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“The industry must embrace product & revenue diversification to survive”: FT Strategies’ George Montagu on the importance of content verticals

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In a little over six weeks’ time, Mx3 Barcelona will take place in the Catalan capital. Alongside a world class agenda, a number of premium event partners will be on hand to assist media companies in the next stage of their evolution. In this interview, George Montagu of FT Strategies, an Mx3 event partner, outlines the importance of content verticals. (P.S. there are still a few tickets left for Mx3 Barcelona).

At Mx3 Barcelona (March 12th/13th 2024), George Montagu, Head of Insights at FT Strategies, will be presenting alongside his colleague, Kritasha Gupta of The FT, ‘How the FT successfully launches new mini brands’. 

The session will focus on why new content verticals designed around niche audience segments are essential to news organisations’ future success, as well as the rationale and success behind the FT’s own mini-brand playbook.

In advance of the event, we caught up with George (left) to find out more about his forthcoming presentation and attendance in Barcelona, as well as the key trends he is witnessing in media at the start of a new calendar year.

Mx3 HQ: In your role as Head of Insights at FT Strategies, what are the key trends you are seeing right now? What’s exciting you?

George Montagu: The key trend that excites me is news organisations extending their role in audiences’ lives. As opposed to simply offering daily updates, news organisations are now offering community events, independent advice on product offerings and tools that help validate the veracity of information (to name but a few). As Schibsted makes clear in their mission – “we empower people in their daily lives” – not just deliver the news.

The same can be said for extending their role with advertising clients. As opposed to simply offering space on a page, news organisations are increasingly acting more like marketing agencies – helping brands build their strategy and reach their desired audience.

All of these are exciting signs that the industry is becoming more open to product and revenue diversification to finance quality journalism.

Mx3 HQ: Can you talk a little about why new content verticals designed around audience segments are essential to news organisations’ future success?

George Montagu: News organisations that fall within the generalist bracket are at risk – a successful subscription business requires a key point of product differentiation and the viability of a sustainable advertising-only business is being called into question as traffic declines. These challenges become more profound in a world of Generative AI – as it becomes cheaper and quicker to produce general news, the competition for audience attention will only heighten.

Therefore, many organisations are exploring niche content verticals (designed around specific audience segments) to build points of differentiation – both to secure future audiences and also improve financial performance. Brian Morrissey in a 2022 newsletter titled “The Flight to Niche” provided numerous examples of money flowing to these niche content providers – Industry Dive (exit at $525m valuation), Barstool (exit at $538m), and more recently Puck News.

Mx3 HQ: Can you give a good example of a new content vertical both from the FT as well as an example from another publisher that has inspired you? What are some of the common features that these content verticals all embrace?

George Montagu: Unhedged – a new content vertical headed up by the FT’s Robert Armstrong is probably my favourite example of a new content vertical. Unhedged is a newsletter, podcast, and FT microsite that “dissects the most important market trends and discusses how Wall Street’s best minds respond to them”.

I’d like to compare it to an example from wider media – Goalhanger Podcasts. Goalhanger Podcasts have shown how to launch new content verticals very quickly and successfully by applying the same playbook – including The Rest is History, The Rest is Politics and most recently, The Rest is Money. These verticals have been able to sell advertising, build large membership followings and host events. Goalhanger is now the UK’s largest independent podcast group with 17.5mn downloads a month (FT, 2023).

The common features that all content verticals should embrace are:

  • Be centered around personalities – audiences want to hear from people that they trust and have an affinity with. 
  • Allow opinion – audiences want to hear perspectives, not just the facts.
  • Think about tone – audiences typically want informal tones and humour.
  • Go multi-platform – audiences want multiple entry points and means of engaging with your content – podcasts, newsletters, and events to name a few.

Mx3 HQ: At our recent event in London focused on AI innovation (report here), your colleagues Sam Gould and Aliya Itzkowitz both presented. Aliya remarked that AI “could be an opportunity tsunami”, what are you personally excited about in terms of AI and its use cases in media?

George Montagu: I am most excited about multi-modal AI content creation. It’s clear to me that audiences want to decide the format – whether that is their personal preference or the format that works for them at that moment (e.g. on the bus). What has stopped news organisations from doing that in the past is resources. 

If a news organisation of the future can create the “raw input” – i.e. the content – and the audience can decide if they consume that in text, audio or video format – then I think that provides an opportunity for a vast increase in audience engagement. For me, it feels like it would help the news to compete with more entertaining formats. 

Mx3 HQ: A key point Aliya and Sam made was that journalists need to be part of the co-creation process from the start when it comes to innovation. Can you expand on this? How do media organisations overcome this challenge between commercial and editorial?

George Montagu: The gap between editorial and commercial teams remains a challenge, but I am seeing some exciting signs of more overlap between these groups. In a recent blog post, my colleague Lamberto Lambertini wrote about the importance of “bridge roles” in enabling digital transformation within the newsroom. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more editorial team members moving past this “us and them” mentality with commercial teams as they try to launch new editorial products.

At the FT, the way we overcome this challenge is by focusing on new editorial verticals that are mutually beneficial to our audiences, our editorial teams, and our clients. To take the example of Unhedged again:

  • Market trends and Wall Street are core areas of interest for the FT audience
  • Robert Armstrong is extremely passionate about the topic and is well-connected with Wall Street
  • Advertising clients want to reach money managers and high-net-worth individuals in positions of influence

There are, of course, many more ways to overcome this challenge – but I don’t want to spoil our presentation before Barcelona!

Mx3 HQ: Without giving too much away, what other challenges will your presentation in Barcelona cover? 

George Montagu: I am hoping that our presentation doesn’t just dwell on the challenges – editorial mini-brands represent a major opportunity for the media industry and we are excited to share some advice from the FT’s very own playbook. See you there!

See George speak alongside his colleague, Kritasha Gupta, at Mx3 Barcelona on March 12th/13th. Featuring a world class line up of international speakers, the event focuses 100% on innovation in the media sector. Tickets can be purchased here.