Subscriber numbers were really low in the digital space, but now if you look at the digital space, it's full of channels that have a huge amount of subscribers and they don't need advertisements.
MEDIA 7: Hi Ivar, let's begin with you telling us a little bit about what digital marketing means to you.
IVAR KRUSTOK: I think digital marketing means quite a lot to me. I'm not working every day in digital marketing anymore, but it's where my career started. It's what I'm teaching currently in school right now. I firmly believe that digital marketing is important for every business out there. So there isn't a question anymore about should you be doing it. But it's a question of how you should be doing it. I think it applies to every company. I think it applies to every role inside the company. I think most people in their day-to-day work should be somewhat fluent in digital marketing because even if you are just an editorial working in our team, you must understand how social media works. You must understand how Google algorithms work, why they're picking up your story, why it's reaching a wider audience. I think it's one of these topics that impacts a lot more people than they would even know how it impacts their life.
M7: That's interesting! You've had an extensive career in digital marketing, how do you think that influences your current role at Ekspress Meedia?
IK: My current role is more digital, as the IT side of our business that means most of the day I work on how the site is performing, are we live, etc. But it also includes if our advertisers are being shown or are there some issues, how we can improve our inventory. If we're not getting enough impressions for one format, how could we improve that, is targeting done correctly? Should we add more data points that we're collecting from the users? Should we set up more events? So all of this knowledge and the understanding about how fundamentally our channel gets most of its money today is related to digital marketing. Understanding that makes me, well, helps me give better reasons why we're performing something or doing something.
And it also helps our, like my own team, to understand that sometimes, if we're talking about a campaign and we have to make some adjustments for the client, then they understand why usually some items might come late. Like just the day before, we had to set it up in a few hours because, as we all know, a lot of marketing, like materials and a lot of campaigns, they start like before the campaign even with a 10-day deadline. But in reality, you are still getting all the materials late in the afternoon and everything had to go live yesterday. An understanding of that helps me, like manage my team and even manage my own time.
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M7: What are the different ways you understand, how well an advertisement is doing? how do you measure the impressions of an advertisement?
IK: It's complicated, and I think it's also like, twofold. One, is that I would look at on the channel side. That's the thing that we're keeping an eye on because we can influence when the advertisements are being loaded. We are checking most creatives because in most markets you see that programmatic is a huge part of a publisher's revenue. In Estonia, that's not the case. I would say that if you're a large publisher, you have 10% of programmatic, everything else is directly sold. That means, we have a firm understanding of most of the creatives that go into our channel. Are they working? Are they loading quickly? Are they full of some items that are not needed? Are they heavy banners? Like if you're stuck with bad internet or now we have this Google Chrome update that says, if it takes too many resources, it's never going to be loaded.
And if we are looking over all the creatives, then we can influence how the market understands what; why it's important to make not as heavy creatives, and then we can start to look at numbers like viewability. If we're calling the banner out, what will people see, when should we load the banner - one screen at a time or half a screen. The last issue that we had was - when somebody clicks a back button, when should we load the advertisements that are higher from the screen, or should we load new banners and so on. There's a lot of influence that we can make to improve the viewability. And from that point, I would say that's the other side of the business, how well somebody's making a creative. Some platforms allow you to create lightweight advertisements that function.
Like I could say things about Flash was bad. I would say, still, say for advertisement side, Flash was one of the better things to ever happen because they were quick, easy to assess, easy to create - it was perfect for advertisements. It was bad in almost every other way, but it was perfect for advertising. And now if you are in a situation where we have all of these HTML five banners, a lot goes on the creative sites. And it's not only about how well somebody can do, really nice animation or what the visual looks like, but it goes down to the technical aspects of the actual banner and how it's performing. And only when you succeed in that you can move on to how well it's converting, are you targeting to the correct audience, and move around that.
So if you see that their conversions are not up, there's always the question - do you just have bad creatives or are you getting it wrong or your message is wrong. And that's, I think a lot of times, it's a real niche, like a specter of things. And even though I also run the analytical team, I'm still not 100% on board with moving to the almost totally conversion based marketing method that everybody's striving for because I believe in the better days of marketing of brand values and how brands show themselves and all of these branding campaigns. Even if you cannot easily calculate how much it brings back to the company, I still think in the longer run, having a solid, good branding campaign now and then really helps, raise the, brand value or whatever scopes you have behind the brand.
M7: That’s pretty interesting. Talking about advertising, what are some of the new advertising formats that are trending today and how do you use these trends in your advertisements for your clients at Ekspress Meedia?
IK: One example was with the other person, who redirected you to me is that we're always looking for partners like these. I would say one thing about their platform is that they're evolving something that’s like between flash and HTML, where the creatives themselves are technically advanced. That means there are lightweight, and they also have a wide gallery of formats that basically helps us. Because again, if we would develop a lot of these things on our site, we would have to do it in HTML, which just means that all of these libraries and everything else we add into the creative has nothing to do with the end clients. Then, in that case, we need partners to help us create these creatives as fast as possible.
And, all of these platforms that help us accomplish this, I would say, is helpful for us, but from our side, as you know, a lot of publishers are slowly moving into more of on the social side while still trying to be more focused on editorial choosing. And then, we're in this transition, where we are trying to understand what social items we should take in. One of the latest improvements that we did was that we started implementing Instagram-style stories. Now when you come to our portal, you have the same, rounded, buttons. And when somebody doesn't - you know we're targeting a younger audience - who might not want to read, in-depth analyses of, some article or, something like that, then they can just open these stories, and just click through.
They would and they should understand what the talking points are for the day. They, of course, don't know in-depth, but, they at least know what the talking points of the day are, at least in our country or on a wider scope. We're looking into a lot of these things and also the question - is it like an advertisement. But I still think it's somewhat of an advertisement because it is showing our articles in a new light. Earlier, all new sites would always look the same. They have an image and they have some text and some items on the image, but I think it's putting the more creative side into an actual article. We're presenting an article in a new way.
M7: It's almost like repurposing content to be more appealing to the audience. Last year we had the COVID-19 pandemic with significant influences on the advertising industry. What are some of the changes that have taken place because of the pandemic in the industry and how do you see this evolve into the future?
IK: The first thing, of course, in the first few months most campaigns were canceled. That doesn't mean we didn't have any campaigns, but huge amounts of campaigns were canceled. And we were trying to see where we could cut back, but actually, it climbed back really quickly. That means after it hit, then, as people say, that the printing machines were turned on. I would say that a lot of clients started bringing the money back that they didn't spend during these months. And actually, the end of the year turned out quite nicely from a revenue point of view.
The second thing was that the time for preparing campaigns was shortened. That means, previously when you talked to an agency - they would know that in two months we will have this campaign and they're already somewhat booking items in our channel and thinking ahead. Now the process is down to like a week or two weeks, so they will tell you - I have a campaign coming in two weeks rather than two months, because, everybody's still in this state where will you close that something next week or next month? And then they're never too sure what the country will do as a whole.
And, the other is that our subscriber revenue increased quite a lot. We were thinking already that it's hard for us to grow last year because we already have quite a nice supply of subscribers into our paid content, but most people still value in-depth, analyzed, good content. We hear a lot about these people who are on social media. But we saw a huge increase of people who are now looking for the actual valuable source to get their information from. And I think it also drove most of the bigger publisher houses, in most of the world for the same reason people just want true news, not just what they read on their Facebook feed.
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There's a lot of influence that we can make to improve viewability.
M7: The pandemic also forced us to go digital. Do you think that the digital aspect of the industry is likely to last and is that a permanent change for the future?
IK: I just recently read a report where in some countries, print newspapers are making somewhat of a comeback. I think it's also related to my last point where I said that, and I don't think it would be a huge trend, and I don't think we'll see huge charts, like vinyl sales, but I think it's still related to the similar topic where some people just think that, if it's printed it's more legitimized and it's not fast news. I think nowadays the issue is with all of these fast news sites, like daily news sites, it's just overwhelming. And I see it from myself also that if you're, just reading this news, and then it's just coming on and piling on.
And I think a lot of people, will come out of this thinking that maybe they need things to slow down a bit. I'm not sure how much it'll affect a bigger trend of the digital movement. But I see it also for, on myself where I just deleted a Facebook application and put an alarm that only allows me on Facebook for 10 minutes a day because it's the same thing. I don't want to constantly be in this space where I'm getting all of this information. I want more peace where I have some time. I consume this information because it doesn't matter if I don't read the news every day. After all, the next day there will be new COVID-19 articles by somebody who's again, wiser.
And I think, why yes, of course, digital advertisement will grow, then, I think there also will be this new niche audience of people who want to maybe calm down a bit because we can see the trend for all of these calm applications and white noise applications. We can see meditation applications also increasing a lot where people just want to slow down a bit. And other than that, there is Facebook - the controversy that is happening, and all of this - what's happening currently in the states with all of these big tech companies. Then I think it might be a really good way for all these older publishing houses. I would still say that, in our market at least, there's actually might be a huge win because of all the data, because again, we own our data.
People who are our subscribers, we have the data that they have permitted to us. We're not sharing it with anybody else. They come to our site. We cannot share these cookies, I mean Apple is destroying all of this, larger platforms with their privacy policies, and so on. I think it actually might be the huge trend from Facebook and social platforms where people are coming somewhat back into publisher houses. And I think this time, publishing houses have a stronger arm to actually get in the negotiation table because, when the first wave came with Facebook and Google mostly, all news was free. Subscriber numbers were really low in the digital space, but now if you look at the digital space, it's full of channels that have a huge amount of subscribers and they don't need advertisements so much anymore because actually, their readers are paying all of that money to them. That means now when advertisements might come back or start increasing, they have a stronger arm to negotiate better terms for themselves.
M7: That's very interesting. If there was a marketing campaign that you have helped at creating at Ekspress Meedia and you're the most proud about, which would it be and why?
IK: I think, in Ekspress Meedia, at least currently I'm more in the support role of all of these campaigns. There's nothing really that I can't take as a marketing credit for, but one of these new platforms or things that I would still, again, somewhat call marketing, is the podcast platform that we launched a while ago that I'm still really proud of. Not only are we the largest on the market, currently, with the number of podcasts and listeners, but I think it also gave our editorial staff a new way to display their content. Because previously, we just had one podcast that had happened, but now we have three different rooms where people can record their podcasts. We have video podcasts - it's a huge, new section for us. And again, it's a trend that, of course, being in the low Baltic States, we were a few years behind, but I still see that it's a growing trend for most marketing. And I think this time we were also earlier, rather than five years after everybody else has done it - that happens if you're in a small market, usually.
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If you see that conversions are not up, there's always the question - do you just have bad creatives or are you getting it wrong or your message is wrong.
M7: In the whole podcast and radio debate, what do you think makes podcasts work?
IK: I'm a huge fanatic of podcasting and that's why I promoted this service on our platform. I listen to about - I'm always saying 14 hours but if I make the actual calculations in my head, I know 14 is a small number because I'm usually listening to even more than 14 hours and I'm also listening to it at like 1.5 speed. I have the ability to choose when I want to listen to it and it's not as official and it usually doesn't have all of this radio morning show tropes. I think if you are listening to a podcast, you feel like most of these people that you are listening to are like companions or you are like in a room with them. And I think that's what makes a really good podcast - when you're listening to this person and you're feeling like there's three people in the studio and you feel like you are a part of this conversation. I think that makes the best part of the podcast - the community around. Even if you are listening to it alone, you still feel like you're part of a larger community of people you don't know, but you feel like you're still among them.
M7: I don't think there is a better way to explain than that! Lastly, what are your go-to data procurement and analytic tools?
IK: We’re trying to build as much of our own, not only how we're collecting data, but how we're storing and where we're storing it. I like to have control of the funnel as much as possible because the idea is that, a lot of other partners, they might make changes to how they're collecting data. A lot of times, yes, they might tell a large partner of theirs, but usually, if you're again in the small/ low Baltic States, you might see something as a small text in some blog posts that of course you are never going to read. Then one day, your data has been recalculated and all the history states the same, and you just have new data. This is day one again, but if you control the funnel, at least if you want to recalculate, if you want to make a change, it'll cost you, of course, but at least you are controlling how you calculate everything and how you're collecting.