What Digital Publishers Can Learn From Deadspin’s Collapse

Mike Herrick SVP of Technology

This article was originally posted on MediaPost.


Deadspin’s “stick to sports” debacle provides publishers and marketers a lesson about understanding their brands.

After being asked to stop writing about non-sports subjects, the entire editorial staff left the publication in a revolt and an executive resigned shortly thereafter.

Leaders at G/O Media, Deadspin’s parent, failed to understand that their writers like David Roth and Laura Wagner and their audience were interwoven, underscoring how content, community and experimentation are the lifeblood of today’s brands.

With the entire Deadspin staff quitting, it’s tremendously unlikely any kind of audience comes back — much less the 30 million monthly views it was attracting. There’s no spinning what has happened: the brand is dead in the water, and it seems likely to fold. (There hasn’t been a story posted to the sports news site since Nov. 4.)

What’s remarkable is how unnecessary the whole controversy seemed to be in the first place. As Los Angeles Times editor Kim Jannsen has broken down, non-sports stories in September amounted to 3.5% of Deadspin content. That number seems hardly worth the fallout the incident created.

Know What’s Working and Why

Even though the publishing industry is going through hard times, Deadspin used a model that can work: Provide interesting writers and a relatively clean customer experience (CX), and you engender loyalty and create diehard patrons.

With CX in mind, the site in recent years ran a normal mix of banner and display ads. But compared to so many local sports pages that are cluttered and bogged down by ads, it was unusually navigable. Deadspin had a good thing going, but now the brand has lost its credibility and value. Marketers with a content or audience development role should take note and learn from the brouhaha.

Just as Deadpspin’s writing was sometimes experimental for the sports genre, there are publishers that offer inspiration around appreciating the importance for experimenting with the CX.

For instance, The Wall Street Journal (disclosure — a client) earlier this year began offering a My WSJ tab on its mobile app, enabling users to follow individual Journal writers and receive notifications when they publish new stories.

The New York Times has started offering the same access to its reporters.

These moves show that it’s crucial for publishing brands to experiment with formats while forging deep connections between influencers and community.

Understand Your Audience

While G/O Media executives got in between their influencers and audience, these major newspapers appear more focused on connecting with customers. They show marketers of all stripes that 1:1 relationships with your audience and connecting content and community are crucial in today’s marketing world.

And today’s marketer can leverage coordinated experimentation tools that bring together testing and optimization across messaging and digital properties. For instance, publications can test features like the reporter-specific notifications before making them live so they know whether or not the community actually wants them.

Deadspin’s writers and their community had a bond that was based on a rebirth of freewheeling sports journalism reminiscent of great Esquire and Scanlan’s Monthly pieces from the 1960s and 1970s. The publication’s owners didn’t understand this bond and got in between its brand and its readers like a whistle-happy referee. The public has since called foul on them and likely has ejected them right out of the game.

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