CMO interview: How Nine is tapping audience data for advertising, engagement and content innovation

Nine chief digital and marketing officer, Alex Parsons, discussed the media owner's digital and data strategy, rebranding efforts, and the commercial impetus driving modern marketing leadership

Alex Parsons
Alex Parsons

The changing nature of digital accountability

Early in his career, Parsons worked in the UK for Ernst & Young in Web services, before returning to Australia to head up product for eBay’s fledgling local subsidiary. After working for Telstra’s Sensis division for a year, Parsons joined ninemsn, where he headed up product and marketing. He then spent two years running subsidiary, RateCity, before taking up the chief digital and marketing officer role at Nine Entertainment Company in 2014.

He might have ‘digital’ in his title, but Parson says digital is fast becoming a capability every role and business unit needs to have.

“When I came back [to Nine], we had just exited the joint venture, and Nine needed to build out its digital presence in an owned and operated fashion. It was important at the time to have a digital leader to drive that transition, integration and strategy,” he says.

“But I do think over time that the term ‘digital’ almost becomes a misnomer. Over the last year, we’ve honed in on our company strategy, which is create great content, distribute it broadly, and engage audience and advertisers. That’s about being agnostic in our distribution.

“Clearly, the most minutes of audio visual content consumed are via the TV set today, and it will be for a long time. But we want to offer people choice.”

Parsons points to the latest series of Married at First Sight as an example of how content consumption is crossing over channels. In its shareholder results, Nine highlighted the program as one of its best-performing in the first half of 2017, underpinning 13 per cent growth in 24-54 year-old audiences for the group over the same period last year.

“We have been pleased with the consumption of that piece of content across all devices, not only TV,” he says. “So will the role of digital exist into the long term? I don’t know. Perhaps part of my role is to make that word in my title redundant over time, so everyone, by virtue of what we do, has digital as part of what they do every day.

“I don’t think businesses can afford in the future to think of digital separately and differently.”

Rebranding strategy

It’s this need to offer an integrated content proposition that ultimately drove the decision to rebrand all digital under the Nine masthead last year.

“Nine has such a great brand awareness, and it resonates really strongly with broader Australia,” Parsons comments. “The trust, positive sentiment and attitude towards the brand is quite strong.

“We could have called it [the online offering] something completely new. However, when you think about our strategy, there really only was one answer, and it had to be leveraging that Nine brand Australians have grown up with. Over time, a brand that’s synonymous with TV will be synonymous with great audio visual content, and that should be delivered anywhere.”

Nine’s wider ambition is to redefine TV, which Parsons says is about great audio visual content, distributed broadly. He admits this makes the competitive landscape both broad and convoluted.

“With our 9Honey [lifestyle] business for instance, our competitors are traditional print publications, predominantly magazines, as well as new online competitors, plus TV content and lifestyle shows on TV,” he says. “When I think about our 6pm bulletin news, we see competitors as 7, 10, ABC and SBS. But for online news, it’s just as likely to be the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Daily Telegraph. Then I think about the entire piece and entire proposition is not only Fairfax, News, Seven Ten and ABC, it’s also increasingly the global technology platforms of YouTube and Facebook.

“You really need to consider the context of that entire operating environment, and that adds complexity. But in this day and age, that comes with the territory. You have to be able to think of different competitors at different times and in different terms in order to execute a strategy that’s successful.”

What’s helping is clarity in Nine’s content strategy, Parsons says, which revolves around building a leadership position in four areas: News, sports, lifestyle and video on-demand.

“The Nine news brand, as a news brand, is the most consumed news brand in Australia. We want to further develop and fuel that to increase that position,” he says. “Sport is also incredibly important to us, and that’s different from an audio visual broadcast compared to what we do digitally. In broadcast, we’re strong in Cricket, NRL, Netball and the AFL, whereas Wide World of Sports online has to be strong across all sports.”

Then there’s lifestyle. Nine launched the 9Honey umbrella brand in 2015 originally as a fashion pillar, then extended the brand proposition last year across all lifestyle properties. Underneath this, individual category brands cover different topics, such as 9Elsewhere for travel, and 9Kitchen for food.

“That’s an area where we believe we can develop a strong online proposition but also extend that up through the TV medium. You will have seen recent things around Married Around First Sight and 9Honey, and increased integration across mediums,” he says. “That’s us teasing around the edging and starting to push that stuff through. We’re excited about what we can do there.”

Having 9Honey as an umbrella term provides a central hub for all that content, while creating an opportunity for more lifestyle news, Parsons adds.

“Thirdly, from a commercial point of view, it gives us an ability to talk about lifestyle in one aggregated brand. You have seen some of our competitors moving in that direction as well,” he says.

Increasing personalisation

Moving forward, Parsons is looking at how Nine further personalises engagement. He expressed an interest in attitudinal segmentation – or “the why” – and how this can be married up with the rising reams of data being collected digitally.

“The question is how to align attitudinal segmentation back into the data mix and the why back into the what clearly and clinically,” he says. “We do need to go deeper than life stages, and that’s why I think attitudinal stuff will come back into the mix.

“The benefit of life stages and demos is they’re easily targetable. We just need to work a way to match and marry attitudes with demo and other segmentation in order to target attitudes.”

With up to 14 million users per month across Nine and Microsoft's network, getting personalisation down to a segment of one is impractical, Parsons says. “But we do want to get to a position of smaller segments and delivering the right message to the right people at the right time and on the right device,” he says.

“For instance, for someone coming to our business and consuming lifestyle content regularly, I’d like to surface more of the right lifestyle content.”

Parsons is also keen to better target the 9Now on-demand experience, noting consumer expectations are exceptionally high in this space thanks to Netflix and Stan services. “It’s how we actually do things people want to consume in a different way and put things in front of them that they want to consume based on their former interactions with our business,” he says.

Throughout all of this change, what keeps Parsons awake is the need to keep things simple and effective in the face of complexity.

“I can see businesses becoming so technically complex that they’re unable to operate. We have to adopt the right technologies but also remain simple,” he concludes.

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