A digital media road-map for publishers

Most media conferences these days tend to focus on describing the problems facing publishers and media businesses, rather than actually providing ideas on how their leaders can deal with it all. The Digital Media Strategies summit, organised by the Media Briefing, went some way towards addressing the latter. Carolyn Morgan sifted through the case studies and panel debates to put together a road-map for publishers.

By Carolyn Morgan


A. Life managed on mobile

In just a couple of years, there will be 2.7 billion mobile devices worldwide. In countries like South Africa with poor fixed broadband, people now manage their lives on mobile, with banking, commerce, comms and search in their pocket. By 2016, Enders Analysis expect 18m tablet users and 56m smartphone users in the UK. Mobile search will soon surpass desktop search, and is muddying the division between online and offline retail. People use their devices at all times of the day, and through a range of activities, providing new opportunities for content creators to reach their audiences.

(Pictured above, from the left: Ashley Friedlein, Steve Wing, Nick Blunden, Duncan Tickell.)

B. A data driven world

Digital media create vast swathes of data, tracking every transaction. Hidden within this data is deep insight into how people are discovering and consuming content and what transactions they make as a result. Understanding how to access this data and interpret it will be a challenge for publishers.

C. High expectations of user experience

Consumers now expect all online services to have exceedingly high standards of user interface and customer service. A good online experience is just as important as quality content. This is a challenge for traditional publishers who need to embrace their tech teams and acquire a new skill set.

D. New competitors - retailers as publishers

Mobile is opening up ecommerce, with the boundaries blurring between content and shopping, offline and online. This is a chance for publishers to expand their revenues, but it also brings them into direct competition with retailers who are actively developing their online content and have much larger audiences.

E. The borderless world

Digital platforms are opening up an international audience for English language content, and allowing even small publishers to access significant overseas markets. However, it makes it just as easy for global competitors to target local publications and markets…


1. Social and free web is your best, global marketing channel

Whilst many publishers can't immediately see the value of free online content and social channels, as advertising rates are still falling, there's a real value in building a strong online audience. Ashley Friedlein of Econsultancy believes that creating great content and marketing it via clever search and socialisation is a more effective way to grow subs revenues than an expensive dedicated sales force. Future has invested heavily in SEO for their specialist portals such as TechRadar and BikeRadar, and sees these as the way to enter new international markets and grow sales of their digital publications. The Economist still has an active free blog to encourage interaction and build advocates of its content. Social channels boost search results and also provide a communications channel with existing readers. Future actively uses its social reach of over 2.5m to get feedback on its products and shape their development.

2. Data is core to understand customers, develop products and new revenues

Publishers can get intimidated by talk of big data, and see only major investment in new tracking systems. But, according to Ashley Friedlein, data doesn't have to be big, it just has to be actionable. Future use analytics to help develop their specialist portals and magazines. The Times uses stats on the daily peak viewing times of their tablet editions to time a refreshed news update to coincide. Steve Wing showed how CBS Interactive have used data for insights and new revenues. can track ten year trends of listening via its scrobbling technology; Gamespot's Trax can see which games have been viewed and played, providing new insights for game manufacturers, retailers and industry analysts; and CNET compiles user data on reactions to new gadgets to help advertisers gauge their popularity. Plus Juliet Bauer of Top Right Group has gained valuable knowledge of visitor behaviour from the 18k people who used the BETT mobile app to plan their day. Computer Weekly marry up demographic profiles of their audience with stats on popular articles and topics to refine their content and help advertisers target the right prospective buyers. ZeitOnline identified a large audience of students browsing their course directory, and used this data to approach universities for classified advertising.

3. Digital allows reinvention of magazine, new formats

As the digital and mobile landscape evolves, publishers can break out of their print formats and start to reinvent their content. Future has developed a series of digital weekly magazines, building on their tablet and online portals, including tech, Photography Week, and the latest, Football Week. This last is an interesting move by Future as it is based on a partnership with Press Association and includes live updates and video. The Economist has made a major move into audio versions of its articles, allowing readers to consume this content when they are unable to read, eg at the gym. The popularity of audio has led them to launch Economist radio, effectively competing with Radio 4. Their next step is to develop ebooks and app singles.

4. Paid content must be explored, ads not enough

In future, few media owners can rely solely on advertising revenue, so even publishers with a free proposition must explore paid content and subscriptions, to make their business more resilient. AutoTrader, whose main mobile app is free, is now experimenting with a premium paid mobile service, and also have launched a paid monthly digital only mag, Ignition, in partnership with Future. Business Day, a South African financial and business publisher, have developed paid content and mobile apps and are gradually transforming their business from ad reliance to content sales. RCS in Italy has built up 80k digital subs across tablet and mobile.

5. User experience as important as content

People are becoming accustomed to intuitive user interfaces, and publishers can't rely on their content. Ashley Friedlein felt that a good user interface can add value to even aggregated content. Nick Blunden from the Economist believes that subscribers pay as much for the experience as the content. But matching the standards of the big digital players poses financial and cultural challenges for media organisations - Raju Narisetti from WSJ and Christian Ropke from ZeitOnline both felt they hadn't yet fully integrated their journalists with their tech teams.

6. Experimentation is essential

Digital behaviour is evolving rapidly and each market has subtle differences, so an attitude of testing often and failing fast is crucial. The Times' digital readers are overwhelmingly iPad users, while the Sun is smartphone driven, so News International has had to develop different strategies for each title. AutoTrader's first foray into paid digital magazines needed a price adjustment soon after launch. Estates Gazette are gradually linking their database of building reports into their news content on iPad replica mags and mobile news apps. Sometimes the reason customers renew is surprising - such as the crossword on online newspapers, or the unexpected popularity of audio versions of Economist articles.

7. Rethink how content is presented

The shift to digital is forcing editors to rethink how they present content to their readers. News is the hook, but in B2B markets, said Charles Tiede, CTO of Informa, data is the core. Informa have rethought Datamonitor from long form reports to online knowledge centres, and are using data visualisation software tools to transform data-sets into infographics for Lloyd’s List, with audio annotations. Business subscribers now expect personalisation of all content. And for consumer publishers, video is growing fast. Future are investing significantly in video reviews for TechRadar and their other specialist sites.

8. Understand the challenges for marketers

Clients now have multiple channels to reach their audience, with paid media only part of the story, and increasing focus on owned and earned media. Large organisations are becoming active producers of content, and are looking for media owners to provide new ways to distribute this content to the right audience, according to John Kennedy, VP of Corporate Marketing at IBM. End customers expect companies to know them personally, and provide an engaging, tailored service. Media owners need to understand the changing needs of advertisers, and provide opportunities to present content, video and experts to their audiences in new and engaging ways.

9. Use editorial creativity to create bespoke solutions for advertisers

For all but the largest publishers, automated commodity trading of online inventory can only be a minor source of revenue. Duncan Tickell, commercial director of Immediate Media, generates up to 40% of revenues in niche markets like parenting from creative solutions, bringing together print, web, mobile and social assets to create bespoke campaigns. But this does require investment: a recent campaign for Silver Spoon netted £1.5m, but even the first proposal took two weeks to create. Media owners must also help ad clients measure the impact of their campaigns, for example Huffington Post UK researched the effect of a bespoke campaign for Iceland tourism. The creativity of editorial teams is a real asset: Future created an experiential marketing campaign for Hyundai based around a zombie-proof car and used their media and social channels to build the PR hype.

10. Go global for growth

Digital platforms open up an international market even for smaller publishers. 80% of Future's mobile edition sales are outside the UK, showing an insatiable appetite for English language content. The Economist has seen dramatic sales growth in Asia, with digital leading with double the share. As mobile penetration accelerates in territories with poor fixed broadband, this will be the focus of growth. The next step is creating language editions of popular content; Future are creating French editions of their BikeRadar and MusicRadar sites.

So the global reach of digital platforms and the wealth of data on how content is being consumed is providing publishers with opportunities to radically reinvent how they package their content, and break out of the constraints of print. Scary stuff, but the stories of some of these media owners provide some real inspiration.