CMO 2.0 Conversation with Susan Lavington, Senior Vice President of Marketing at USA Today

Written by on April 15, 2009 – 2:48 pm -

Susan LavingtonAnother great CMO 2.0 Conversation – this time with Susan Lavington, the SVP of Marketing at USA Today. It’s always fun to talk with someone who is passionate about her job. In this case, being the head of marketing at USA Today was a dream come through for Susan so there was plenty of passion in this conversation.

We set some context by talking about Susan’s personal journey on her way to become head of marketing at USA Today, the changes she had seen the industry and her profession undergo over the years, and by looking at her current responsibilities as head of marketing.

USA Today seems to be weathering the storm that is currently hitting the newspaper industry better than others (they are actually growing circulation) in part by having been designed from the ground up to be internet compatible – small bite sized articles, quick reads, and color pictures. They also benefited from never relying on classified ad revenue.

They went “digital” early on and after a false start they developed a very rich online experience for their readers. Unlike many other publishers, they seem to try to put the user at the center of the online experience and not the content – although as with any community both content and members/readers form a virtuous circle. One thing that I had not thought about is how hard it is for a publishing company to develop a product development mindset. In traditional publishing there is no such thing as a beta product – you work really hard to deliver the best product, every day. But when you start having online offerings, you need to think like a traditional product development company – which features will you prioritize over others, how will you test the product, how long will you be in beta, etc.

By going digital and social, they were able to do two things differently from a market segmentation point of view. First they were able to address market niches that they knew they had but could not effectively serve through their print product, e.g., cruising families with kids. Second, they were able to uncover tribes that traditional market segmentation had not exposed, e.g., the mixed martial arts community or the gaming community.

It was interesting to hear Susan talk about consumers all the time. On the one hand you would expect nothing less from a head of marketing, but on the other hand, and for a newspaper whose slogan is “capture the conversation of the nation,” you know that the content side of the house does not think of them as consumers. Susan talked about how those creative tensions always get resolved by going back to their original mission.

Other interesting topics that we covered include:

  • How the half-life of news poses interesting challenges in how to recommend popular content to community members – some content becomes stale overnight while other content is very much evergreen.
  • The changing expectations of their advertisers and the increasing need for USA Today to do research as part of their offering so they can come back with additional metrics.
  • The shift from “we bring the audience and you bring the creative and if it does not work it’s your fault”  attitude that newspapers had for years to that of a true partnership – “if it doesn’t work it’s our collective problem”
  • How the marketing culture changed over the years and how the skillset that she is looking for in marketing hires has changed – flexibility over specialization, i.e., you do not know what tomorrow will bring.

You can listen to the podcast below, and in the near future we will actually start posting transcripts from the interview.


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