In recent years, digital has moved rapidly from nice-to-have, to fundamental part of everything we do, and yet the process of digital transition at many publishing companies remains incomplete. Tim Faircliff looks at what publishers need to do to ensure they are at the forefront of digital media.
History has a clever way of helping us learn from the good things and bad things that befall the human condition. Surrounded by Titanic stories of late, I note that we are still building ocean going liners and they themselves do still occasionally sink. In our relatively new digital publishing industry, are we still learning from the mistakes and successes of the past? Are we, as a result, able to ensure our businesses, publications and people are best placed to face our challenges?
I recall living through the hype of boo.com and listened in awe to Ernst Malmsten, the founder, describe their experience as part of the “survival of the fastest”. When I met him in 2001, he seemed sanguine over the experience and proud of his attempt to win. I’m not sure the investors or employees would have felt as buoyant but the notion of surviving through speed still rings true today. The concept of boo.com in hindsight looks sensible. A global brand founded on a single interactive platform with a bespoke ecommerce engine designed to provide delivery and fulfilment globally. But, their timing was out. Interactivity was still not ubiquitous, ecommerce was still in its infancy (books plus not much else) and the idea of choosing fashion and sports apparel via a website was too soon for most to consider. It was not inherently a bad idea and I wonder if they launched today with the kind of funding they had, based on today’s multiples of revenue or hot air (think Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) whether it would succeed.
The key for us all is, what can we learn and then execute on in our businesses based on past experience and our strategic view of the future. During my recent two year tenure as the chairman of the Association of Online Publishers in the UK and over the last fifteen years during my time at the Daily Telegraph and Thomson Reuters, I have had a unique vantage point across a diverse set of publisher businesses (covering TV, radio, magazines and newspapers). We all had to face up to the very real business issues, economic conditions and technological advances that formed part of the digital publishing revolution.
I joined the Telegraph in 1997 when telegraph.co.uk was a smart idea with little funding and was facing a fair amount of scepticism over both its strategic importance and its financial viability. It was disruptive and a challenge to the old world. The healthy advertising and circulation revenues from the newspaper dwarfed the online revenues and left us who worked the online seams with a sense of being renegades or rebels with a cause.
Back then, there was no blueprint for how to run an online newspaper operationally or financially. What skills did we require and where were we likely to find them? What was the right platform for the product and editorial delivery? How many servers should we invest in? How many people did we need?
The above questions were very tough to answer then, although I think the team at the Telegraph did a fantastic job at figuring out a sensible path to pursue. Today it’s a little easier for digital publishers… they know all the answers don't they?
I'm not so sure that's the case, after all, this is still a very young industry. Successful publishing organisations need to constantly evolve to reposition themselves and anticipate the future needs of their audience and clients. The future is a world with an array of monetisation models (subscription, usage, ad-supported) and these businesses need to be able to support a range of truly multimedia products. Therefore, there is now an even more complex backdrop to today’s agenda let alone the macro-economic and geopolitical landscape we all live within. Malmsten’s view of the need for rapid evolution for survival may not feel as relevant today but standing still is definitely not an option in digital land.
In the first instance, you’ve got to have a digital plan - it doesn't "just happen", finding its own way into your product or media plans. It takes a conscious mind shift across the entire organisation to recognise the media landscape you're playing in has changed forever, and continues to move at pace. Having a plan isn't a sure fire guarantee of success, but not having one is a sure-fire guarantee of failure.
One area of the business I use as an example to illustrate evolution at pace is the area of advertising operations and how it has changed from the early days of basic ad trafficking.
The role of ad ops has been evolving over the last several years - moving from trafficking and inventory forecasting, reallocation and optimisation to a much more dynamic and generative function which provides valuable insight and analysis on campaign performance and site dynamics.
Developing a greater level of sophistication around insight on campaigns, performance and site zones is a critical function of ad ops. But, the business needs to see the insight in a digestible form and delivered in a timely fashion so we can change direction. Publishers are increasingly reliant on such data and insight to ensure that they are working at an optimal pace and not missing opportunities.
Data in this context is a measure of the success of the business strategy and therefore a measure of monetisation. Without timely data of historic activity as well as forward looking data trends (eg inventory forecasting) we are lost at sea with no reference point or horizon to baseline our progress. Ad ops in conjunction with a finance lead are the primary drivers of this initiative. They are closer to the raw data and activity than anyone including the sales facing teams. The expertise of business analysis around the chief revenue generating area is not in my opinion fully appreciated or indeed rewarded sufficiently.
I would argue that businesses need to reassess the importance of ops roles and functions and reposition accordingly. We are still playing catch up in determining the true measure of ad ops value and contribution.
This area is moving fast with the development of genuine cross platform campaigns. Ad campaigns across web, mobile and tablets for example require different treatments, expertise and reporting KPIs. How do the ad operations teams stay ahead of these developments to enable not just the ad serving but the critical optimisation path and post campaign analysis requirements for the business? Training and support are so crucial now and yet many businesses may see such things as luxury items in these challenging economic times.
Change is therefore a constant, and the rate of change we have experienced in digital over the last decade or so is quite frightening. We all need to be mindful of the vagaries of media, digital or not. And we need to keep up to date with trends and best practices.
We need to provoke, challenge and be prepared to change tack to meet the demands of our market, and we need to be conscious of trying new things. Actually it’s one of the beauties of digital – there’s no such thing as a bad idea, and if something doesn’t work now, we can always circle back, but we need to keep engaged in the evolutionary process.
The landscape is clearly changing for publishers, advertisers and our end consumers. Problems such as data leakage, automated audience buying and privacy ensure that the model is under scrutiny and we are all very aware that we need to stay abreast of these developments, some of which are complex and threatening to our status quo business models.
So, here’s my four point checklist to help ensure we are equipped for the next decade:
1. Find the champion: Shine a spotlight on digital activities. We will need to be relentless in beating the drum and ensuring every executive in our organisation understands that digital is no longer a nice to have add-on. It is a fundamental, non-negotiable part of everything we do. Who is your digital champion? What are they doing to evangelise within the organisation?
2. Don’t keep digital activities in a silo. They need to be integrated into the business work flow working closely with sales teams, finance and other central functions. Continually invest in training, networking and support wherever possible.
3. Think like a marketeer. This is a mindshare and timeshare war and we need to capture attention with engaging, entertaining, practical, timesaving, personal, relevant services. That’s going to be something different for each brand, but getting it right depends on knowing your customer and competitors intimately and understanding what else is going on around them. If you can’t create value, you can’t expect to stand out from the billions of apps, websites and mobile extensions that are around today.
4. Ensure you are educated and actively engaged with emerging technologies and insist your agency and network relationships introduce you to these new vendors. Meet them; hear their pitches, trial and experiment. Fail early, and often, as the saying goes.
We need to get better at charting the course, optimising and driving efficiency. We need to be adaptable and tread the fine line between proactive and reactive behaviour, but mostly we need to be more visionary, looking to the future but with an eye on the past to help shape our digital landscape.
The loss of the Titanic was a truly dreadful event and yet one which changed the view of safety at sea forever, for the better. Engineers reappraised construction techniques and passengers demanded greater levels of safety for the future. For boo.com, Malmsten’s final press release following its demise with over $130m lost forever read: “We believe strongly that in boo.com there is a formula for a successful business and fervently hope that those who are now responsible for dealing with the company will be able to recognise this.”
I hope we can all continue learning.