CNBC’s digital chief Michael Kearns lifts the lid on the broadcaster’s newly-unified international digital content strategy.
The good news about bad news, so they say, is that it sells. This has certainly been the case over the past 12 months, as a host of print publishers – from The Economist to The New York Times – have boasted a surge in subscription revenues.
It can also offer new opportunities to media companies looking to instigate an accelerated digital pivot, according to Michael Kearns, CNBC’s newly-appointed vice president, international digital.
News of China’s market meltdown, Brexit and Donald Trump’s US election victory caused huge spikes in CNBC’s traffic, and helped sustain double-digit growth in digital audiences in 2016, which in turn has led to a change of thinking in the firm’s digital strategy.
Kearns joined the broadcaster over six years ago, after a 17-year stint at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Now based in Singapore, he joined CNBC as head of news and programming for Asia Pacific, and found himself required to arrive early in the office to write online copy himself – such was the company’s scarcity of digital resource.
Over half a decade – and a “significant upscaling” – later, and Kearns is looking to take that previous “leper colony in the corner of the newsroom” and place it front and centre of CNBC’s international operation.
Three digital pillars
A key part of the restructure is the joining together of CNBC.com, social media channels and digital video production. Kearns is at pains to emphasise that this does not represents a “centralised” operation run from Singapore. Instead, the three digital “pillars” have been united to make the most of what he describes as clear “overlap and crossover”.
For a start, he says the new approach will ensure CNBC can take a more cohesive approach to international digital initiatives, starting with local language launches in Indonesia and Thailand.
“What we don’t want as an organisation is too many barriers to being able to publish content that we think we should be putting in front of an international audience. Having too many layers and reporting lines makes things too complicated for some of these people to get their jobs done. You end up with a scattered approach,” says Kearns, speaking to M&M Global on his first visit to London in the new role.
“Some media companies believe scale and throwing money at the problem is the answer; we believe in being strategic, identifying where the audience is, and making sure we get that content in front of them in appropriate ways.”
‘Make It’ happening
Kearns will be judged both on his ability to grow CNBC digital audience internationally – something he says has been helped by “promising” partnerships with Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – and to ensure CNBC is seen as a leader in the money-related content sphere.
The latter, brand-driven task will be helped, he says, by a greater emphasis on content aimed at “aspirational” audiences – as opposed to the “influential” viewers of its TV network.
One scheme he believes will help to achieve this goal is CNBC’s ‘Make It’ sub-brand, focused on areas such as leadership, entrepreneurship, careers and personal finance. The platform has been live in the US for some time, and will be rolling out internationally over the coming months.
“That is a chance for us to connect with a demographic different to our traditional audience, that is probably a bit younger. It might connect with people who don’t have wealth to invest in the markets, but want to know how to achieve that and how to start a business, how to manage their money better, how to grow in their careers,” he says.
Digital video advantage?
CNBC Make It will be particularly driven by video content, but created in a way that suits digital channels and mobile devices, and does not necessarily confirm with the broadcaster’s traditional approach, with a reporter and cameraman shooting segments edited for TV consumption.
“I don’t think, if you are a traditional broadcaster and you approach digital video from the same mind-set, it does not necessarily give you an advantage. I think it might actually give you a bit of a disadvantage, because that isn’t the way people are consuming content,” says Kearns.
“We want to be a much more nimble and agile organisation, and that means thinking not just about what we’re doing, but how we do it”
“The nature of a lot of a content that plays well on social media, and has longer shelf life, is it is more nimble and agile in the gathering process and in the distribution process. We want to be a much more nimble and agile organisation, and that means thinking not just about what we’re doing, but how we do it.”
Kearns is also keen to ensure that CNBC International’s digital content assumes a more “unbuttoned” character, and avoids the blandness that he says has afflicted past online news reporting.
“We have big personalities on the TV channel, they are the ones the audience keeps coming back for. Sometimes in the past our digital content hasn’t reflected that personality,” he adds.
Vox and BuzzFeed
Fundamentally, the coming 12 months for CNBC will be dominated by an attempt to conquer the money space for a broader range of consumers.
With parent company NBCUniversal having invested heavily in digital media brands Vox and BuzzFeed, Kearns is hoping to seal partnerships with those publishers to reach a younger audience. It will also continue its policy of sharing content with “credible” local partners, including the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and Caixin in China.
And with the ‘fake news’ debate rumbling on, Kearns is sure there is an opportunity for long-standing brands like CNBC to grow audiences in the longer-term – starting with another double-digit leap in traffic in 2017.
“We are expanding our content offering, the nature of the subjects [we cover], also in terms of our approach to social. We’re making sure when we’re creating content that we’re asking ourselves, ‘Why would someone share this?’ Hopefully that then gives people a touch of our brand that they haven’t had before,” he says.
“The one thing I think is universally true is that people care about their families, their homes and how they are going to pay for everything. That’s as real as it gets, and we should own that space.”