Bob Guccione Jr. is on a wanderlust. He calls it Wonderlust, but the journey is much more than an edgy new travel site he launched a couple of years ago. It has been a trip down digital’s rabbit hole for one of the media industry’s most iconic magazine editors and publishers, as he once again tries to create a new brand of consumer journalism based on the fundamentals of storytelling, humor and personality-driven entertainment.
During our conversation, Guccione dismisses the founding crop of digital native journalism as “soulless” and lacking what inspires us as people -- in the case of Wonderlust -- around the topic of travel, exploration and experiences. He rattles off examples like its current “Wonderlust 100,” “10 Travel Questions With Bill Maher,” and his personal review of Mondo X, “the best restaurant in Italy.”
Bob Guccione Jr.: Before digital media, we communicated with the sense that we are who we are. Now we are far more sensitive to the environment around us and where we are in the pecking order of life, and treat social media as if it is going to change our position. If we wanted to get further ahead in life, we worked harder to get there. The last thing any of us would have thought of was to take more pictures of ourselves.
That natural human evolution is gone. It’s lost in the social media world, because now it’s a monsoon of monologues that looks like more dialogue, but is actually less. Because it’s just monologues butting up against other monologues. The solution to natural life evolution is not to take more pictures of yourself.
MediaPost: That’s a good starting point. How does a native analog media/consumer publishing pioneer wake up in the world of this and make sense of it and bring something to life within it? What have been your challenges and revelations?
Guccione: The first answer is, fundamentally nothing is different. The role of a media creator still is to tell a story. And you can look anywhere in the spectrum -- from bass fishing to the edge of science and everywhere in between. Whether it is The Atlantic, The Wine Spectator or the Shopper’s Guide at Walmart, you’ve got to tell a story. We relate to each other and everything in the world through stories. So that has not changed.
Secondly, when I entered this new digital universe, I was oblivious. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, which enabled me to look at things very differently than people have been. I find that in digital media, with all the latitude that is possible, most people ironically are on very simple, singular trend tracks. Very orthodox. Very crowd mentality. Everyone thinks the same way. It’s only influencers. It’s only clickbait. It’s only social marketing. It’s only newsletters. And everybody trundles along on this train into the dark and we hope we’re going to arrive somewhere we want to go.
I think the thing that will ultimately shape digital media is the same thing that ultimately shaped all other media after about 20 years of a novelty period, whether it was radio and marching or orchestra music, and now it’s tens of thousands of channels and specific niches. Or television, which began with soap operas on three channels. Or magazines, which began with the Farmer’s Almanac, and then Time magazine was a revelation.
The thing that drives each medium is doing storytelling well. Interestingly, in the arc I’m describing, we’re not yet at the point where that is the most recognized and important aspect of media creation. But I feel we are getting close to that point.
If you look at all the signs that are going on now -- look at all the anxiety around The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed or Vice -- these massive metropolises -- their monthly uniques are larger than the populations of most of the nations in the world -- and yet they are struggling because ultimately they are rootless. There’s no root in the ground with their reader. It’s an ephemeral, peripheral interaction, of millions and millions of glancing blows.
What’s lacking is the connection between reader and media creator. It’s that connection that makes the reader want to go there. And although it sounds counterintuitive to say this about a site that has hundreds of millions of uniques that they don’t have this connection with the reader, it’s because it is ephemeral.
I was always guided by the sense that if you told stories well, people would eventually stick with you. They’d come around again, because they want more of those stories. Having a personality is unique and cannot be replicated or coopted by anyone else. Your voice is your voice and your humor is your humor. And I think those are the things that create a bond with the reader.
So I stumbled into this not knowing, but believing implicitly in this. I think we are two to three years away from that becoming the guiding current. But it’s getting there.
And I’ll give you another sign of that, which is that the top-tier advertisers are moving away from programmatic. Now, I’m not saying that Procter & Gamble or Johnson & Johnson are going to turn away from it, but there’s a leading edge in the luxury field that is beginning to say, "I don’t think this is going to help us." How does programmatic help Tiffany? How does it help Genesis cars get established?
MediaPost: Doesn’t programmatic help marketers identify the audience they want to reach?
Guccione: I would counter that. Think about the mental environment of the person seeing the content or the ad. There’s a hotel I love in St. Maarten called “La Samanna.” It’s probably my favorite in the world. And I was reading the soccer scores on The Guardian and this ad for “La Samanna” popped up and I went right past it to get the soccer results. But then when I was looking at the travel sites, which I do every day, “La Samanna” came up and I went, “Oh,” and I clicked on the ad and watched the video for ten minutes, because my head was in that space and it appealed to me. Yet it had no pull when I wasn’t in that head space. But the second my head was in the travel space, I was drawn to it.
And I don’t think we talk enough about that. It’s not just the message. The message can be brilliant, but it’s when we are thinking about that kind of thing that it’s relevant. And the environment in which a message appears is every bit as important as reaching that person.
MediaPost: Just to respond, programmatic is just a tool and you can get all those attributes if you want to understand what the mindset is at that moment in time. The only difference with programmatic is you can get that attribute independent of the editorial environment someone happens to be in at that moment.
And that’s probably the biggest difference about the world today vs. the one you come out of, which is that the editorial environment was what brought the audience there and it was all contextual. And it was the rub-off of that great editorial storytelling brand that advertiser and agency were buying. Today, you could be buying that by using contextual weights in programmatic. There are many ways to use programmatic, and a lot of people us it badly.
Guccione: But most people are not doing it well and they are wasting their impressions. I truly believe it does really matter what somebody’s state of mind is at that time. I mean, why do we have travel sites? It’s because they inspire people. They may not go on the trip that’s being written about, but it’s aspirational.
And I think that gets lost, that it actually matters where an advertiser presents itself in the same way it matters how a person presents themselves at a cocktail party or a picnic. A person who shows up at a cocktail party in picnic attire looks out of place and doesn’t appeal to other people there. I think that has more weight than we realize.
The other big problem with digital media is that it’s new, so even the smartest minds in it are somewhat unsure what form it really takes. I think we all look at it and we don’t really know where we are in it. We’re not entirely sure where this acceleration will settle, whereas I joined the print world when it was utterly mature and everyone knew what it was and how it worked. There were fringe elements of innovation, but essentially it was solid and well established.
The digital world is not solid and established. We tend to look at whatever is going on at the moment and say, “That is stone masonry. That is meaningful.” But it’s not. We have to look at people and understand how they consume information. And that’s through narrative. Very rarely is it through the aggregation of data.
Coincidentally, I like to say the very first story ever told is a travel story. It had to be. Somebody came back to a cave and said to the other people in the cave, “Go there, there’s food.”
MediaPost: Is that a piece you’re developing for Wonderlust?
Guccione: (Laughs) I’m projecting that the first story every told is a travel story, I'm not that old! "Let’s go here, and not go there.” And that’s how fundamental narrative storytelling is. It’s primal. And I think that is essential to media, so that’s where I started with Wonderlust, rather than the technology. But most everyone else seems to be gathered around that campfire, the technological one. And I say to them that the pace at which technology is changing means it will continue to change, so why say “This is it!” Why don’t we just wait until dawn, because it will be light and we’ll be able to see and our campfire will not be as important.
Storytelling is essential, but imagination is equally part of that equation. If you have an imagination and somebody hands you the palette of the digital universe, wow, you can do all kinds of things. So I’m beginning by telling some very fundamental stories with Wonderlust. Ones that are fun. Fun is very important, because we’re really in the entertainment industry.
But I also look at it as, “Why can’t we also be in the travel services business?” Not as an online travel agency, but we can be involved in travel services by offering tours and concierge services and curated information packets that are helpful for people who are traveling. I’d like to get into hospitality and launch a boutique hotel chain called Wonderlust.
To me, this is not at odds with being a new media company. It actually is the new media.
MediaPost: One of the most interesting parts about covering media today is how publishers are exploring new revenue models to offset the erosion of traditional advertising and subscription models to support journalism.
But let’s go back to your journey and what led up to this point for you. Back in the day when you started out in publishing, it was easier to break through, because even with all the magazines on newsstand, there was a finite amount of choice. And if you could raise enough capital to pay for a printing press and hire some great writers, you could publish some amazing stories, build an audience and attract lots of advertisers.
The problem we have today isn’t just technology, disruption and the fact that there’s no barrier to entry. It’s choice. In digital media, there is an infinite number of narratives people can choose from. Some of them are user-generated, but it’s all competing for people’s attention. How do you make Wonderlust relevant and indispensable in a sea of infinite choice?
Guccione: We’re already at the point where robots can write articles programmatically, so meaninglessness is taken care of. Meaningfulness is in a great minority and is a rarity. And the more generic crap that is out there, the more something of substance, integrity and authenticity becomes important.
The question is, who does it mean something to? If you’re Cartier, you sell a very unique product at prices that are not compromised. You’re not a used car dealer. So it is meaningful to Cartier that people find out about you in a place that they are stimulated enough to pay attention and an appropriate demographic. And not in a place where they are the opposite of stimulated, but are in fact overwhelmed by nonsense and data.
Look, if you want to know anything about anywhere in the world, you don’t need a single travel publication to find out about it. You can go to Google. However, when you go to Google you get every single thing about that place, which is not just overwhelming, but it’s impossible to find what you really want. The more that Google can give you, the more you need someone or something that can curate it for your sensibility as a reader. Whether it is Wonderlust, or Afar, or National Geographic, those are people who you’ve learned to trust.
The advertisers are very much in the same position. Why would you want to be pushing a product as distinct as Cartier or Lexus or Mercedes or a top-notch hotel chain into a place where people are snowblind and disinterested? You want to advertise in a place where people are not just paying attention, but are actually stimulated and inspired and excited.
When I was publishing Spin, I used to say advertisers could get more young people from Newsweek, but they’re not paying attention the way they are when they’re reading Spin. And I feel that way about all good publications. The reader feels like they are at home. And if you’re in that world, the reader is paying attention to you.
I actually think it’s a positive when more shit comes out. When there is more emptiness and more data, because when you have all the data, you actually have nothing of value. Obviously, people who are much smarter than I am will argue against that and say what they can do with the data. But I have this primal faith that people respond to a story. It’s important that media owners today have faith in themselves as storytellers.
There’s enough data about sports to sink a continent, but people go to ESPN and they go to the [The Players'] Tribune, because it is curated and interesting. That’s because they make their stories interesting. ESPN sometimes runs 12,000-word articles.
This doesn’t mean I’m ignoring the realities of the technological infrastructure. I’m learning fast, but media owners have to have faith in themselves and their ability to tell a story.
MediaPost: If the fundamentals you’re talking about are true, then the biggest challenge is aggregating an audience for the stories you have to tell. What have you learned from working with data and technology tools to help you build and audience?
Guccione: We’re probably still too young to know everything about our audience yet, because our audience is still congealing around us, but even still, I have learned that humor resonates. And I’ve learned that people will read longer articles. We have learned that we probably need to break the pages up on longer articles. But I’m more surprised to have learned that the objection isn’t the length of the story, as long as it’s interesting. We’ve run some very long stories, but the key is to be entertaining.
We also have little rubrics like our “Ten Travel Questions With Bill Maher,” or with Buzz Aldrin. These things work, because you kind of want to know what Bill Maher thinks of travel. You already know what he thinks about politics, but nobody really knows what he thinks about travel. And that’s entertaining.
I’m up against some interesting competitors, because they are big legacy publishers: Conde Nast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Travel & Leisure, even Afar. They’re all established print publishers with long, long reputations and histories and solid audiences, which they’ve migrated to digital.
We’re not in that league -- yet. But I think we’re already doing better editorially with more interesting and holistic views of travel. One reason is that our pieces always deal with human beings.
We have a creed at Wonderlust, which is “People first, buildings second.” It’s essential that every story be about the human condition, even if it’s just a throwaway, funny comment. It’s that little signal to a reader that we know you’re out there and that you’re a living, breathing human being.
MediaPost: It sounds like you believe these fundamental storytelling principles will still work -- that if you publish compelling content, you will find an audience for it and that over time you will attraction an advertising base for it.
Guccione: When I founded Spin and said it would compete with Rolling Stone, people literally laughed at me. The thought that this tiny little magazine was ever going to topple Rolling Stone and their monopoly of youth culture was ridiculous to them. But we did it with those fundamentals.
MediaPost: Well, print publishing proved it could support two or three or more players in a category, but today you have an infinite number of brands.
Guccione: But it will still support two or three or four excellent publishers. I don’t care about the infinite number, because no one goes past it. When I started Spin there were 90 music magazines and nobody I knew could ever name more than 10. But by the second year of our life, we were one of three that mattered. By the fourth year, there was only Rolling Stone and Spin that mattered.
One of my advisors said, “But now, it’s so hard vs. where the industry was” And I said, “That’s why we come in in the morning. That’s why we go to work! When did it stop being a competition? When did people in the media industry stop thinking it’s a competition?
MediaPost: But the real problem today isn’t simple competition. It’s the paradox of choice. We ran a story today based on some Nielsen data showing that the competition in e-commerce is two players: Amazon and “Everybody Else.” And after that, there is a long-tail of Walmart, Target, Chewy, Kroger’s, etc., etc. The story is that the biggest player in the digital marketplace is the aggregation of all these tiny players.
Guccione: I don’t expect to own everything. I don’t expect to own 20% of the market. I don’t expect to topple Expedia. Google deals in hundreds of billions of dollars in advertising. We do not look to compete with that.
What do we need to be wildly, wildly successful? Three million users? We’re going to just go through all that noise and get three million people. I know that it will take too long if we just wait for that to happen, but we are going to raise capital to do a variety of things, some of which I cannot talk about. But I want to raise money to spend on things like Outbrain, because to me, that is a solid, performing distribution channel.
MediaPost: So -- better ways to optimize and distribute your content?
Guccione: People will click on it and want to read more of what we have. Nobody will be fooled by hollow clickbait. If the article says, “Ten of the Most Interesting Restaurants in the World,” you click on that because you want to know what those restaurants are, but you don't next time if you are let down.
MediaPost: One of the problems is there is a lot of clickbait out there distributed by companies like Outbrain. How do you differentiate yourself from them?
Guccione: You differentiate yourself by being different. There is a lot of clickbait crap, but we’re not clickbait crap. And a smart reader will understand that.
When somebody clicks on one of our articles without knowing who we are, they will discover who we are and the next time it won’t be a leap of faith. So I want to spend a lot of money on things like Outbrain, because ultimately, they are putting editorial out in front of tens of millions of people. And yes -- I know it’s up against crap, but our reader is going to see ours as an interesting article.
Guccione in his office in Massachusetts, recovering from knee surgery.