What Are They Thinking? Bloomberg’s Justin Smith Sees a Window in Shakeup of Digital Reader Habits
Justin Smith pronounces himself happy with Bloomberg’s month-old redesign. The C.E.O. of Bloomberg Media has been watched closely since he assumed the job a year and a half ago, coming over from a much-acclaimed stint rebuilding Atlantic Media. Now he can finally point to something very tangible in his strategy re-do of Bloomberg’s far-flung media businesses.
Smith says that Bloomberg’s own traffic counts show double-digit increases in unique visitors, page views and time on sites, all surprising numbers, given that redesigns often cause short-term declines. The bump’s got to be more than people at first sharing their shock at Bloomberg’s audacity in changing up the very identity of digital Bloomberg. Or should we say digital Bloombergs. In the app store, Bloomberg has offered no fewer than 14 smartphone apps. Its old Bloomberg.com site still showed wire editor coding from time to time, belying its claim to be a modern consumer media site. Worse, the old site appeared stodgy, and that’s the last word the new Bloomberg wants to apply to itself.
While the pro (“Bloomberg Business’ new site design is beautifully bizarre — and it’s begging for haters”) and con (“Bloomberg Reorganizes the Godmothership”) offered much entertainment, the strategic imperative behind Bloomberg Business—and what new products could swiftly follow—received short shrift. I talked with Justin Smith last week to get an updated sense of his strategic thinking and what’s next up.
It may be tough to think of big Bloomberg—with more than $8 billion in revenues, profits approaching $3 billion, and a news force of 2400—as an insurgent, but that’s a characterization Bloomberg now embraces.
First published at Capital New York
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The new Bloomberg.com “is aimed to disrupt to the general business news category,” says Smith. “We’re likely to launch a markets, luxury and a tech brand. Each is intended to disrupt existing incumbents in their respective businesses …. We have bigger ambitions—a portfolio of multiplatform brands living under the flagship Bloomberg Business brand.”
That’s a new signal in the crowded business-news marketplace. The economic recovery has only stoked business news sites’ hopes and dreams about world domination, as the emerging, English-speaking business news elites around the world issue a siren call to be monetized.
Exactly who would be in Justin Smith’s sights? Take a look at Comscore’s ranking of the top 25 business news sites in the U.S., for January, with year-over-year comparisons.
We can divide the potential Bloomberg disruptees into two groups.
First, there are the trusted, legacy business news sources, like Dow Jones/Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Fortune and The Financial Times (which comes in at No. 44 on Comscore’s ranking with 804,000 uniques, a function likely of its strict paywall and a number that does not account for its broad overseas audience). While Reuters showed a good year-over-year gain of 38 percent, Dow Jones managed just a 3 percent increase. Those compare to Bloomberg’s 14 percent growth in unique visitors.
Second, there are popular news sites. What they may lack in gravitas, they make up with great volumes of content of sometimes uneven quality: hard-to-resist listicles and various lures of the digitally native. Put the top three sites on the top of this list: Yahoo Finance (down 17 percent year-over-year in unique visitors), Forbes Digital (up 12 percent) and Business Insider, up an astounding, venture-capital-drawing 48 percent.
Quartz, whose traffic Comscore includes in another category. With 5.2 million monthly uniques and a 92 percent increase year-over-year according to Comscore, it would otherwise be included in this Top 25 list.
With Bloomberg TV—now incorporated into the new Bloomberg.com—the company has long produced video and as such hopes to disrupt CNBC, which had a great growth year (up 83 percent in unique visitors, the greatest growth rate among the top 25) and CNN Money.
If the business news battleground is a broad field, with diverse armies rolling across it, Bloomberg intends to make its swath through a broad middle of the terrain.
It will seek to rely on the 37 years of serious brand equity it’s built while grafting on some of the mojo of the high-flying traffic leaders. The new design signals that intention, a colloquial spirit married to the solid, if traditionally sober, Bloomberg news content. The color scheme—borrowed from a populist innovator of another day, USA Today—jarred many a first looker at the new Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg’s content mix has already experienced much change, and let’s recall that new editor-in-chief John Micklethwait will now begin his own reshaping.
The timing of the Bloomberg shape-shifting, Justin Smith believes, coincides with a great audience land rush moving to the starting line. Certainly, digital disruption has been with us since the introduction of the web browser 25 years ago, but this time, he believes, it is marked by three overlapping forces.
Combine the rise of majority mobile reading with the coming of age of Millennials, and mix that with the social sharing phenomenon that often eclipses search as a main discovery tool, and we have a new disruption. Readers may rely increasingly on their smartphones, but their habits—which apps to put on the home screen, which brands to touch as they roll by its endless scrolls—are more up in the air than they were five years ago.
How long might this disruption last?
“It’s historic. The window is a couple of years,” says Smith. “We can grab as many business decision-making eyeballs while people are reconsidering their brand favorites and platform favorites.”
It’s a game of both takeaway and growth. Within the U.S., consider it mainly takeaway, given that the audience for digital business news has mostly arrived; globally, we’ll see more beachhead building as the Journal and F.T. have both done over the years in Europe and Asia, and Quartz did last year in India.
For both, Bloomberg’s new site represents only the foundational platform for the strategy. It’s quite purposefully an umbrella site, charged with the difficult job of bringing some order, some hierarchy, some taxonomy, to diverse bag of long-standing but underperforming broadcast assets (Bloomberg TV and Bloomberg Radio) and to the newer products, launched fairly discretely. When it bought Businessweek in 2011, critics wondered what it would do with a tired title. Flash forward to 2015, and we see Medium-inspired magazine metaphors coursing through many news websites. Now, Bloomberg can abandon its separate businessweek.com site, blending it into the new single site; it seems to fit better. Then, there are the two newer franchises recently added on, Bloomberg View (in 2011) and Bloomberg Politics (launched in October), which both find at least a logical place in top navigation of the new site.
Smith says he needed “a flagship,” and that’s what Bloomberg Business now becomes. Now the tough part: How can it be both one, singular thing—and different things to do different audiences? Will those audiences for the magazine content, Bloomberg View and Bloomberg Politics, in addition to those planned for markets, tech and luxury, find each of them? How can they nest within the single site and yet serve sometimes separate audiences?
Despite all the attention paid to the look of the new Quartz-like endless scroll, the answer to those questions probably plays out more in the behind-the-scenes tech supporting the site. Yes, we still think of the home page as the ballgame, but it’s the offerings placed before sideways visitors—a majority of every news site’s uniques—that make the difference in a social, mobile world.
Brought to Bloomberg Business from Facebook or Vox, what choices will surface before a Bloomberg reader? The new mobile app now brings up a page of “related articles” unlike I’ve seen elsewhere. The kind of auto-customization that Bloomberg does—a work in early progress, says Smith—will also determine Bloomberg’s relative success. All the big news companies tell me they’re working on auto-customization (reading cookies, combining cookies and known profiles). Bloomberg, with its vast content output and now-multiplying topical products could leverage more value out of that work than others.
Says Smith, “We are going to gather data on what people read, what industry they are in, what their content interests are. We are going to be serving content consistent with their past behavior and anticipated needs.”
Against its legacy competitors, Bloomberg can also play its free card. While its “paid” reader revenue terminal business generates the company’s profits, it can still afford to make Bloomberg Business free, differentiating itself from the Journal, F.T. and The Economist, frolicking in the same freedom as B.I., Forbes and Yahoo Finance.
To be sure, much of the competition, also well-funded, is busy with their own plans—seeing the same window of opportunity that Justin Smith sees.
Yahoo Finance just signaled its next-gen intent hiring former Fortune editor Andy Serwer. Reuters just launched a Reuters TV iPhone app, offering curated, customized video for $1.99 a month. The Journal, after its long product development hiatus, relaunched its iPad app—more traditional than the Bloomberg Business product—last fall. And, of course, Business Insider just took in another $25 million to fuel its expansion.
Add it all up, and it’s clear that Bloomberg has only cleared its decks—and bought itself a better ticket to the spirited competition dead ahead.