A Publishing Hype Cycle

In the scramble to find a sustainable business model, writes Luke Bilton, one of the hardest things can be to figure out where to place your bets. Which of this year’s great hopes are worth investing in and which will prove to be a distraction?

By Luke Bilton

Gartner’s annual Hype Cycle report is always a fascinating way to visualise the emergence and adoption of technologies. Starting from their inception, it shows how technologies become over-hyped, then disappoint these high expectations, before gradually developing into something altogether more productive.

It’s rigorously researched and visualised in an original way, neither of which applies to the article you’re about to read which is a highly subjective and derivative attempt to map some of publishing’s hot topics. Let’s call it a ‘homage’ to Gartner who do this kind of thing very well.

Stage 1: The Technology Trigger

* Robot Journalism

Nothing says ‘future’ better than ‘robots’ and companies like Narrative Science are already offering publishers the services of robot journalists to churn out copy 24 hours a day. Their sophisticated algorithms are able to turn raw data feeds such as sport results and fluctuations in the stock market into an endless series of articles. It’s mostly quite readable if not about to win any prizes.

While there is undeniable appeal in a journalist who never sleeps, gets sick or asks for a raise, if you find yourself yearning too strongly for the robot newsroom of the near-future then you may have already failed Blade Runner’s replicant test and might be better off pursuing a career in one of our top three political parties.

* Wearable Technology and the Internet of Everything

How will Google Glass and a talking fridge change publishing?

I’ve no idea, but I’m sure some bright sparks will find applications which will claim to revolutionise publishing. And they may just do it.

The implications of interacting with content through your car or watch will require a far more radical re-think of the commercial models than the transition from print pages to desktop page views.

Stage 2: The Peak of Inflated Expectations

* Programmatic Advertising

Programmatic advertising, the automated buying of advertising inventory, is coming over the horizon fast and is already changing the way ad sales teams are structured. Forecasts seem to suggest between 60-70% of online advertising will be programmatically traded in the next two years – a huge shift away from the publisher’s sales team doing the selling.

As clients find it cheaper and more efficient to book campaigns through third-parties, it’s going to be a further blow to already-commoditised CPMs which are being pushed down further by the move to mobile. At the AOP Autumn Conference, Abba Newbury, director of advertising strategy for News UK, summed up the situation well when she said that, “if we aren’t able to prove the value of the brand environment, then we might as well go home”. Which brings us to…

* Native Advertising

One of the unfortunate facts about the online publishing model is that your audience isn’t looking at your ads, much less clicking on them.

So this year, advertorial has been given a fresh lick of paint and has had senior publishing execs falling over themselves to be more native than the others.

Time Inc are just one example where the old church / state barriers have come tumbling down with their EVP of advertising, Mark Ford, commenting, "We're not trying to trick people. We're just trying to create great content.”

The problem is that the majority of readers can’t easily differentiate between editorial and native advertising (which is kind of the point) until the moment they realise that they’ve been reading a sales pitch.

Trust can take years to build and a moment to lose, so there’s a very real risk that readers will start to tune-out of your content in the same way they’ve already tuned-out of your advertising. Where can native advertising go next on the Hype Cycle? The only way is down.

Stage 3: The Trough of Disillusionment

* Big Data

‘Big Data’ is a good example of the Hype Cycle in action. The concept that we can do things with large data sets that weren’t possible when working with smaller amounts has started to become tarnished, mainly due to a lack of actual delivery matching the grandiose rhetoric.

Yet, despite falling out of favour, Big Data is a fast-evolving field which does have genuine potential to change businesses in the future.

If nothing else, this has focused publishing teams on making the most of the ‘little data’ which is available to us in the here and now, making more data-driven decisions, and that can only be a good thing.

* Digital Magazine Apps

In many ways, the rush to publish onto Apple Newsstand has represented a false hope for publishers over the last few years. It offered the alluring promise of going digital without any fundamental changes to the magazine format, adding a few bells and whistles for good measure.

The problem is that, for the most part, consumers don’t seem to be particularly interested in them, or at least not in the kind of volumes which would offset the print decline. According to the PPA’s Digital Subscriptions Uncovered report, digital magazines have a similar level of importance in the circulation mix as the Spar retail group. So while magazine apps have many advantages - particularly as international bolt-ons to existing print products – perhaps the amount of time and column inches spent by publishers on a fairly niche channel is starting to look misjudged.

* SEO (more precisely SEO Agencies)

Search Engine Optimisation is an essential part of any digital publishing business. Modern editorial teams should be knowledgeable about their metadata and linking strategy in order to give it more visibility on Google.

The reason for putting SEO Agencies on the wrong side of the curve is that Google has pulled the rug out from under the entire industry. All the Panda, Penguin algorithm updates are designed to penalise sites which have used so-called experts to game the system.

The agencies all seem to be re-inventing themselves as content agencies at the moment as quality content is what Google wants, not tricks.

Stage 4: Slope of Enlightenment

* Social Media

While social media is a field beset by buzzwords and over-selling of the benefits, social channels can yield big results if used effectively. Brands such as Buzzfeed find that Facebook is sending 3.5 times as much traffic as Google.

However the fact you’ve invested time nurturing someone else’s platform rather than your own can seem less smart when Facebook decide to charge you to reach your own fans.

For social media to really get into the productive zone, we need to have clearer measures of success as simply accumulating ‘likes’ is not a strategy. What is your social ROI?

* User Generated Content

There’s no denying the impact social media has had in enabling everyone with an internet connection to publish their photos and videos. User generated content now makes up the bulk of online content.

What’s less clear is how this represents an opportunity for publishers, unless your audience already has a propensity to share on your platforms. Nurturing interactions from scratch is really hard - a fact which many empty community launches of recent years will attest to.

But for those businesses which genuinely have their community at their core, Mumsnet for example, it’s incredibly powerful to have your audience create content on your behalf.

* Bloggers

There was a time when blogging was one of the four horsemen of the publishing apocalypse, riding into your market with a sloppy disregard for grammar, a frighteningly low cost-base and a puzzling notion called ‘authenticity’.

Many publishers bought or set up their own blogs which over time became part of the regular editorial mix. Now as WordPress becomes the publishing platform of choice for 60% of the web and opinion pieces and trumping balanced news, have we all become bloggers?

Stage 5: Plateau of Productivity

* Email Newsletters

The original digital communication still remains the most dependable way to get response. When combined with a properly managed database, marketing automation technology and good content, email can reach a level of finely-tuned, targeted segmentation which social media can only dream of. And the fact that it’s your data rather than Facebook’s can’t be underestimated.

* PDF Whitepapers

Less headline grabbing than his flashy younger brother, the digital magazine app, there’s much to be said for the humble PDF. They can be effortlessly downloaded and opened on any device, have a very low file size, and so for those in the lead generation business, they are unrivalled as a way of delivering gated content.

As web standards go, PDFs are a stone cold classic.

* Print

The granddaddy of them all; for the last 564 years, print has been publishing.

Over the last decade, print has been getting a bad press, with fierce competition from the internet driving down circulation and advertising revenues which still have further to fall before they plateau.

Yet we write print off at our peril. According to the PPA’s Publishing Futures 2014 report, print accounts for approximately 73% of consumer publishing revenues in the UK and in emerging markets, news and magazines are flourishing.

While print may no longer be destined to be the mass-market communications channel it once was in Europe, it will likely continue for the foreseeable future as a more niche, luxury channel.

If Gartner's Hype Cycle gives us a framework by which to predict when trends start to become useful, how should the P&L-minded content business respond?

Arguably the safest approach is to sit back and watch how it plays out, but where's the fun in that?

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle.”

That’s why I’m doubling down on robot journalists. Trust me, it’s the future.