Digital Marketing Failures: Lessons From The New York Times & HBO

The Gray Lady has strug­gled to find its audi­ence online while HBO was dis­tract­ing view­ers with ear­ly sec­ond screen expe­ri­ences.

Lisa Lacy By Lisa Lacy. Join the discussion » 0 comments

When it comes to cre­at­ing great con­tent that cus­tomers eager­ly con­sume, even some of the biggest names in the busi­ness strug­gle – and some­times fail. In fact, reps for two such brands, the New York Times and HBO, spoke last month at Ad Age’s dig­i­tal mar­ket­ing con­fer­ence about the lessons they’ve learned from some of their most dis­tinct fail­ures.

The New York Times

For her part, Mered­ith Kopit Levien, exec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of adver­tis­ing at the New York Times, point­ed to the Oscar-win­ning movie “12 Years a Slave”, which was based on the mem­oir by Solomon Northup.

161 years ago, the New York Times wrote a sto­ry about Northup and one of the many won­ders of work­ing at a ven­er­a­ble insti­tu­tion like the New York Times is that we found the sto­ry and prepped it for its social media debut,” Levien said.

After tweet­ing out a link to the 161-year-old sto­ry, Levien said the brand “sat back and pre­pared our­selves to har­vest a flood of traf­fic.”

But that’s not what hap­pened. Instead, Gawk­er cre­at­ed its own post based on the Times sto­ry and, dis­ap­point­ing­ly for the Times at least, “what for us was a mod­est suc­cess­ful social media moment turned in to a huge mon­e­ti­z­able hit for Gawk­er.”

The same was true for the Times’ video about pho­tog­ra­ph­er Wal­ter Chan­do­ha, Lessons from a Mas­ter Cat Pho­tog­ra­ph­er, which gar­nered a mod­est 7,400 views.

How can we be the only place on earth that doesn’t make a cat video go viral?” Levien said.

In the midst of these dis­ap­point­ments came the unex­pect­ed release of the inter­nal Times report about its dig­i­tal strug­gles, which was leaked to Buz­zFeed, which then cre­at­ed a post that even­tu­al­ly gar­nered near­ly 500,000 views.

We are win­ning at jour­nal­ism, but los­ing at find­ing the widest audi­ence for it,” Levien said. But, since that report was pub­lished, Levien said the Times has made some impor­tant changes to its dig­i­tal con­tent efforts.

Name­ly, the brand has “[defied] the grav­i­ty of tradition…We have embraced the notion that it’s not enough just to find the best sto­ries, but to also find the right audi­ence for those sto­ries and the job doesn’t end at just get­ting the sto­ry,” she said.

In part to illus­trate the increas­ing impor­tance of oth­er plat­forms, the Times’ dai­ly meet­ing to pitch what should be on the front page of the news­pa­per is no longer called Page One, she said.

The brand has also invent­ed what Levien calls “new ways to cre­ate val­ue.”

In oth­er words, the Times has moved into the brand­ed con­tent space with more than 50 pieces of so-called brand sto­ry­telling to date, Levien said.

Whether it’s a sto­ry from a mar­keter or the news­room, it’s the kind of work that makes them feel things, stop and share that find the widest audi­ence,” she said.

But, at the same time, Levien said the Times has­n’t lost sight of what got it to this point in the first place.

Qual­i­ty sto­ry­telling is what got us here,” Levien said.

To illus­trate this, she point­ed to a scoop reporter Nico­la Clark got about the delib­er­ate crash of the Ger­man­wings flight in March, which enabled the New York Times to “dom­i­nate” world­wide cov­er­age for two and a half days.


After a 2012 Nielsen study found most con­sumers were using devices while watch­ing TV, Sab­ri­na Calu­o­ri, vice pres­i­dent of dig­i­tal and social media at HBO, said she was sud­den­ly get­ting pres­sure from above about what it meant for HBO and how the brand could con­tin­ue to dri­ve engage­ment.

HBO launched its social TV plat­form HBO Con­nect in 2011, which, she said, was a “huge suc­cess” in the tra­di­tion­al sense that it gen­er­at­ed head­lines.

With HBO Con­nect, the brand “cre­at­ed a site where we aggre­gat­ed the con­ver­sa­tion around shows and brand­ed it, which was the first time a net­work had done that,” she said. “We were not going to let Vig­gle and Get­Glue be the only des­ti­na­tion for fans. We should be able to curate the expe­ri­ence for our fans.”

How­ev­er, Calu­o­ri said, even though HBO Con­nect was “well-received by the ad community…the dirty secret is that it did not deliv­er on the engage­ment we had hoped.”

So the brand went back and did a lot of research to fig­ure out what exact­ly sec­ond screens meant for HBO and, in 2013, the team began work­ing on a “Game of Thrones” sec­ond-screen expe­ri­ence for Xbox.

There are so many peo­ple, places and chal­lenges to keep track of [in ‘Game of Thrones’], so we cre­at­ed a rich, robust sec­ond-screen expe­ri­ence and you could get all this ancil­lary con­tent to fig­ure out what’s going on,” Calu­o­ri said.

But even though it was a “beau­ti­ful expe­ri­ence” that was “well-received,” it was not that heav­i­ly used, so Calu­o­ri said HBO once again went back to its research to fig­ure out what was going on.

That’s when HBO had some­thing of an “aha!” moment, she said.

Con­sumers were actu­al­ly pay­ing atten­tion to the first screen, so why are we try­ing to dis­tract you? That was a key moment for us,” Calu­o­ri said. “They don’t want to be dis­tract­ed from the show. If you’re watch­ing ‘Game of Thrones’ and you look down, you might miss your favorite char­ac­ter get­ting killed, which made us rethink the sec­ond screen.”

In oth­er words, while con­sumers want to talk about and engage with HBO’s con­tent, they don’t want to do so dur­ing the actu­al pro­gram­ming.

As a result, Calu­o­ri said HBO has since shift­ed its efforts to cre­ate more of a “ful­ly respon­sive web expe­ri­ence” that is more like a “com­pan­ion experience…meant to be con­sumed after or before view­ing, which was a huge shift for us.” The Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Chan­nel has done sim­i­lar, most recent­ly with its immer­sive “Killing Jesus” web­site.

Final­ly, the brand saw the engage­ment it was look­ing for – to the tune of 1 mil­lion uniques per week.

[Con­sumers] kept com­ing back because they need to under­stand new char­ac­ters and it became a com­pan­ion piece to the show,” Calu­o­ri said.

As a result, HBO will be launch­ing a new ver­sion of HBO Con­nect this sum­mer and “repo­si­tion­ing it to be where the most engaged con­sumers can come back for exclu­sive expe­ri­ences on an ongo­ing basis,” Calu­o­ri added.

Lisa Lacy

Written by Lisa Lacy

Lisa is a senior features writer for Inked. She also previously covered digital marketing for Incisive Media. Her background includes editorial positions at Dow Jones, the Financial Times, the Huffington Post, AOL, Amazon, Hearst, Martha Stewart Living and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund.

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