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Jim Foster’s publishing world…

Jim Foster

Posted on: 22 May 2018

 

In the vast world of digital, nothing stands still and succeeds. If you stop innovating, if you rest on your laurels, the chances are you’ll fail.

Recent history is littered with examples of digital fads and innovations that have taken off only to disappear from view almost as fast as they arrived in our consciousness.

Friends Reunited, anyone? I still remember the excitement of seeing what old schoolfriends and ex-girlfriends (please don’t think I’m a stalker!) were up to a decade after I’d completed my A Levels. Conceived in 1999, the site had 15 million members in December 2005 – including me – and was purchased by ITV for £175m in 2005. Eleven years after ITV’s acquisition, it ceased trading.

Then there’s MySpace. I created a MySpace page in 2005 and thought myself quite the digital expert for doing so. It was only thirteen years back yet seems a lifetime ago. Today, I don’t even know what the MySpace proposition is, let alone have any desire to check it out.

And don’t get me started on Samsung Paper Garden! Most of you probably won’t even remember or know about that content initiative from the Korean giant. Enough said.

Compare all this to the success stories. On the radio this morning, the news covered Apple’s latest results for the first quarter of the year. Device sales were 3 per cent up year-on-year, driven largely by iPhone sales in China. Certainly not the slump many were predicting. And their revenues were up 17 per cent, also year-on-year, driven by expansion into areas such as Apple Pay, Music, iCloud, the more expensive iPhone X and so on.

Apple’s success is precisely because it doesn’t stand still or stick all its eggs in one basket. Its recent purchase of the US all-you-can-eat magazine content platform, Texture, demonstrates the company’s determination to continually move forward, though precisely what its plans for Texture are (I asked my contact at Apple about this directly and he refused to comment, though that’s probably because he doesn’t know either) remain to be seen.

Almost certainly, it will be absorbed into Apple News to give the consumer three portals of content to pay for – video, music and now trusted longform magazine content along with breaking news and analysis. Subscribe to one channel for a tenner a month, or all three for a discount. Who knows. It’ll be your call, but as per everything else Apple, the whole process will be seamless. It’ll almost be easier to pay than not to pay, if that makes sense!

How publishers will be reimbursed for their content, how that content will be displayed on devices, and which titles Apple will accept (my guess is they probably won’t call it Texture themselves and they certainly won’t accept the entire newsstand) is an unknown.

But the point is simply that Apple is moving forwards. It isn’t just a device-led business, as much as people still see it as such. It seeks to innovate and acquire and evolve. All the things that are necessary to not just make money in the digital arena, but to survive.

There may have been a few instances, in the past four years or so of me writing this column, where I’ve bragged a little bit. About how well the apps I manage have been doing, about how my tiny team of three people within the corporate giant of Bauer is growing its share of digital business.

“Today, I don’t even know what the MySpace proposition is, let alone have any desire to check it out.”

Slowdown

But growth for us through the first quarter of 2018 has been slower than forecast. Don’t get me wrong – the business is still very profitable – but it is a wake-up call, accentuating that, in digital, things can change quickly. There are no comfort zones.

There doesn’t appear to be any one reason for this slowdown versus expectations. On paper, our digital editions business is better positioned than it’s ever been. We have top-quality attribution tracking and analytics. Our marketing is vastly superior to what it was even twelve months back. Our apps are reliable and some of them, the interactive ones at least, are market-leading.

Some of this work has only been implemented recently, so it’s likely we won’t see the benefit for a little while. But there are three key areas that I think have caused this slowdown.

One: you could argue that we’ve been too slow to react to a decline in tablet usage of our apps and phone growth. I’ll come back to this in a moment.

Two: user habits are changing and, in part, seem to be shifting toward all-you-can-eat streaming models.

And three: we performed a huge software migration last year, moving all of our titles to a new software, resulting in increased churn – something we’re addressing through an improved acquisition strategy.

Tablet traffic on some of our key apps has been falling for some time. We’ve known that, I’ve written about it. PDF replicas are awful on phones, so we’ve had plans for a while to introduce ‘text view’ modes, where users can see the layout of the magazine in full and – if they want to – tap on any article to read it in a format that perfectly suits their device’s screen size.

The trick has been to deliver this via an automated production process at a low, sustainable cost. We think we’re there now with some key titles, but it’s taken longer than expected.

The growth of all-you-can-eat sales presents both opportunity and concern to the magazine industry. If platforms offering such models to the general public bring our magazines to new, younger audiences, then bravo. If they open up huge overseas markets, bravo also. But if they only serve to deliver declining yield… then what?

Time will tell where this one goes, but I do sense that the industry is finally starting to sit up and take notice of the fact that magazine and wider content streaming is not going to go away. How we deal with it and monetise most effectively are the big questions.

And finally, software migrations. Our software migration last year, which was a properly complex operation, went swimmingly well. There were no ‘TSB-style’ bugs where people couldn’t login, or got to see someone else’s magazines in their apps! But still, users don’t like change for no perceived reason, so we’ve seen increased churn after it. Maybe we could have communicated the benefits of the changes we forced on our customers more effectively than we did.

I often hear the phrase, “We’ll get there!” uttered at the end of important, strategic meetings. It’s a saying that I despise because, in digital, it’s utter b*llocks. If you do get there, you stop. If you stop, you probably die. So, it’s better to say, “We’ll never get there. But we’re progressing.”

Then, perhaps, publishers won’t become a MySpace or a Friends Reunited. And we won’t be talking to mates via a brain-implanted, retinal VR platform in twenty years discussing the amazing days when you used to be able to buy magazines on your phone, or in Tesco. And we definitely won’t be explaining to our grandkids what magazines actually were in the first place…

“Apple’s success is precisely because it doesn’t stand still or stick all its eggs in one basket.”

About Jim Foster
(Details last updated: 12 May 2014)

Jim Foster is head of ePublishing at Bauer UK.

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