It’s Not Dig­i­tal First; It’s READER First!

The Insider - - CONTENT - NYT.

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.


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.

Bounc­ing back

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 Ama­ 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 Dai­ly­ 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.


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’!


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!

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