It’s Not Digital First; It’s READER First!
Afew weeks ago I was asked by a reader of my article on disruption if there were any publishers actually thriving in today’s digital economy.
I have to admit I was taken aback just a bit because I didn’t have an answer on the tip of my tongue. Thriving is not a word you hear about newspaper and magazine publishers these days. And while some local newspapers have proven to be more resilient to the crisis caused by this decade’s technological and social advancements, too many national and international publications still seem to be taking cues from the proverbial ostrich, finding solace and comfort in the sand.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t publishers out there doing some things right. They may not be prancing around profits yet, but they’re showing more promise than many of their counterparts. What’s interesting is that each of them is playing the publishing game in their own unique way and seeing results that have other publishers shaking their heads.
FROM WASHED UP TO WATCH OUT!
General George S. Patton once said, “Success is how high you bounce when you hit bottom.” If I were to attribute that quote to a previously thriving publisher who took a digital nose dive, it would have to be The Washington Post. In its heyday, The Post had its fingers on the pulse of Capitol Hill, invoking fear and loathing from the politicians, lobbyists and policymakers that misconducted business within the hallowed halls of Congress. However, even with its enviable reputation in the news industry, the media icon was not immune to digital’s impact on print advertising, suffering a 44% drop in revenue in just six years.
Digital disruption was definitely a factor in the publication’s misfortunes, but it was the mantra of “local over national” and the executive decision to disconnect its new dot-com team from its content team that accelerated the publication on its downward spiral. By giving the dot-com tech team full reign over how it repurposed all of The Wash
ington Post’s print content on its free website, it became a parasite on the editorial content. There was no collaborative decision-making with respect to the selection or packaging of content or pricing models around it.
By sacrificing journalism for mismanaged digital expansion, the publisher missed out on new opportunities to grow reach and revenues through an integrated and collaborative newsroom.
Fortunately for The Post fans, just when the bottom was about to fall out, the publication was pulled from the ashes by an unlikely savior - tech tycoon, Jeff Bezos. Many thought it was a mismatched marriage, but two years later the franchise is now making naysayers sit back and wonder if technology leadership is the secret sauce to success in digital media, or just deep pockets.
2015 was a breakout year for The
Washington Post; it achieved yearon-year growth of digital traffic in Q1 that outpaced all other US publishers.
In March 2015 the publication’s website garnered over 596 million
page views and 52+ million unique visitors (18M outside the U.S.). It was breathing down the neck of The New
York Times’ flattening 57+ million.
In November its 66.9 million unique visitors edged out The New York
Times’ 65.8 million and a 59% increase in traffic in less than one year.
It’s all about audience
But when one looks at the direction Bezos is going with the new Post, it’s pretty evident that the current focus on audience growth (not revenues) is the key success factor in The Post’s strategic plan.
Under his ownership The Washington
Post is undergoing a disruptive transformation so it can focus on the recipe for success that made the Amazon Man billions: “Know your audience, so you can grow your audience”. Do that right by giving them “convenience at the right price” – the value proposition of Amazon.com for over 20 years.
The jury is still out on how/if the transformed Post will prosper, but one thing is for sure, the leadership principles that Bezos has banked on since his “garage days” will be part of the journey, “Leaders start with the customer and work backwards. They work vigorously to earn and keep customer trust. Although leaders pay attention to competitors, they obsess over customers.”
Quite possibly the most unlikely success story in an industry that prides itself on “quality journalism”, the Daily Mail could be the poster child for, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”
But let’s not trash the popular tabloid too fast. Sure, you won’t find too many Washington Post readers flipping the pages of the far-right rag on a regular basis, but the Daily Mail wasn’t designed for that audience. It is written specifically around the plight of the everyday British family and what affects their daily life – a successful formula that has since been replicated by the publisher in the US and Australia.
It reminds me of the hit TV show, Seinfeld, often described as “the show about
nothing”. Millions of fans flocked to watch the sitcom for 9 years because they shared an affinity to the characters and empathized with their day-to-day challenges, mishaps, adventures and hilarities.
The Daily Mail has a similar relationship with its audience; it connects at an emotional level with the lower-tomiddle class that’s not looking for serious journalism or to be educated; they just want to be titillated, entertained and sometimes shocked. And with the Daily
Mail, they get it all in spades!
So perhaps it’s no surprise that hundreds of millions of people worldwide continue to engage with a tabloid that is notorious for dubious content and its infamous online “sidebar of shame”.
Today, MailOnline (AKA DailyMail.com in US and Australia) is the world’s largest English-language newspaper website with 229 million monthly global unique visitors. It’s also in the envious position of having the 3rd largest digital audience in the United States, next to USA Today and The
New York Times. Over 22% of MailOnline readers come from the US.
To address the needs of an audience that craves naughty over newsworthy, the Daily
Mail became a master of clickbait long before BuzzFeed founder, Jonah Peretti, was even a sparkle in his mother’s eyes. It has huge budgets for defamation suits which allows it to err on the side of, well… errors, because scandal and sensationalism sell better than “just the facts, ma’am”. As a result, the Daily Mail issues more than its fair share of legal expunges and although it does publish corrections, they appear long after the damage is done; most readers never notice or care about them. People love the UK rag because it gives them what they want in print, but what about online? Here’s where the publisher really got it right. MailOnline is not just the printed edition in digital format. It’s its own product, with its own content, tailored for its own digital audiences. There are certainly similarities when it comes to serving tasty (or tasteless) tales to the masses, but, unlike most newspapers, much of MailOnline’s content is unique and not just rehashed articles from the tabloid. MailOnline is also not burdened with the baggage of having to be the savior of Daily Mail’s declining print profits. It’s a business in its own right with the freedom to innovate and experiment to grow audience and revenues in an unfettered digital market. It, unlike so many short-sighted publishers, also encourages engagement with and between readers, allowing them to comment on articles, vote in polls and to enter into lively, often raucous, debates. It’s not always pretty, but it’s paying dividends. MailOnline became profitable
in 2012 and enjoys a revenue growth of £16m ( US $24m) year-on-year. Its revenue projections for 2015 sit comfortably at £70m (US $106m), despite the pressures from social media, mobile and ad blockers. On the surface, the Daily Mail and The Washington Post look nothing alike. But look under the hood and you’ll discover they have one very important thing in common – they’re both all about audience.
SUCCESS YOUR WAY!
Okay, so you don’t have the deep pockets of The Washington Post and you’re not about to sacrifice journalist integrity to pander to the lowest common denominator like the Daily Mail. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful. But to thrive instead of just survive, you need to focus on “doing the right things” rather than “doing things right”.
Unfortunately, many publishers can’t seem to figure out what’s right for them. So instead of innovating to grow reach and revenues, they mimic what the likes of The Post and The New York Times are doing, just like lemmings diving off a cliff without the golden parachutes the Post and NYT have to save themselves.
They blindly erect paywalls without any thought on how they will impact their audience; they waste money hiring teams of techies (while downsizing their newsrooms) to build inferior apps and digital properties themselves, rather than partnering with experts; and they invest money they don’t have to launch products their audience doesn’t need
or want (think Apple Watch), just to prove that they are innovative. Meanwhile, they fret over falling finances instead of growing their most valuable asset – their audience.
Think back at some of the most successful digital companies in the world and what made them profitable.
Google built a massive audience through search and then monetized it with advertising
Facebook built a massive audience through social and then monetized it with advertising
Amazon built a massive audience by obsessing over the needs of its online book buyers
All three tech titans knew that the audience had to be the prime directive in their strategic plan.
The ABCs of Customer-Centric Success
With the competition for eyeballs being so fierce in today’s digital world, focusing on customers can’t just be one of your critical successful factors in your publishing playbook – it must be the primary focus of the entire organization, starting at the top.
Whether you’re a niche, local, national or global publisher, you already have an audience that reads your content. The more you know about them, the more you can engage them. The more you engage them, the more you can use them to engage others and grow your audience. The larger your audience, the more opportunities you have to monetize them.
ABC Know your audience intimately
Start with some of the basics…
Demographics (i.e. age, gender, race, income, education, employment, location, etc.)
Social analytics (i.e. preferred social media sites, social activities and timing, influence, reach, etc.)
Web analytics (i.e. Google)
Then crank it up more than a notch and understand them at a deeper level through
behavioral analytics that go beyond clicks
and shares. Learn:
The platforms on which they consume content and when
Where and how they like to discover news online (social, search, other media)
What content retains their interest the longest (both editorial and advertising)
What content format they prefer (text, images, infographics, video, print)
How their reading habits change depending on time, location, current activity, etc.
Their interests, hobbies, passions and opinions
Use primary research to dig even deeper (e.g. surveys, polls) to discover:
Why they read your content What other content they read/share, why they read it and how they read it
What other online services or type of content they buy (music, video, games, etc.)
ABC Give your audience more of what they want and less of what they don’t
In order to engage and retain your audience and turn that retention into profits, you need embrace a culture of continual improvement (Measure – Analyze – Improve - Repeat) that covers user experience, content creation (both editorial and advertising), content curation (i.e. syndication), delivery and potentially other services (think diversifi
ABC Grow and expand your audience
So now that you know your audience intimately and are giving them what they want, it’s time to grow it by making your content borderless. Spread your content to the 4 corners of the globe on social media, free aggregators, paid aggregators, newsstands and other publishing (and non-publishing) apps/ sites. Now, if you came from the print world, your core audience probably looks more like Baby Boomers than their babies. Sadly, serving only your existing readers isn’t a recipe for long-term success. You need to expand your reach to include a new
breed of news junkies that won’t touch a printed paper and prefer content curated by the crowd over what editors curate for their parents. The thought of getting inside the minds of millennials and figuring out what makes them tick and “talk” about your news can put some publishers into cardiac arrest. But giving Gen Ys what they want, when they want it and how they want it isn’t rocket science. All you have to is… Step back to ‘A’!
CREATE A “CUSTOMER FIRST” FUTURE
Those of you who know me even a little, know that I’m not a baseball fan. So when I heard that Yogi Berra had died, I couldn’t remember anything about his legendary career with the Yankees. But I did remember a few of his weird and wacky Yogisms. In writing this post, one came to mind that seemed appropriate, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”
In the glory days of print, content was king and customers were the cash. Publishers woke up every day and saw a future that looked a lot like the one they envisioned the day before. The tables have certainly turned haven’t they.
Today, the kingdom belongs to consumers, content is so pervasive, it’s become commoditized and publishers are waking up shaking in their slippers because they can’t envision a future without fear.
There is money to be made in this upside down world, but to capitalize on the opportunities out there, publishers must stop being a “me too” organization and start reinventing themselves as “creators of customer value”.
If the explorers and inventors needed to conceive that new world don’t exist in your organization, it’s time for you to start investing in recruiting them. It will pay much higher dividends than building another shiny new app you saw over at the
Stop fearing the future; go make it!