That Used to Be Us, Too…

30 Dec

Back in the spring of 2009, I wrote a column for on why paid digital content had a bright future.

At the time, the general sentiment in media circles was that free or freemium, ad-supported models were the most sensible. I suggested that media brands that offered unique, differentiated experiences online coupled with frictionless, one-click payment systems could see meaningful growth. Amazon’s Kindle was already in the market, but the iPad was still a year away. Some 50 million tablets later, it’s hard to imagine just how much things have changed in such a relatively short period of time.

So it was with great irony that one night last week, I downloaded New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s latest book, That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). If you haven’t read it, it is worth every cent of the $12.99 download price. In classic Friedman fashion, he and his co-author, Michael Mandelbaum, make the big, game-changing ideas simple and compelling. While he is mostly speaking about the challenges facing America today, I was repeatedly struck by how comments like this—on how our country responded to the end of the Cold War—were entirely relevant to all businesses including media:

“We didn’t fully grasp what was happening, so we relaxed, underinvested, and lived in the moment just when we needed to study harder, save more, rebuild our infrastructure, and make our country more open and attractive to foreign talent.

It is very possible that in the year ahead, our country may go through another national election cycle with politics-as-usual. But in the media industry, business-as-usual is a thing of the past. Our “constituents” vote every day, often multiple times a day. Already, eBooks represent more than 50% of Amazon’s book sales and nearly 20% of major publisher sales come from e-formats.

Despite the early-on hand wringing change often brings—including the recent concern whether offering subscriptions via Apple would make sense for publishers—early evidence suggests that digital sales via Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble represent growth opportunities more than cannibalization. Perhaps equally as encouraging is the fact that the same well-established brands that seemed to be most vulnerable are actually positioned to do quite well because of their trusted connection with consumers. In fact, not only is my flagship brand Reader’s Digest currently the top-selling magazine on the Kindle, but total digital edition sales now exceed 25% of its monthly magazine newsstand sales.

Even as I write this, my first column on paid digital content seems so much farther in the past than just two years ago. The difference today is that the future is now. While there are still many changes to navigate in the months and years ahead, it’s clear that after some early blows, the media business continues to adapt, evolve and represent one of the great innovation engines in America today.

Dan Lagani is president, Reader’s Digest North America.


All In The Family

30 Dec

WSJ.COM – Lagani Brothers

WSJ.COM Profile

12 Jul

The X-Factor

19 Mar

Earlier this year I had the chance to spend some time with Jeff Fisher, who had just recently left his job as head coach of the NFL’s Tennessee Titans. We were speaking about a wide range of things but what struck me most was how he answered a question about the difference between winners and losers in the NFL. He was adamant that the skill levels of most starters in the league from team 1 to 32 were pretty close and that the real difference were the intangibles like attitude, outlook and resiliency.

Let me put out a radical thought: all the wonderful new tech innovations that we read about everyday and love playing with are actually creating the same scenario in business. Sure, it seems counter intuitive that technology brings parity, not advantage. But now that everyone has easy access to the same “cool new stuff,” it’s just the price of entry. So if the latest new gadget won’t drive business winners and losers, then what will?

Larry Kramer, the founder and former Chairman and CEO of Marketwatch, looks at the issue in his new book, C-Scape. He makes a compelling case that technology on its own isn’t what matters, but rather how businesses adapt technology to meet evolving needs of their consumers. He also observes that as technology continues to shift power to consumers, smart businesses will need to continue shifting how they market to their consumers including putting more resources against content and curation.

If you’re still skeptical, check out David Pogue’s recent New York Times column, which speaks to the same challenges unfolding in the cable TV space. Pogue applauds Comcast and its new Xfinity app for iPad for all its smart, user-friendly features. He also underscores that as smart as it is, it will give them about a one-second head start over Time Warner, Cablevision, AT&T, Verizon and DirecTV. Then it’s back to old-fashioned things like customer service and the overall quality of the product offering.

My prediction for the media and marketing business in general: we’re entering a new phase, a time where the great technology race becomes a great moment for established brands. It’s a moment where technology is critical—but like a great quarterback in a league where every team has one, it’s not enough to guarantee a win on its own. The real winners going forward: brands using technology in an authentic way, to meet genuine consumer needs while leveraging the trust and community they’ve developed over time.

Recent campaigns that smartly leverage technology and big brand equity include McDonald’s McCafé Shake “Social Fundraiser” on FourSquare; Dunkin’ Donuts giveaway promo for its Big ‘N Toasty Breakfast Sandwich on Twitter; and the Pepsi Refresh Project, arguably the breakout social media campaign of 2010. The same forces are driving the Reader’s DigestWe Hear You America” campaign, which since its start in November has inspired the participation of nearly 50% of every single town in America.

Whether in sports or business, what it takes to win is constantly changing—and no doubt, technology will remain a critical ingredient going forward. But the X-Factor to making consumers care and connect on a large-scale will increasingly be the combination of great brands and great technology.

Enduring Values

19 Mar

One of the stories that wasn’t well covered in the recent Cablevision/ Fox feud is the effect it had on a sports fan’s ability to shout at the television while watching games. Non-sports fans may think this ritual is borderline idiotic, but real fans understand not only is it immensely satisfying to give managerial advice to the likes of Joe Girardi or Rex Ryan, but it’s also a great, low-risk way to blow-off some steam. Being wrong doesn’t matter: there are no back-page headlines that you made the wrong call on fourth down or questions about why you stuck with the starter rather than going to the bullpen.
Expressing your opinions digitally on the other-hand is entirely different game. What you say and do lives on long after the final out, demands a more thoughtful point of view and far more conviction than the average at-home outburst. Looking back on a Minsider column I wrote in the summer of 2009 on the growing problem of information overload), thankfully I wasn’t just shouting at the tv. I was convinced then–and even more so today–that with a combination of limited time and unlimited digital content, consumers need help sorting out what really matters.

When I took my current role at Reader’s Digest this past spring, I spent a lot of time speaking with consumers, clients and peers about the brand’s roots and greatest strengths. All had memorable stories about their experiences with the brand–from where they first saw it to their favorite columns–but the most important moment for me came while reading the biography of Reader’s Digest founder DeWitt Wallace. (Special thanks to editor-in-chief Peggy Northrop for both recommending it and trusting me enough to lend me her copy.)

Not only did it reaffirm everything I’d been feeling about the crush of digital media, but it also made it clear that Wallace understood–long before anyone else–the value of simplifying and curating the very best stories from across the country and condensing them each month into a consumer-friendly digest. His guiding vision was captured in this two-sentence quote from 1920: “We live in fast-paced times. People are anxious to get to the heart of the matter and we intend to search it out for them”.

Jump forward to the media landscape of 2010 with 8,500 magazines and newspapers, 2,300 tv channels, over 180 Mobile carriers offering Wi-Fi, plus more than 200 million websites, and Wallace’s vision has even greater relevance. Even David Carr of The New York Times observed in a recent column: “We have reached a moment in time when our ability to produce media has outstripped our ability to consume it.”

For the Reader’s Digest brand, it also means the future is clear: getting back to its roots as the original content curator and to its original mission of bringing people all across the country trusted, time-saving insights. The twist is that this time we’ll lead with a daily digital digest called the Reader’s Digest Version coupled with an iPad edition and more than a dozen mobile apps to guarantee that we deliver on another critical consumer expectation, offering content how, when and where they want.

With just about 12 weeks to go until everything launches it doesn’t leave me nearly as much time as I’d like to watch my favorite teams play–especially since Cablevision and Fox seem to have resolved their differences, for now.

Dan Lagani is  president of Reader’s Digest Media where he oversees the Reader’s Digest branded businesses in the U.S.

Allseason Media

20 Nov

Anyone who has done their share of business travel has no doubt had the same surreal experience I had last month when I went from New York to Las Vegas to Seattle and back to New York in 48 hours. Lots of miles, lots of on and off with my shoes and some pretty radical “climate changes”: From 88 degree temperatures and 88 percent humidity in New York, to 113 degrees in Las Vegas, 75 sunny degrees (yes, sunny) in Seattle and before I knew it back to a muggy NYC. It was like living three seasons all at the same time.

And then it struck me – three seasons at once is also what the media and communications businesses are like these days. Pick-up a paper, read an industry e-newsletter, watch the evening news and in any 48 hour period you’re bombarded with as many stories about the changing media landscape as would have previously happened in an entire year. From big stories, like what’s really happening with Google, Verizon and Net-neutrality to word of yet another Kindle price-cut and a slew of executive suite changes – there’s a lot going on simultaneously – especially considering we’re in the dog days of summer!

What also struck me was that this is a moment in media where everything is true. Take a quick look around any airport or flight and you can see it happening right in front of you: people reading newspapers, magazines, books, watching in-flight TV, reading on Kindles and iPads – even surfing the web and posting to Facebook from 30,000 feet.

So how do you do business at a time when everything happens at once and everything also happens to be true? You experiment – with new offerings, new formats and new pricing models. Just look at the differing approaches being used with iPad apps by the New York Times and the Wall St. Journal. Is it better to give content away and bank on sponsorship dollars or are you better-served building a business around generating more money from consumers? There are no one-size fits all guarantees anymore – except perhaps that business as usual isn’t a good option.

Despite the unsettling nature of change – be it climate change or media behavior – the inner optimist in me says that the media business is headed somewhere new, somewhere exciting and somewhere we’ll look back on in 10 years and say, “I was there when this great, new bull market got started.” Now let’s hope that we can say the same about the global economy.

When Brands Become Media – Dan Lagani

6 Apr

The other day I had the chance to speak to a group of students taking a Media Strategy course at Michigan State about the convergence of traditional and new media. Connected via Skype, it was the fastest two-hour conversation that I’ve ever had. The students were engaged, asked good questions and taught me as much about what’s coming as I did them. And before we knew it we were out of time.

One of the more interesting moments was when the conversation moved to social media – and, more specifically, about brands becoming a larger part of platforms like Facebook. I expected resistance over the growing number of commercial fan-pages, but in fact the students were fine with the trend. (Not surprisingly, they were concerned about how future employers would be viewing their postings come hiring time!). A quick look at how large a following some well-known brands now have on Facebook makes it quite clear that a lot of folks share the students’ point of view:

  • Starbuck’s : 5,975,000 fans
  • Coca-Cola: 5,095,000 fans
  • Skittles: 3,868,000 fans
  • Adidas: 2,164,000 fans
  • Zara: 2,017,000 fans
  • Burberry: 898,000 fans

Numbers like this do raise the question of what happens to ad-driven media when brands have the ability to speak directly to very large numbers of their best and future customers – without the need for middlemen? My sense is that while Media Brands won’t all disappear – the battle for ad dollars will continue to get tougher as brands shift resources to support these new, direct efforts – which, unlike traditional “direct-marketing,” also provide for a two-way conversation.

For the moment, however, we’re still early in the corporate social media game and most brands haven’t started focusing on a critical piece of the equation – content. Most of us would never think of inviting friends to our homes without offering them a drink or something to eat – yet ironically that’s the equivalent of what many brands are doing by not making content strategy a central part of their marketing plans. Joe Pulizzi of and a longtime content strategy evangelist notes in a recent post from Online Marketing Summit 2010 that just four marketers in a room of 300 had a formal content plan.

Despite this current content gap – if recent history has shown us anything about how digital continues to redefine the traditional media model – it’s only a matter of time before Brand Marketer’s get this piece of the puzzle in place. While this will cause more pain for ad-dependent businesses, it’s just as likely to create opportunities for a new generation of “Custom Publishers” to manage content and fan engagement on behalf of marketers; a service that the Michigan students – and a whole range of smart business people – will be quite happy to provide.

Dan Lagani is the founder of Tre Cani Advisors, a N.Y.-based media consultancy focused on digital media, fashion, beauty and retail.

Loose Change: Media Trends 2010 – Dan Lagani

6 Apr

Loose Change: Trends of 2010
Daniel Lagani

One of the great things about the new year isn’t so much that we get a fresh start, but rather that we know the exact moment the old year ends and the new one begins. One second it’s 2009 and literally the next it’s 2010. In business, most changes – even those that have been predicted – play out over such a long period of time that we often don’t recognize what’s happening until it’s too late. This happened repeatedly throughout much of the media world in 2009. Despite all the warnings about shifting consumer behaviors and marketing mix allocations we seemed surprised as primetime audiences continued to shrink, magazines and newspapers closed by the hundreds and bloggers started elbowing their way into the front-row at fashion shows sitting next to the likes of Anna Wintour.

So as we sit in early 2010 – here are a few connected trends that will continue to unfold over the next decade:
Audience fragmentation that started with cable television that in the 1980’s will continue as ever more specialized content is available across an increasing array of digital platforms. Innovations in distribution will continue at such a rapid pace that no one company will have a monopoly for any extended period of time – and those companies that invest too much in any single platform will continue to feel pain. Finally, the most interesting new content creators will continue emerging from far flung places far outside of large companies – and the most astute companies will find ways to harness this talent rather than relying entirely on their own original content creation.

No doubt the pending Comcast / NBC Universal merger will have a profound impact on the media landscape over the next decade, too – but this deal is not so much revolutionary as it is a continuation of the kind of mega-deals that started back in the 80’s when GE bought NBC, Cap Cities bought ABC and Tisch acquired CBS.

The far more revolutionary changes are looser, happening on a smaller scale and generally going unnoticed until they gain such critical mass that we are caught off guard by their appearance. Thomas Friedman’s column last month where he spoke of the Great Inflection ; the impact of widespread, low-cost technology coupled with cheap connectivity – was one of those moments. The story about the small Minneapolis ad agency Greer & Associates was especially fascinating.

The explosion of digital content over the past decade also guarantees that the decade ahead will be filled with more stories like that of Mike Florio, Brian Stelter and Jane Aldridge. Florio started in his West Virginia home back in 2001 and grew its monthly following to over 1 million visitors according to a recent piece by sports media reporter, Richard Sandomir. These days, Florio’s site is a centerpiece of’s football coverage. Same story with Brian Stelter, who was brought in-house by the NY Times after starting his influential television news blog, TVNewser, while in college. Expect more of the same when NY Fashion Week starts-up again next month. The next decade’s most influential voices in the world of style are now finding their way to the front rows and to millions of eager consumers every month. In the case of 17 year-old Jane Aldridge, her widely read blog Sea of Shoes also led to her own shoe collection at retailer, Urban Outfitters.

So while the most profound changes in media don’t always happen with the immediacy and clarity of the ball dropping in Times Square – they’re happening as we speak – and they promise to make the new decade among the most exciting the media business has ever seen.

Minsider columnist Dan Lagani is the founder of Tre Cani Advisors, a media consultancy focused on digital media, fashion, beauty and retail. He is the Senior Advisor to StyleCaster Media Group and was previously president of the Fairchild Fashion Group, overseeing media brands including WWD, WWDMen’s and; Footwear News; Fairchild Summits, Books and Classifieds; and