5Qs with… Conal Byrne of Discovery Digital Media

/ Sep 9, 2013

Conal Byrne 2

There are a lot of executives (both from new media and traditional media) who can talk at length about creating content for the web, and becoming successful at it. There are very few who come from traditional media, learn the way this new world works, and are able to successfully implement content strategies based on what they have learned. Conal Byrne, the vice president of Discovery Digital Media and editor-in-chief at HowStuffWorks.com, is one of them. His responsibilities include overseeing and directing an editorial team of 50 editors/writers and 100 contributing writers for Discovery’s portfolio of websites, as well as developing original programming tied to the ever-growing HowStuffWorks brand. Check out our Q&A with him below, in which he dishes on expanding several Discovery properties to video and working at a big media company that seems to increasingly be, as he confirms, a “video-first” company.

At Discovery, you’ve overseen the expansion of the “HowStuffWorks” blogs and podcasts into video. Are there different rules governing blogging and podcasting when compared to creating original video programming?

Our goal was to take HowStuffWorks — especially its sub “Stuff” brands and personalities — and spread it across as many different content types and platforms as possible. Fortunately, we haven’t found a platform that our “stuff” doesn’t work on yet — from podcasts to blogs to video.

Part of our success is that we make it a point to cater our content to the platform for which it is being produced. For example, podcasting is a very personal medium — almost more than any other — and our audiences should feel like they’re in the room with our hosts. By including their comments and questions, connecting with them personally through social media and more, our hosts are building relationships with their audiences. Meanwhile, blogging is a little more of a fast and furious medium, with a higher volume of output — sometimes researched and sometimes stream of conscious. When it comes to video, the web hasn’t fully cracked the code on what defines superior programming yet. What we do know is that form and matter have to meet and the visuals need to be as rich and creative as the content. Josh and Chuck of “Stuff You Should Know” do a great job of this on their new YouTube channel.

With the “Stuff” series, you’re also trying to create and grow new video talent. How did you pick the hosts of the different series/channels? What goes into ensuring that the talent you have will find an audience online? How do you and Discovery Digital support these efforts?

We started in our own backyard and picked a lot of our video talent from a rich pool of successful podcast talent. We’re looking for people who can walk the walk — experts in their field. “CarStuff,” for example, has a host who is building a car from scratch in his garage. The ultimate litmus test is whether or not our hosts are people you’d want to sit and have coffee or beer with for two hours. We’re fortunate to have a lot of great personalities that our audiences love to spend time with week after week.

In terms of promotion, we are fortunate in that we can tap into a full arsenal as we launch new series – from cross-promotion and linking from established communities to social media and PR, we know that great content is the key but that you have to go introduce yourself to your future audience. As series grow and expand across platforms, we have increasingly launched dedicated websites, like StuffYouShouldKnow.com.

Last year, Discovery extended the Discovery News brand into original online video…

DiscoveryNews.com was launched in 1998 as a sci-tech journalism website and has been flourishing ever since — especially in the past few years as we’ve seen the advent of a new type of science fan online. Over time it became clear that in order to keep up with our audience and media trends that the site wasn’t complete without a video component. When Revision3 came into the family last year, taking their expertise and matching it with our powerful brand was the next step.

Since launching “DNews” in December 2012, we have attracted nearly 200,000 YouTube subscribers and we just passed 20 million views on our website. Video is now an anchor of the DiscoveryNews.com experience now and you’ll see original videos created for and paired with our top stories.

The world provides a seemingly limitless source of topics for all of our original video series. “DNews” has carved out a niche by taking any topic of the day — from the Red Bull Stratos jump and the search for Amelia Earhart’s plane to Elon Musk’s Hyperloop — and looking at the world through a sci-tech lens.

How often do you work with Discovery’s on-air producers to create multi-platform content and integrations? Can you provide us with a couple of examples?

Our Digital Media team is fully integrated with our linear TV business. Whether engaging on social or developing original web series that complement our viewers favorite network shows, we are always looking for opportunities to deepen our relationship with viewers and super-serve them. When we see a tent pole events like Discovery’s Skywire Live and Shark Week, we have the opportunity to fire up all the engines — from real-time tweets on air and socially infused programming, like “Shark After Dark,” to a live Shark Cam and underwater Google+ Hangout. Our viewers don’t stop being fans when the premieres are over, and it is our role to feed their fandom year-round.

How do you define success?

Most simply, audience and engagement. Additionally, we are increasingly applying a new metric: pushing boundaries. By taking big swings we learn and discover the handful of ideas that will crush it and take things to a new level for our audiences and partners.

What goals do you have for your Discovery Digital team over the next 12 months?

Our collective goal at Discovery is to be the number one non-fiction media and video company across all screens. A big component of that is continuing to be a leader and innovator in the multi-platform space. From experimenting with formats that have been successful outside the nonfiction space to launching robust slates of original online programming across our brands, we have only just scratched the surface.

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