Jim Lanzone on bringing 'sizzle' to CBS Interactive

Faith Merino · September 29, 2011 · Short URL: https://vator.tv/n/1fa4

President of CBS Interactive sits down for a fireside chat with Bambi Francisco at Vator Splash

 Jim Lanzone, President of CBS Interactive and former CEO of Clicker (which was recently acquired by CBS), was the first act to take the stage at Vator Splash.  In Geoff Yang's opening remarks, he characterized Lanzone as a "pop culture savant who knows more about music and movies than a 16-year-old girl on MySpace."

Bambi and Jim sat down for a cozy fireside chat and Bambi kicked things off with a question about Clicker: "Why did CBS buy it."

"I hit on this idea with Dave Goldberg (of SurveyMonkey)...television was going online and the future of TV was going to be more like a search engine--when it's on, where you can find it, whether there's a subscription. We raised from Benchmark and spent a year building it, and unlike a lot of startups where there's a lot of 'pivoting,' we built the exact product that we wanted, which is exactly how you will want TV in the future."

In short, Clicker raised $19 million and sold in 18 months.

Bambi pointed out the biggest oddity of the Clicker story--most entrepreneurs don't start a company, sell 18 months later, and then become the president of the company that acquired them. 

"After CES last year, we started getting a lot of interest," said Lanzone. "CBS had the belief in owning the TV Guide of the next 50 years, that would be a strategic asset.  It's an interesting opportunity to merge Clicker and TVGuide.com for discovering the content on the Web."

Before Clicker, Lanzone started eTour.com, which he described as an early Web 1.0 version of StumbleUpon, during which he had the opportunity to sell for "hundreds of thousands of dollars" but decided to go the IPO route instead.  "We had $8 million in revenue...We signed a ten-year lease on a building in downtown Atlanta--all the things you're not supposed to do."

His Internet background is so extensive that Brian Norgard recently called Lanzone 110 in Internet years.

Among the other lessons he discussed was his time with Ask.com, where he admitted he "over-monetized." 

"It wasn't a great user-experience, and search didn't have a business model yet.  We then switched to Google and realized 'shit, we can make a lot of money off of this!' So we went to town and put out more ads...we tracked every click, every piece of data on the site, but our users didn't come back very often. What we realized was, there was a difference between optimization and maximization of revenue."

With optimization, you make as much money at a certain as you can while keeping your users.

So what changes is he making at CBS Interactive?  He's bringing "sizzle."  How?  Through great design.  CBS.com was the first page he wanted his team to tackle.  And then there's the elephant in the room: Hulu. "That's a lot of work strategically to figure out what we're doing there...the problem is that when you're selling, you're selling something someone is going to use to compete with your site.  The strategy of CBS has been premium content, such as CNET, and video is where that's headed."

"Let's talk about new media and how you can make it in this business," said Bambi. "Demand Media is down 65%, Yahoo is flatlining, how do you make a media site that people like?"

"CBS has been number one in media stock," said Lanzone.  "CBS has not been all over the place.  The farthest they'd get away from traditional content is billboards.  The companies you mention are Web only...I think Yahoo has a lot of potential.  I think there's a difference: they're a portal and at some point they need to embrace that.  They're still the second-ranked search engine. At the end of the day, you see what happens when you don't invest in product."

"Should Yahoo and AOL merge?" asked Bambi.

"AOL's challenge is that it's been in dial-up...it has a good brand now, it's the inverse of some of the brands I've inherited, where they just need some more sizzle.  As for merging...it's probably not their first option."

What's his opinion on the Comcast/NBC merger?  "CBS buying Clicker is the hobo's version of Comcast buying NBC."

What types of acquisitions is he looking to make?

Five divisions: news, sports, entertainment, gaming, and international. "We're not just going to throw money around, but those are the five areas that we're looking to grow in.  it either has to be a strategic asset that you need or it has traffic...it's not a question of what kind of companies we whether they fit in the categories we're looking to fill."

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