Meet the new man at the MSN’s international helm

Digital Thought Leaders

Geoff SuttonMSN created the concept of the portal, and with a new man at the helm of their international business, the portal is changing again. Danny Meadows-Klue challenges Geoff Sutton on the future of portals, media, advertising and consumer connections.

Geoff Sutton is between planes in London when we catch up. With MSN UK since the get-go in the UK, his prize is leading their European business has been to have all MSN’s international markets brought under his wing. From Russia to Latin America, Brazil to China, Sutton will be seeing a lot more airmiles, and a lot more challenges in the new role.

We meet on the day the feud between Google and China boiled over to see Google’s Chinese service divert to Hong Kong and the war of words with the Chinese government reach the edge of IP address blocking. Sutton refuses to be drawn, but is clear about the importance of the BRIC markets, and after long periods in Russia to develop the business there is not shying away from the challenge.

“The markets are changing and so is the role of the portal in people’s everyday life. As MSN we need to know what our customers want, wherever they are in the world, and adapt our local strategies to fill that need.”

Breaking conventions

Sutton’s selection to head MSN’s international remit is a shrewd, but surprising choice: a non-American, respected heavyweight journalist, known for with a candid and pragmatic outlook. But he’s no stranger to breaking convention - his move from the Daily Mail to MSN in the 97 confused the news media industry, yet the placement of a content guy at the heart of the portal proved critical in building the foundations of MSN’s role as an aggregator and gateway.

“To me, it was always clear that the internet would be the next way that information would be shared”, he explains, “and breaking conventions has been key to building what’s needed on the web rather than copying offline media.”

“Soon after I set up the newsroom at MSN in London we were faced with a general election and the reporting challenges of a dotcom pureplay. ‘Decision 97’ was our first foray into content and election coverage and helped us learn what people wanted online, and why. There’s a responsiveness to the content and publishing that in traditional media you never get a chance to see. On the web your audience tell you, with every click, what they like and what they don’t – an immediate feedback that in the right hands you craft into a content development strategy to reshape your products around customer needs.”

“When Diana died in 1997 we had tributes pouring into the site. We cut and paste these into the web page and when the US linked to us it became a torrent of tributes and stories, overwhelming us. We published every single one: it was a massive drain, but absolutely the best thing we ever did.” This was early social media, before the language to describe it had been formed.

“There’s a different culture in this space and that’s where most traditional media fall over. There’s a type of exponential growth that’s changing the nature of people’s expectations.”

For Sutton it’s partly a generational shift, and therein lies a challenge for the broad-based appeal portals need to retain. “1% of 70 yearolds name the internet as the first place for news while over 20% of 17 yearolds wouldn’t look anywhere else. The new generation have a different philosophy in social networking; there’s a different way of behaving and with 98% of 15-24 year olds now on a social network, all web media need to recognise this. These guys are never losing touch with their friends, never phoning each other to find out the news, never out of touch with who’s doing what and where they are doing it.”

Data points on the UK digital market

- 1 million BT wifi hotspots in the UK alone
- 67% of households have broadband
- 98% mobile phone ownership
- Globally there are now 1.7bn people online

MSN – advertising strategy and new ways for brands to connect

For web advertising what does this mean?

Sutton remembers the first ad that was ever sold on MSN. “Our new sales director came back from a meeting and burst in, beaming ‘I’ve just sold an ad’. We all looked at eachother in a mix of delight and confusion: the next question was ‘how do we actually publish it?!’ …and back in the world before ad servers that was far from an easy task.”

Since then MSN proved instrumental in fuelling the growth of the online ad markets, with pioneering research that would shape media neutral planning, a sophisticated strategy to fuel the trade associations so they could nurture cultural change in the markets, and high profile marketing to drive both viewers and brands to the portals.

“Display is a big advertising business online and inspite of the headlines of search engine growth that Bing is benefiting from, the big brands have realised that web display should be at the heart of media-neutral schedules.

On the massive migration in audiences as well as advertising revenues away from the newspaper industry Sutton came from, he’s sanguine, but clear that the traditional media companies are only part way through their restructuring. In the UK 53 local newspapers have closed since 2008, and 10,000 more jobs will go from regional press between now and 2012. Classified ad revenue has seen the largest falls with some nationals across Europe reporting collapses of over 90% in classified. That is an unrecoverable position, but Sutton doesn’t hold out much for the hopes of many titles: “The traditional revenue models in press simply don’t work. That means companies have to change the way they work. The old model in newspapers of separation between church and state - the gap between advertising and editorial – doesn’t survive the transition. Publishers have to innovate.”

“My biggest fear is not the future of newspapers but the future of journalism. When I was working at national newspapers we had the budgets to be able to investigate; today there isn’t that budget. You end up with a cheap common denominator of showbiz and football”.

MSN has pushed hard for taking online media into the integrated media schedule. “For online display advertising there are loads of great examples of branding, but the performance element remains high. Online needs to be seen as integrated, joined up in campaigns that run across multiple media”. That’s part of the reason MSN pushed the home page takeovers and skins – to create ad formats that deliver mass reach as well as impact or engagement.

One of the politically most awkward innovations has been online behavioural advertising, and while many web media pushed tracking and targeting of consumers to the point of fuelling the privacy advocates with a weekly stream of newspaper headlines, MSN has been much more cautious about when and how to introduce the technology.

“We always think of the consumer before new ad products are launched and it’s our role to balance the needs of the advertiser with what consumers are comfortable seeing. There is targeted advertising on MSN and some of the newer projects like the of work with Avatar and the studios behind it have created a new type of infotainment content. There a blur these days and the consumers really like that. With Avatar we ran ads on the home page, streams, tweets, search and a range of content tools both for the film and the DVD. Interestingly there’s strong re-targeting to that audience when the DVD comes out that ensures advertisers get a great deal and consumers only see advertising that’s relevant”. MSN is large enough to run its own behavioural retargeting and to respect consumers privacy settings along the way.

“James Cameron is coming in as a guest editor for MSN and that continues the thread of these conversations around Avatar. There’s a new model in marketing here, one that’s not about interruption but giving the audience what they really want and through several formats and techniques.”

Microsoft’s evolution

“At Microsoft it’s all about 3 screens and a cloud”, explains Sutton on where the business is changing. “While Microsoft in the past was focussed on the PC screen, today the focus is on all three screens and the cloud of connections and remote applications that are changing the way people communicate. We’re looking at how we change the licensing model and MSN and Windows Live are at the heart of that change. We’re champions of the new approach and as part of that are deliberately changing the way the whole organisation works.”

MSN has often been used to drive change within Microsoft and that process is now happening again.

MSN – and the future of portals

When I challenge Sutton whether the portal is dead, he’s confident in response.

“No, it’s dead good”. On the surface that might be what you’d expect to hear, but Sutton is clear that “there’s a continued importance in the role of the portal for consumers. It’s key to their experience online and their use of digital tools. At MSN we’ve started upping our investment in the portal, building the software and the content that they can access. There’s integrated search, hotmail, content and media all in one place that makes it easy for them to use and that’s why it keeps growing. There’s a stunning amount of competition, and on the one hand we have to beat hem, but at the same time it’s all about partnership.”

A while back when Sutton set the goal of overtaking Yahoo in the UK there was scepticism about the chances. Now the goals are moving again. “We’re a software company at our core, but we’re building a media business on top of that. We don’t own our own content or create our own content, so we have extensive partnerships that bring us together with classic media providers. With each business partner we look for the shape where the partners fit and build the right solutions from there.”

MSN has launched longform video in the UK with an extensive partnership with BBC Worldwide and All3Media using a model that can be monetised through advertising. “We’re a platform and we have a great video player; we’ll keep monetising and using the UK as a way of testing different models. In France M6 has been a TV channel partner for us and we’re working with them to take their content online. You watch the TV bulletin online and people send in their questions; Bing features in the TV show and there are audiences moving between all the channels. With Twitter, MSN now has deep relationships with managing content and traffic drivers, and their traditional competitor Yahoo has become aground breaking partnership” Uniting against common enemies as the stakes get higher

Future-gazing – what’s coming?

Here are Sutton’s predictions for 2015

- Explosive growth of video continues
- Everybody will have a Facebook profile but with more segmented access rights between business, family and friends
- Mobile internet will overtake desktop
- Dramatic growth in Cloud computing services with interrelated big shifts in the mobility of access

New devices to read the news will mainstream: Kindle, the eReader and the iPad. I’m really excited by these and the way content will have to adapt is incredible

Sutton is clear that the restructuring of the media industry is only part way through. “There will be more big winners and big losers. Some content owners will realise what they have and some won’t. But for the ones that do, we’ll be there to help them.”

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