‘Running fast and holding on’: Laura Maxwell-Hansen discusses NZME’s digital developments

Whenever large entities merge, there is generally an expectation from those outside the business—and often from those investing in it—that things will change faster than they practically can. NZME’s ​group director digital Laura Maxwell-Hansen says that’s certainly the case at the moment as it attempts to bring “three businesses [APN, TRN and GrabOne] that have three different everythings” together, but she says its digital strategy is beginning to bear fruit, with audience numbers on the up and revenue growing ahead of the market. 

Getting staff who are accustomed to selling either print, radio or ecommerce to sell an integrated solution is a massive challenge, especially when some of those businesses are still in different buildings and have to deal with legacy infrastructure. 

“There are different IT systems, different software, different rules of engagement, different products. And although they’re media businesses, they’re very different and they’re in 26 different markets,” she says.  

At present, they are still reporting as three separate businesses under the NZME banner (thankfully, they’ve allowed their writers to take out that annoying fullstop when NZME features in print, which no doubt made departing Herald editor in chief Tim Murphy happy), but she says it is working towards being one eventually. 

“Everyone has a real appetite to make it happen. That’s been really refreshing. Everyone can see the opportunity.”

She says Whangarei is a good example of that evolution because, unlike Auckland and most other markets, the teams are now all in the same building. 

“They’ve got a new lease on life. They can sell radio brands, The Advocate, digital and GrabOne. And that allows them to have a much deeper discussion with clients.” 

She says it looked at other businesses that used to sell print and found the mistake some of them made was to let sales staff who had only sold one thing immediately start selling everything. 

“It’s just not physically possible for someone to know all of that. So we’re looking to have really good support structures and experts in radio, publishing and digital to help those with knowledge gaps.” 

Adding another potential layer of complexity for sales staff—and perhaps akin to Yellow selling Google Adwords—it is also going to market with TVNZ, which she says it has never done before.

“The companies can both see the benefits. But we also bring the TVNZ experts in if we need to.” 

MediaWorks can also see the benefits of selling across different channels and it has also changed its sales structure to fit. While MediaWorks’ radio brands have overtaken NZME Radio in terms of audience and its broadcast options offer mass reach, NZME’s suite of digital properties win the online audience battle, it has a heap of regional papers in addition to the Herald and it also has TVNZ on board. So it’s an interesting multi media battle filled with plenty of competitive tension, something made even spicier by talk of both companies preparing themselves for sale. 

Speaking of competitive tension, Fairfax has been crowing about stuff.co.nz’s rise up the most-visited website ranks recently and its year-on-year growth. The site is currently number five on the list of most-visited sites, attracting a unique monthly audience of 1,811,000 in March. ​Over the past 12 months, Nielsen figures show NZME’s main masthead nzherald.co.nz has grown faster than any of the sites in the top 20 most-visited in New Zealand, clocking in with a unique audience of 1,404,000. She says the site’s digital audience growth has increased 23 percent year on year, which is higher than Stuff, Yahoo! (where Maxwell-Hansen used to work), MediaWorks and TVNZ

She didn’t want to comment on the publishing strategy of Fairfax, which has favoured the digital hub approach of stuff.co.nz, but says it’s great that two local publishers are pushing really hard against international sites for a share of New Zealand’s eyeballs. 

“New Zealand can only benefit from that.” 

While Maxwell-Hansen wouldn’t give any specific digital revenue figures for NZME, she says “we are growing ahead of the market year to date” when compared to ASA and SMI figures (30 percent of its revenue comes through agencies and 70 percent comes direct). And an NZME source says digital revenue is up significantly on 2014.  

She says the main areas it is focusing on are mobile, which has had “huge growth year on year” (its flagship brand nzherald.co.nz added a new mobile ad unit that’s proven popular); trading (Andy Wylie was hired recently as director of ad operations, although Ben Gibb will soon depart his role as group general manager of digital sales for a senior role with Adshel); and integrated content (for example, a brand co-creating content through platforms like Brand Insight or offering commercial funding like ASB’s Ambitionaries series. 

She says the trend towards programmatic advertising is something NZME has embraced. But there’s no substitute for the human touch. 

“[Programmatic] is an important part of the industry. But the other part that clients are interested in is native content and wanting to get closer to talent and content creators.” 

And that means the sales teams who are close to the brands remain important because they have an understanding of, for example, how far Jeremy Wells might be prepared to go for a promotion on Hauraki. 

Some believe that giving editorial away for free in the early days of the internet was the original sin that led to the commercial issues being faced by most traditional publishers today. So could putting advertising inventory up for grabs through trading desks and selling it more cheaply than if it was sold direct be put in a similar category if advertisers eventually wise up to it? 

Maxwell-Hansen doesn’t believe so. 

“You can trade with a sales rep, or you can trade using a piece of software.” And the parameters you put in place for floor rates and what inventory you make available are all in their hands, she says. 

“We’re careful with it. We aren’t putting all our eggs in one basket.” 

She says it’s very unusual to fill 100 percent of the inventory so being able to sell it in a more efficient way is offers better yield than if it just ran house ads. 

She says it isn’t putting premium inventory in the programmatic pot and buying it that way doesn’t allow brands to work with sales teams to create customised campaigns. But she doesn’t see it as ‘non-premium’. 

I see it a lot like paid search. Most of the campaigns are always-on campaigns, or retail promotions.” 

As part of its digital strategy, NZME has launched a number of standalone websites for specific mastheads/inserted magazines, such as ecommerce initiatives ShopViva and ShopGreen via the GrabOne platform, as well as TrueCommercial.co.nz, Viva.co.nz and most recently Driven.co.nz.

Over the last four weeks, viva.co.nz maintained an average of 39,000 weekly unique browsers, or over 100,000 weekly page impressions. Since launching, the weekly eDM has seen a 14 percent increase in subscribers and a 32 percent increase on Facebook.

And in a release managing editor Amanda Linnell says the website has given the team the opportunity to extend their creativity and collaborations with clients.

“We have already launched a series of outstanding and exciting partnerships that appeal to both readers and advertisers. The prominent London issue (March 25th) brought to life collaboration with Toni & Guy. The Viva team was whisked to London Fashion Week to curate high profile extended content across all platforms showcasing the best of British in fashion, beauty, food and design. Karen Walker chose to work exclusively with Viva for the launch of her fragrance with an advertising and editorial campaign that included print, video and social media. And the Skoda Fabia competition campaign works to maximise the Viva brand and its associated and extensive NZME stable.”

Maxwell-Hansen says NZME will be focusing on more digital content initiatives along the lines of the Cricket Fever Hub linked to the recent Cricket World Cup and the PinAPoppy Appeal that supported the RSA and ANZAC day. 

“These initiatives are resonating with the public with almost 11,000 virtual poppies downloaded and $62,792 raised for the RSA in just one week. The public is more connected than ever and the focus of our digital strategy is in response to this.” 

NZME Radio has also increased its digital audience, with average daily unique browsers and page impressions growing 185 percent year on year. In March, NZME pointed out that ZM had four times the page impressions of The Edge. 

And while Maxwell-Hansen says these online audience numbers are small, she says its strategy is based on the fact that there is a thirst for content beyond the broadcast. So the first interaction someone has with ZM’s Fletch, Vaughan and Megan might be through Snapchat or Periscope, which obviously isn’t counted by Nielsen.

“They live outside of 6-10 every weekday morning, so we can start to take them to different places. And because there are fewer brand or corporate guidelines, we can have a bit more fun,” she says, something clearly evidenced with the steller promotional work of the Alternative Commentary Collective. 

Maxwell-Hansen says it’s a time of experimentation for the newly nimble NZME. It doesn’t need to spent a million dollars on a printing press, or a new studio. So it’s trying things like getting Newstalk ZB’s Mike Hosking to record video or distributing its audio content in different ways (it’s also distributing Radio New Zealand’s content via iHeartRadio). And if it fails, it will just try something else, she says.  

She says the changes, while bringing with them inevitable difficulties and a fair amount of confusion, have reignited staff who previously had very defined roles. 

“There’s lots of energy at NZME. We’re running fast and holding on. It’s challenging but it’s fulfilling as well.” 

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