Robyn Peterson Reveals the Secret Sauce that Makes Mashable Thrive and Survive. The Mr. Magazine™ Interview.June 20, 2014
“I think the secret sauce for a digital publishing company to survive is to try and reinvent the game.” Robyn Peterson, Chief Technology Officer, Mashable
Tech start-ups and media companies; and never the two shall part, at least, not at Mashable where CTO Robyn Peterson has done some amazing things with the marriage of the duo. After leading the development of the new Mashable.com in 2012, which saw a 100% increase in mobile page views, pages-per-visit and ad engagement, and the development of Velocity, a technology that predicts and measures audience response of content across the web, Robyn is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to digital publishing and how to make it more accountable and successful.
I spoke with Robyn recently during a visit to Lisbon, Portugal where the two of us were keynote speakers at the WoodWing Xperience. Our conversation was about Mashable, the Velocity Platform and digital publishing in general. My main questions related to how to make digital much more than just a click of the mouse and bring engagement and connection to the audience. I even asked him if Mashable is going to follow other digital platforms that discovered print as a new outlet to their digital sites.
So sit back and discover Robyn Peterson’s answers in this lively Mr. Magazine™ conversation with Mashable’s Chief Technology Officer.
But first a Mr. Magazine™ minute with Robyn Peterson, CTO, Mashable on what makes a digital platform survive and thrive in today’s marketplace.
And now the sound-bites…
On why it’s hard for legacy media to achieve and do what some digital-only companies have done in the media world: I think to really excel on the digital side you have to really operate aggressively. You need to be OK with risk and really take some chances. It’s a different mindset.
On any similarities between legendary risk-taking journalism of yesterday and today’s digital entities: I would say there is something in common with companies that risked it all to succeed. And when you’re a digital-only company trying to make it in digital, you need that to survive; you need that success or you go away.
On the DNA that makes up Mashable: I would say the real secret to Mashable is that we listen to our readers as much as we talk to them and we have even from the very beginning.
On how the Velocity Platform works: The Velocity Platform is a platform that predicts the viral potential of a piece of content. It will watch a particular piece of content and listen across social networks and try to get a good figure of how viral a piece of content will become.
On his most challenging moment at Mashable: I would say it was actually developing this Velocity Platform. I’ve been in the media business and text startups before and it was fun to really merge those two pieces of my identity together.
On the secret sauce of Mashable’s digital staying power: I think the secret sauce for a digital publishing company to survive is to try and reinvent the game.
On what keeps him up at night: I would say that one thing we believe strongly in is that you need to make big bets. And in order to really get ahead of market, those big bets have to pay off at some percentage.
And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Robyn Petrson, Chief Technology Officer, Mashable…
Samir Husni: You’ve been involved with Mashable now for over three years; why do you think it’s so hard for legacy media to achieve and do what digital-only companies have been doing in our media world?
Robyn Peterson: I think to really excel on the digital side you have to really operate aggressively. You need to be OK with risk and really take some chances. And when you talk about legacy media, I’d have to assume you’re talking about companies that have been doing what they’ve been doing quite successfully for many years, but it’s been a very similar recipe. And the digital world requires a completely different mindset.
You really need to think about how your brand adapts to a different use case; a use case where your readers don’t come to you or you don’t go to your readers once a month or once a week. Your readers will actually come to you and you want them to come to you on a very regular basis, many times a day is ideal.
To get to that place, you need to rethink who you are. You need to step back to the core of your brand and say: OK, in print I publish this much and this is the use case whether I’m once a month and I want to be on coffee tables and be that flag of identity which helps so many brands or I now want to be the place that everyone goes to or this target market goes to in order to get XY and Z. It’s a different mindset.
Samir Husni: What’s amazing to me is if you look at the early 20th century and all the journalists who started magazines, they were risk takers and when they had an idea for a new magazine they weren’t thinking about the statistical analysis of that product or the money. Whether it was Henry Luce or DeWitt Wallace, they were journalists first and businessmen later. Do you see that there are any similarities between the new digital entities today and the historical others?
Robyn Peterson: I have to profess, first of all, that I’m not an expert on some of the earlier publishing history. But I would say there is something in common with companies that risked it all to succeed. And when you’re a digital-only company trying to make it in digital, you need that to survive; you need that success or you go away. And a lot of us like our jobs and don’t want them to go away.
When you’re in an existing business and trying to branch into a new business, it’s hard to have that level of aggression, for lack of a better word, the ability to take a risk. And in a new start-up, you need to take that risk in order to survive. And there’s no safety in staying still or in being conservative.
Samir Husni: Can you define the DNA of Mashable?
Robyn Peterson: I would say the real secret to Mashable is that we listen to our readers as much as we talk to them and we have even from the very beginning. When Peter Cashmore first started the blog, he was constantly on social networks like Twitter listening to how people were reacting to what he was saying or what other people were saying that they wanted to see written about. So he was always listening.
And as Mashable grew from a blog to a media company over the last few years, I would say that we’ve just accelerated that and continued to listen to what our readers are saying. And by doing that we’ve managed to build an audience of people that like to share. They share with us and more importantly than that, they share with each other and with new people who haven’t heard about us.
So I guess if you sort of dial back to what is Mashable’s DNA; it’s listening and talking to a connected audience.
Samir Husni: So you don’t think in those early stages that Pete Cashmore (Mashable founder and CEO) was sitting around looking at statistical analyses and seeing how much money he was going to make developing this blog?
Robyn Peterson: No, not then, although we are now. We run a lot of data stats out of Mashable. Within my engineering team I have an artificial intelligence team and a data science team, both of which are working on our Velocity Platform.
Samir Husni: Tell me a little bit more about the Velocity Platform and how you’re actually able to monetize digital?
Robyn Peterson: Sure. The Velocity Platform is a platform that predicts the viral potential of a piece of content. It will watch a particular piece of content and listen across social networks and try to get a good figure of how viral a piece of content will become. We’ll take all the data we get from listening and plug it through statistical models and make predictions some number of hours out.
And what that helps us to do is figure out which content is winners and the ones that we’ll want to promote more highly and aggressively. We’ve used the Velocity System internally for about a year.
Internally, we use it for a couple of different things. First, we’ve created an intelligence dashboard that our editorial team can look at and at any given second they can find out either the viral potential of our content, content that we’ve published, or the viral potential of content that’s out there at large on the Internet. And then that way they can make a decision on themes they want to cover.
Mashable.com itself has a large component of Velocity built into it. The System makes recommendations and moves content around dynamically; makes recommendations to editors who manage our home page and the editors can then decide which pieces of content to highlight in top positions and the algorithm can manage the rest of the page. The algorithm can manage the right side of articles and what comes below articles. And once again, it helps us promote the stories that are our winners.
We also use the Velocity Platform to inform our marketing team as to which pieces of content should be discussed on social networks, Facebook for instance. With social networks and a story, timing is critical. So knowing which piece of content to promote and exactly when to promote it is something that’s really critical knowledge for our marketing team and that’s what Velocity internally provides to them.
With this announcement that we’re partnering with 360i and giving them exclusive access to Velocity, we’re going to start exploring how Velocity can help an agency, especially an agency that’s so good at social already for the brands that are in their portfolio, from Oreo to HBO and many others; it’ll be interesting to see how our use cases apply to 360i and we’ll see how that evolves as our partnership goes on.
Samir Husni: As you were talking about this I was thinking why can’t the print magazine business have some kind of Velocity Platform to predict things about their covers? Like which ones will go viral? In this digital age; is it possible for print to learn from some of these techniques?
Robyn Peterson: It’s an interesting idea. To be honest, I haven’t thought about it before. If there’s data to collect, there’s velocity to be observed and predicted. If those components are there then there’s a recipe for print as well.
Samir Husni: What has been the most challenging moment in your career with Mashable?
Robyn Peterson: That’s a really good question. I would say it was actually developing this Velocity Platform. I’ve been in the media business and text startups before and it was fun to really merge those two pieces of my identity together, to try and evolve into this media company/technology company hybrid that Mashable is today.
And I think just the evolution of that created some challenges, but of course a lot of positives too. Then with respect to Velocity itself being the result of that sort of evolution, or one of the results, we didn’t know what we built with Velocity would be possible. We thought it would be in our heart of hearts. We thought we could predict, but we weren’t a 100% sure it would be as good as it is, let’s put it that way.
We spent some time developing out a proof of concept and got it out there and sure enough it actually worked and that was a pretty thrilling moment.
Samir Husni: And was that the most pleasant moment in your job?
Robyn Peterson: That was. It was a very fun moment, although we have a lot of exciting stuff in store for the next few years. I hope we beat that.
Samir Husni: Is there a recipe that can be duplicated from Mashable? We have some out there like Huffington Post, Media Post and others; is there some kind of secret ingredient that goes into all of these companies that are surviving? I think the death rate on digital is even higher than print, in terms of how many companies have started and are now gone. What’s the secret sauce?
Robyn Peterson: I think the secret sauce for a digital publishing company to survive is to try and reinvent the game. So it’s not to be exactly how the print media companies are bringing publishing to the web, but to actually step back and say: How should I create this digital business; what’s at the heart of my brand? A – what is my brand? B – what kind of operating model fits my brand? And then to execute on that plan.
For us at Mashable, we’re such a social company that if we were to follow classic media rules we wouldn’t have tried to develop a lot of product expertise in house, we wouldn’t have tried to build out an artificial intelligence team and a data science team and all those sorts of things to build platforms that listen and predict social behavior.
We stepped back and kind of flushed all the old media history out of our minds and asked: How can we do this differently? If we’re starting right now from scratch, and again that’s important for any company, to try and reinvent itself and we did that, I believe, at Mashable a couple years back, we feel like we’re a new company. How should we actually attack this problem and come to a solution? For us the thought was let’s build this technical expertise, this product expertise in house and A – not leave all the fun to the tech startups, but B – create something that’s completely differentiated and although it doesn’t fit nicely into this is just a media company or this is just a tech company, it’s a hybrid between those two, but it’s really shown great results for us.
Samir Husni: Can you imagine a mix between innovation and renovation or it must be all innovation?
Robyn Peterson: I guess to some degree innovation brings renovation, doesn’t it? If you’re trying to do something new, you have to mold the existing organization to fit that. So I think one brings the other.
Samir Husni: Any other words of wisdom?
Robyn Peterson: For media companies in particular, think about how you’re utilizing your technology team. In too many media companies, the technology team have been relegated to simply being assigned tickets and executing on those tickets and not really having a seat at the table to decide the strategy of the company.
And that’s where new media companies or digital-only media companies have a leg-up on some of the existing companies that made it to their prime during the print era; not that we’re out of the print era by any means. I think digital-only companies recognize the importance of technology and digital product and things that go along with that like user experience. And it’s so critical to not only keep that in mind, but to have the folks who actually run those groups at the table deciding where to go next. Because when you’re in a world dominated by engineering and technology, you need an engineer and a technologist at the table when you’re deciding where to go.
Samir Husni: Do you think there will ever be a print magazine from Mashable?
Robyn Peterson: I’m not sure. We have no imminent plans to launch one, I’ll say that.
Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?
Robyn Peterson: Too much caffeine. It’s a great question and I would say that one thing we believe strongly in is that you need to make big bets. And in order to really get ahead of market, those big bets have to pay off at some percentage. And I guess when you’re making big bets; sometimes you can lose some sleep over them. But when they pay off it’s fun. And I feel like a lot of our big bets have been paying off lately.
Samir Husni: Thank you.
© Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni, Ph.D., All Rights Reserved.
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