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Customer Direct 2012

The PPA held its annual Customer Direct conference and awards at The Brewery on Wednesday. Martin Maynard was there, taking notes.

By Martin Maynard

There was an air of anticipation as the attendees of this year’s PPA Customer Direct conference and awards took to their seats in the charming surroundings of the 18th century former London brewery. An audience searching for further insight into ways to better understand and utilise the increasingly valuable, direct and complex relationship between publishers and their audience. They wouldn’t be disappointed.

In a compelling opening keynote address, Dennis Publishing’s CEO James Tye gave the audience an insight into how important paid subscriptions are to his business both in terms of revenue, in the context of the current recession, and of the valuable direct relationship it provides with each customer. Tye went on to talk about the huge growth in tablets, the opportunities for content created in the UK, and offered important advice for those working with multifunctional devices. Tye said: “Dennis has had to stop thinking like a publisher and start thinking like a developer.” These themes would resurface and form the backbone of many subsequent presentations throughout the day.

In a well attended session entitled, ‘how to drive value from your data’, Bauer Media’s Head of Data & Online Marketing Simon Blanchard, together with CACI’s Head of Data Insight Matt Jarman, talked through the stages of a recent Bauer project to integrate all their customer data into a single customer view. In one presentation slide, Blanchard shared with the audience that ‘multichannel buyers are three or four times more profitable’. In what has so far been a six month project, Blanchard underlined the central benefits to the business of a joined up data infrastructure when compared to ‘silos.’

In what appeared to be a renewed confidence towards facing the challenge of ‘digital’, many of the sessions shared examples of successful experiences in dealing with the transition from a purely online presence to a truly digital mix. Talk of monetising apps through to successful social media integration was prevalent. In a fascinating afternoon session on paywalls, Autosport’s Group Publisher Rob Aherne, and Times Digital Editorial Director Tom Whitwell shared their respective experiences of life behind the paywall.

In his presentation, Aherne relayed that the cornerstone of his business was sending journalists and photographers to events and providing the best all round journalism possible. Aherne went on to say that having good online loyalty and an audience that valued their content, environment and service was key to their success online. Aherne feels that online publishing doesn’t need to be complicated but good journalism and understanding exactly what makes your audience tick is fundamental to making it work. Aherne said: “If it’s good, it doesn’t have to be free.”

In a presentation where he acknowledged the Times’ well publicised, and often criticised, conversion to a paywall three years ago, Whitwell opined: “we feel it is an experiment that worked”. It’s difficult to disagree with Whitwell who presented to the audience figures showing 130,000 digital only subscribers and a growing younger audience. In what was a candid walk-through of the transition, Whitwell talked about the need to convert people used to running a free online business into a more “fearless” group managing a successful online subscriptions business. In words that echoed Aherne’s, Whitwell talked about the need to keep it simple, a steadfast understanding that people want to read the Times and the importance of rolling out the content where readers would want to see it. Whitwell said: “The product is simple, the customer service is hard.”

In a plenary session entitled ‘Subscriptions Models Across a Digital World’, Wessenden Marketing’s Managing Director, Jim Bilton, provided a preview of a study offering a global perspective on publisher subscription models, due to publish in January 2013. In a performance reminiscent of Peter Snow during a general election, Bilton regaled the audience with a fascinating statistical peek into the varied subscription models deployed by publishers both in existing and emerging markets. One key message was the difference in the adoption rates of the infrastructure and technology required to support ‘digital’ across the world. Bilton said: “it is not a digital only world”.

It was clear from the presentations and discussions at this year’s event that publishers are not only growing in confidence with digital, but they also now have much greater combined experience and know-how working in this space. For many, there may still be a long way to go in developing a truly digital strategy, but there was one key take home message for all publishers: ignore the evolving needs of your content consumers at your peril.