Alan Murray is the president and CEO of Fortune Media Group. He started his career as a cub reporter at the age of nine and spent twenty years at The Wall Street Journal before taking over at Fortune. The venerable business magazine started off as part of the Time Inc. portfolio before moving to Meredith, and has since spun off as an independent company. Alan has overseen the complete transformation of Fortune from a publishing brand to a fully integrated publishing, events and digital media business.
Alan, it’s been quite a year, and it’s not over yet! Can you give me a little background on Fortune’s journey towards establishing a digital paywall?
Sure. Let’s start with the original sin. Back in the Nineties, magazines made the same mistake that a lot of media companies made — they gave away all their content for free online. It was a horrible mistake, and they basically spent decades trying to reverse the negative consequences. Fortune was no exemption — until this year, everything that we published online was free. And we knew we had to change that, because competing against Google, Apple and Amazon for online advertising dollars just didn’t make sense.
So how do you make that ask of your subscribers?
We knew that we were going to have to establish direct relationships with our digital subscribers. And it’s a challenging ask, right? I mean, people have spent decades reading this stuff for free, and now we’re asking them to pay for it. That’s not the most compelling value proposition at face value.
But I think one of the reasons why we’ve been so successful so far is that we’re really emphasizing this idea of membership, as opposed to simple access to content. We’re all much more conscious about community these days. In the past, for example, our events series was sort of a proxy for community.
Right. Fortune is famous for its conferences. How did they play into your thinking about community?
We traditionally host a number of high-profile events throughout the year like the CEO Initiative, Brainstorm Tech, the Most Powerful Women Summit and the Global Forum. And we ran them like straightforward events — we asked specific people to come, but we also charged them for admission, right? Ticket sales really dictated the relative success or failure of a given event.
But then we found out something pretty amazing. We found that while many of our invited guests couldn’t come because of scheduling difficulties, they’d pay us anyway! Why? Here’s what most of them told us: “I can’t make it this year, but I want to stay involved with this group. I want to support this group. It’s a really amazing community.”
Count me in as one of those! I can’t make it every year, but I never thought it should be about one-off tickets, so much as offering ongoing access to this really interesting group of people.
That’s right. It was a huge wake-up call for us. There’s a big difference between attending a random event, and being part of a community. So we pivoted towards a membership approach that includes access to certain benefits and events, with community and network opportunities prevalent throughout. And so we rapidly turned from a magazine that hosts business events on the side, into a kind of business community with a magazine on the side! Our events turned into 40% of our revenue and twice that as a percentage of our profits.
And then came the pandemic! How did your events team adjust to this new virtual world?
If you had asked myself or anyone on my team back in March whether we could replicate our live events with virtual ones, I would have been very skeptical — perhaps we would get the same numbers, but the engagement wouldn’t be there, and I doubt the sponsors would be there either. Well, that hasn’t been the case. We’ve done forty events since the pandemic started, and the participation, dialogue and sponsor engagement has all been through the roof. Much higher than I would have ever imagined.
I mean, we tend to host events at really nice places like Aspen and Lake Como, but you still have to get there, right? We just wrapped our Brainstorm Health Conference, and we had the CEO of virtually every big pharmaceutical company in the country speak over a three hour period. And there was a lot of online interaction — it kind of reminded me of the early days of Twitter, when it was much easier to kick off a conversation with a well-known person. You just wouldn’t be able to pull something like that off at a fancy resort in real-time.
Your new Fortune CONNECT service, which you announced a couple of weeks ago, seems to be synthesizing all these ideas. Can you tell me a little bit more about it?
Sure. The goal of Fortune CONNECT is to connect leaders with weekly programming that focuses on purpose-driven business, stakeholder capitalism and inclusive leadership. It costs $2,500 a year, and to start we’ll provide access to an online library of conference content and a weekly newsletter. A few weeks into October, we’ll roll out virtual meet-ups, participatory events, and “sprints,” which will be condensed lessons of important topics. Essentially we’re scaling the experience of our live events for a much broader group of executives.
The media analyst Ken Doctor has a great phrase for all the innovation happening in the newspaper industry right now: “companies formerly known as newspapers.” Has Fortune become a company formerly known as a magazine?
In some ways, I suppose. But it all starts with the journalism. To build a strong community, you need to be responding to the same set of facts.
Amen. Thanks Alan!
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