Article by Ernan Roman
Featured on CMO.com
For Condé Nast, it’s not just about bringing more eyes to the media brand’s many websites.
It’s also about zeroing in on providing a great experience, especially for highly engaged, loyal readers, says Ainul Huda, vice president of analytics, marketing, and audience development at the media company, whose brands include Bon Appetit, GQ, The New Yorker, and Vogue.
“One of the things a rich content company like Condé Nast focuses on is the consumer experience,” Huda said. “We often talk about not how many eyeballs we’ve got. Instead, we are focusing on quality eyeballs and the signals we get in defining them.”
Those signals, of course, come from data. In this exclusive interview, Huda explained how Condé Nast relies on analytics to drive the company’s content strategy and develop key performance indicators (KPIs) that support audience growth and boost customer loyalty across all of its brands.
From your early years at Deloitte to AOL and, ultimately, Condé Nast, you’ve had a fascinating journey. Can you tell us about it?
My background has been [based] foundationally on four major pillars. It’s an intersection in terms of data analytics, strategy, marketing, and program management. Those four pillars always interested me and are reflected in the things I have done, including being a data engineer with a European consulting firm called Steria, then Deloitte, and moving into analytics at AOL to help provide guidance on performance marketing for consumer acquisition and retention across all the media properties. I went from there to running the performance marketing budget for the media properties for a few years, and then to WeWork, running its data analytics group.
Condé Nast is an amalgamation of all these components, be it analytics to drive content strategy or in driving digital strategy across various brands and platforms. We look at content topics that are likely to drive loyalty, which in turn can create a higher propensity to subscribe. And we look for “white space” content opportunities—places where we see signals of audience interest but low content supply in the market.
I also focus on helping to build digital products based on analytics and consumer insights. There has been a journey, but it’s always been grounded with: How do I drive value to the consumers? How do I drive value to the business? Strategy, analytics, and marketing are levers to do that.
At Condé Nast, you have such a diverse range of brands, from Vogue, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair to GQ and Wired. How are you handling the challenge of establishing effective and meaningful corporate KPIs for the various brands?
Generally, no matter what business I look at, I think of five principles. First, is it meaningful? If I hit a KPI, does it drive more consumer value or profit or revenue? Second, is it simple to understand? I’ve come across times in my career where the KPI definition itself is so difficult, it takes a very sophisticated analyst or data scientist to decipher how you even think of measuring it. The moment you get to the point where you’re not able to explain the KPI in a simple way, I think you have lost maybe 80% of the battle.
Then the next one actually flows into it nicely—is it tangible and is it actionable?—followed by the fourth principle that I try to follow: It has to be measurable—something you can track on a daily basis.
The last [principle] I actually haven’t seen in too many places, but it’s important for a portfolio company like us: Is it flexible? You can define success, but there can be various ways of getting there. So when you define KPIs, you need to think about that because when you mature and have grown, and within a year you have to pivot your strategy to hit that goal, you want to make sure that your KPIs are flexible enough to allow you to do that.
I’ve seen where people become so constrained by the KPI that the behaviors do not reflect the changes they have to make because the KPI itself was driving the behavior in terms of hitting the number versus it being more flexible and meaningful. If you just focus on getting more eyeballs versus quality or engaged eyeballs, you may end up with an empty-calories audience that doesn’t drive profitability.
Have the KPIs you measure against been affected by the pandemic?
It hasn’t necessarily changed our KPIs because the principles I defined aren’t overly constrained by circumstances—in particular, flexibility, which is designed to handle such shocks. During the COVID-19 crisis, our focus on meeting consumer needs across platforms has led us to create new consumer experiences, like virtual events or Instagram Lives. We’re also focused on informing our audiences about COVID-19 with a deep analysis and unique takes from our brands, while also providing a sense of escapism through food, culture, self-care, and various other themes.
How do you create a team structure and environment for growth that understands the KPIs that have been established?
For the KPIs to be a growth engine, it boils down to company culture, I mean, at least in terms of how I like to operate my team. I think about it in very simple ways, like how do you focus, prioritize, and, most importantly, at what speed can you drive business? Your team structure has to reflect the process you establish. We have been able to have organic growth by creating a great cross-functional team structure within each of our brands.
We have used structure to solve a business problem versus creating process after process. Our product teams, our analytics, our audience development—they all stick together to drive the philosophy, to drive consumer value and the consumer experience. We want to provide a seamless reading experience, so the consumer will be informed or entertained via quality journalism, across various platforms. Our digital experience puts the consumer at the center without having disruptive ads, which again leads to a good outcome for the business.
What are three key tips that you would provide readers about KPIs?
Define success early on. Understand objectively what success looks like at a very high level, and that starts at the executive branch. Second, let data analysis and objective discussions answer what KPIs drive those larger company goals. And the third one is: Make sure that you actually show the path to success. It’s not only being able to define success and then using data analytics and having objective discussions on what metrics will hit the company’s goals. Part of the third tip is clearly identifying what things you could do to actually hit those KPIs. So in simple words, not only defining what success is, but also uncovering or highlighting paths to getting there.
How do you define success in your position?
The way I think about success is around what kind of value I can create for the consumer that allows me to have more meaningful interactions with them, which in turn allows me to create a more sustainable business model around them. I’ve oversimplified the whole thing, but that is the real thing from a content perspective, from a product perspective, from a distribution perspective, and an investment.
We have to keep up with the market and the changes. This happens every day, and digitally [it’s figuring out] how I translate that into something that’s simplified, that’s simple to understand, so that people across the building can keep on doing the amazing work they do in creating great stories with a focus on journalism and creating an amazing product.