How DMN’s Speakeasy Became a Major Revenue Driver in the Digital Transition

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In the early years of the decade, The Dallas Morning News was like every other daily newspaper — trying to figure out how to cross the Texas-sized divide from print to digital. To succeed, the A. H. Belo Corp.-owned DMN decided to “super-serve” businesses throughout North Texas (current advertisers and non-advertisers alike ) with an array of gradually introduced, “solutions-oriented” marketing services.

The first service would help businesses tell their story persuasively enough to make customer conversions in the fast-expanding, socially mediated digital world. This new world had many platforms and audiences beyond the orbit of the 131-year-old DMN, and to meet its ambitious objective, the newspaper teamed up with the well-established local advertising agency Slingshot in 2012 to create Speakeasy.

In four years, Speakeasy has grown to 70 client businesses that provide a significant share of the estimated $40 million of annual revenue that doesn’t originate within the walls of the DMN. Speakeasy is, in the words of DMN Senior Vice President for Business Development and Niche Products Grant Moise, a key element of “how our company is working to re-establish a revenue growth model.”

In this Q & A, Speakeasy President Mike Orren, a pioneer in North Texas digital media, tells the story of the company-within-a-company he helped to build from scratch:

Speakeasy, you say, “mixes all the new and innovative socially-driven means of communications with really old-school, traditional marketing.” What’s there about old-school, traditional marketing that works in the highly social, digital world?
The point is that too many people have thought of social media and content marketing as some entirely new form, when it’s really just another channel. The rules and tactics of traditional marketing still apply — they can just be amplified more quickly or in a more targeted way digitally. That’s why we staffed initially with senior folks with deep expertise in marketing verticals: retail, medical, hospitality, B2B and so forth. Then we surrounded them with more junior folks with channel expertise in social and digital. We found this keeps us laser-focused on results and ROI as opposed to likes and pageviews. In simplest terms, it keeps us working on the end goal as opposed to starting with the tools at hand.

To help a client get more attention and conversions, you start with “content marketing.” Why is that so important? 
Content marketing is nothing new — in fact, it’s one of the oldest forms, in which you provide information as a resource to prospects whether or not they’re ready to buy. It’s become even more important in the social media world because of the need to get people to engage with you in an environment where a conversion action is possible, even if that conversion is just a newsletter subscription. Without content that lives on a site you control, you risk investing a lot in engagement on social media without any clear payoff.

We have the ability to use archive content from The Dallas Morning News, and occasionally the stars align to make that work for the client. Generally, however, for owned-site content, clients want something bespoke, which we create at Speakeasy. We’re looking at expanding the use of DMN content both in native ads on Belo-owned sites and in our direct client work.

In social media, you go beyond just posting to Facebook, Twitter and other platforms. You work with “fans, teams, musicians” and other groups. Why is this so important?
Even more so than when we launched back in 2012, the notion of “organic” social reach, especially on Facebook, has become outdated. Like any advertising-driven medium, social has become pay-to-play. The twist is that you can impact your CPM by performing in ways that enhance your reach. One of those ways is creating engaging content that, once seen via a paid boost, is more likely to be shared. Another is to leverage audiences who are engaged with your brand, event – whatever you’re peddling. Particularly in promoting local events or causes, we may write posts for organizations to share outside channels we control. And via our sister company, Distribion, we can even post directly to social channels of participants and advocates.

One of your goals with clients is to keep them from “sharecropping on Zuckerberg’s farm.” What’s that?
This gets back to one of the core reasons we want valuable content on a client’s site. We can post all sorts of great stuff on, say, Facebook. But unless you’re using direct e-commerce on the platform (which most brands aren’t yet), you risk getting a lot of amorphous buzz. We used to pick up new clients because they weren’t doing social, or weren’t doing it well. Now we tend to pick up clients who say, “I’ve got some engagement, but the register isn’t ringing.” That’s where content becomes the bridge into an owned environment that allows you to move a customer deeper down the sales funnel instead of just creating more pageviews for Facebook, or for a third party whose content you’re sharing.

How do you help businesses from being fenced in by Facebook’s continually evolving algorithms?
You can’t entirely prevent it. Part of the job is being up to date on changes almost daily. For instance, last week Facebook announced it was penalizing clickbait headlines. We’ve never been high on those as a strategy, but we had to evaluate key phrases that might hurt reach for our clients. It’s also about being on top of the metrics across our full group of clients so that if something is changing, even unannounced by the platform, we can see and react based upon our best theory.

You stress “storytelling.” Does every product or service have a story behind it that needs to be told?
If it doesn’t have a story, it’s in a commodity business. And candidly, we’ve struggled with storytelling on some types of clients that aren’t super-differentiated. However, I’d also like to think that by putting each client through our extensive roadmap process at the beginning of the engagement, we sometimes help them drill down to a story that they didn’t know they needed to tell. It winds up forcing some strategic thinking that maybe hasn’t happened before. Or, in some cases, it can even expose that the principals in the business don’t agree on where they’re going.

Mike Orren
Speakeasy President Mike Orren

You also say “marketers have to remember they aren’t their audience,” and you diss “marketing echo chambers.” Explain.
We sometimes forget that our daily diet of insider-y media coverage and constant social media isn’t necessarily what our customers consume. We’ve had to work hard when working with youth brands, for instance, to be on the right channels in the right voice. I, for one, am not much of a Pinterest user and scoffed when our team wanted to use it for a home services brand. But it quickly turned into the top converting channel for them, even with a relatively smaller reach versus Facebook and Twitter. It’s really easy to fall into the trap of extrapolating your individual behaviors and biases across the whole market. That’s why we make sure multiple teams look at and brainstorm strategy for a client so we don’t miss something.

Does what The Dallas Morning News did in co-creating Speakeasy and starting other digitally focused businesses outside its traditional framework point to what other local newspapers should do?
Of course I’m biased, but I think that DMN did some very nuanced things that distinguish their efforts in digital marketing. First and foremost was a recognition that while everyone in the industry talked about solutions-based selling, those solutions inevitably wound up looking like whatever the media company had in its arsenal — the old “when you have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.”

DMN has found a higher middle ground between dabbling in a service that they didn’t really know how to run and outsourcing to a third party who is only interested in one facet of the overall commercial relationship with the client. To claim that desirable middle ground, DMN, in addition to co-founding Speakeasy, acquired DMV Holding Co., which consists of Vertical Nerve, a premium conversion, analytics, SEO and SEM agency; Distribion, a marketing automation SaaS, and Marketing FX, a printing and promotional premium supplier. There’s also Connect, a programmatic advertising platform that was built in-house.

Where I think my parent company differentiated was in bringing the right combination of solutions in a way that was quality-controlled across the board — and that could leverage the parent brand’s “halo of credibility” as well as the relationships their sales team has in the marketplace. It’s a model that has worked well for all the companies involved, and looks like one way forward for newspapers who want to build or partner for an array of marketing services that can offset declines in traditional, pre-digital revenue.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of hyperlocal news network Local America, and is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.