumer products it develops. 

The newsletters get feedback from the company’s internal network of millennials working at Trusted Media Brands as well. Kintzer says that her trend-watching strategy is paying off by incubating new products that serve its loyal readers.

“Be willing to test new products”

TMB offers a subscription coffee delivery business and short courses for My DIY University, an on-demand library of video courses, as well as cookware and subscription boxes. 

A new digital subscription product, Family Handyman Insider, was introduced in 2019. It offers a mix of instructional videos, digital floor plans, plus a print subscription to Family Handyman, for $179 per year

TMB also launched, its first digital-only brand, in 2019. And according to Comscore, the site has 2.6M visitors a month. The publisher plans to launch more single-subject websites this year, reported CNBC.

Kintzer says, “product development (both consumer and commerce), testing and developing in audio/video, marketing automation, and data science will all be priorities in 2020.”

“Our diverse revenue streams and continued efforts to experiment and explore new ways to monetize will be a big driver of growth in 2020. We certainly expect to see growth in the programmatic, direct and consumer sides of the business, but we are also quite bullish on affiliate and consumer products,” she adds.

“Adapt and thrive in the digital era”

All this is in line with what she wrote in a column for Folio earlier, “We need to live in a content, consumer-first world, and we need to invest in new technologies that get that content to our brand-loyal audiences.”

We must value great, trusted content and be willing to test new products, including print products, experiential events, and digital-only media that serve our brand audiences. We are living in the experience economy, and consumers—especially millennials—are willing to pay for products or experiences that have value.

Bonnie Kintzer, President & CEO, Trusted Media Brands, Inc.

“If our industry is going to survive and thrive, we can’t be afraid of what we might find by trying new ideas and ways of doing things. It’s a bit like pulling up an old carpet and discovering a beautiful hardwood floor that just needs a bit of polishing and staining,” she added.

“The company’s digital rebirth,” says Rob Williams, Contributing Editor at Mediapost, “is a sign that traditional publishers can adapt and thrive in the digital era despite relentless adversity.”