5 Questions with… Todd Unger of Daily Racing Form

Todd Unger is the Chief Digital Officer at Daily Racing Form, the authoritative source on thoroughbred horse racing since 1894.

Question 1: How do you define digital strategy?

“For me, digital strategy is about engineering step-level growth and transformation, and ensuring that Daily Racing Form, a 120-year-old brand, is relevant and vital for another century.

Our digital strategy didn’t start with product or technology. It started with the consumer. The transformation occurred when we stopped thinking about ‘readers’ and ‘users’ and started thinking about our audience as ‘players’. That led us to evolve from a news provider to a service that helps people play better. It’s something we’re passionate about, uniquely qualified to do, and is a service players will pay for. The digital platform enabled us to achieve this vision.

Four years ago, we had an online news site (drf.com), a steady online data business, and a homegrown email system. Flash forward to today: our digital revenues and contribution have doubled, and we’ve transformed from an ‘online newspaper’ to a mobile, game-centric digital service for horse players with premium content, a wagering platform, paid tournaments, proprietary digital tools, a bigger subscription data business, and a proven online advertising platform. All powered by an underlying CRM/marketing automation system which allows us to understand the full breadth of our customers’ activity.

That’s the result of a digital strategy that aligned product, technology, marketing, programming, sales and our content resources on a path toward realizing an expanded vision of what we could deliver to players and the racing industry.”

Question 2: What are the three most significant trends that will define 2014?

“I’ve got an unfair advantage now that 2014 is almost over, so I’ll skip some of the more obvious ones for three significant trends in digital media:

1. Growth Hacking: We’ve never had more tools at our disposal to quantify and optimize our marketing efforts. In fact, there are more tools now than hands to use them!  But growth hacking is more than doggedly measuring and optimizing every aspect of your funnel—it’s about building acquisition and retention drivers right into your products. You don’t have to be a start-up to benefit from growth hacking either. We’re a 120-year-old company using these techniques, and the terminology and practices are definitely going mainstream. Kudos to the folks at GrowthHackers.com for setting up a place where growth hackers can share what they’re learning with each other.

Despite the array of available marketing technology, however, you can’t optimize your way to a consumer insight—there’s just no substitute for good-old fashioned consumer product marketing and research, which brings me to…

2. Consumer, Not Content, is King: The consumer rules the digital-first future. If publishers want to survive, they need to act more like P&G than the New York Times. Move past outdated divides like ‘Church and State’ and start acting like one company, where everyone is a ‘business person’. Define a real consumer mission that goes beyond ‘creating great content’ and start building consumer subscription services (one of my favorite terms of the year:  the ‘Subscription Economy‘).

3. Content Marketing: I was pretty surprised by a statistic I heard at an eConsultancy roundtable recently: the top tier of B2C Global 1000 advertisers reported that 20% of their media spending was already going to content marketing, and they expected that share to grow by 2X in the near-to-medium term. Wow. Even if it doesn’t grow to that extent, it still points to a fundamentally different vision of marketing—one that’s not based on interrupting people’s entertainment experiences, but on creating a broader, more service-oriented relationship with consumers. And it means even more competition for consumers’ attention and mind space.”

Question 3: What kind of mobile devices do you have and what are your 3 favorite apps?

“I’m eagerly awaiting the arrival of my iPhone 6 Plus. Remains to be seen how much I’ll want to use my iPad after I get it.

Now that I don’t spend all my free time getting lost, eating at bad restaurants or looking for Starbucks, I spend a lot of time on social apps. That’s why I’m crushing hard right now on Buffer, both as an app and company. There’s a lot of consumer insight built into their app, which lets you share selectively across social networks. They even provide a set of curated tweets for you to use, so you can avoid sinking to inspirational quotes. But they’ve also turned their company’s culture of transparency into a marketing tool and inspiration for other start ups. That’s cool.”

Question 4: What do you think of the emergence of the Chief Digital Officer role?

“I think it’s brilliant, of course!

Really, I think it makes great sense for companies trying to accelerate their understanding and adoption of digital technology, permeate digital thinking throughout the company, and grow digital businesses and revenues fast. At both the strategic and operational levels, it also makes sense because you want to build a common digital infrastructure—the technology, team and culture—onto which you can bolt new digital businesses.

I’ve read about a lot of ‘chiefs’ lately, and you certainly don’t want people tripping over each other or fighting for turf. The key is organizing to serve the consumer better and drive business results.  What works well for our company—having a CDO who leads, operates and grows digital businesses—may not make sense for a consumer products company. But it’s likely you need a leader with that competency in your organization—just put them in a place where they can drive change and results.

To those who think this is a transitional role—we’ll see. Having been in the digital business for 15 years, one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that it’s not getting any simpler, and the rate of change will increase. I think the harder thing will be to find people who have a command of the skills that make a great CDO—product, marketing, technology, strategy, management and leadership.”

Question 5: What advice do you have for aspiring digital professionals? 

1. “Build your skills early. I’m hiring people out of college who’ve already run their own digital businesses. My 16 year-old daughter is a coder and designing her own app. Don’t wait to start building your resume and portfolio—walk into the interview with a track record.

2. Go to a Lean Start-Up Camp. I was an observer at a Lean Start-Up Machine weekend a couple years ago and walked out a convert. The key to succeeding in this environment is learning and moving fast without blowing a ton of money and resources, and the Lean Start-Up approach and tools are crucial.

3. Become a growth hacker. Whether you’re interested in digital marketing or product development, study growth hacking principles and case studies. It’s energizing to see how start-ups have created their growth engines, even if you don’t work at a start-up. Read Start-Up Growth Engines by Sean Ellis (@seanellis) and Morgan Brown (@morganb), and their upcoming book, Unlocking Growth. Hang out on the GrowthHackers.com site and see what people are learning.

4. Always be learning. The digital mentality is all about staying out front, so you should always be in ‘learning mode’ in all aspects of your life, not just those that tie directly to your career or technology. Then turn what you’re learning into ‘doing’ through constant experimentation.

5. Start meditating. One of the best things I learned to do over the past year was how to meditate, and it’s made an incredible difference—not just in terms of stress relief, but also in making this the most creative year of my life.”


For more information about Todd Unger, follow him on Twitter (@toddunger), check him out on LinkedIn, and visit Daily Racing Form

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