I’m a lucky man.
As publishing director of Estates Gazette, I have three business models which still work – print, search and data. My traditional business only went over a moderate sized cliff in the recession, allowing time to restructure and rebuild. I supply essential data. And I can add great value for my audience by joining up my content online.
But getting the business to grow again in the last couple of years – and winning the 2012 PPA digital publisher award – is, I hope, more than good fortune. It’s been about focus – understanding our market, concentrating on what we’re good at and, critically, not getting distracted by the many theories of how print publishers should reinvent themselves online.
Estates Gazette, part of Reed Business Information, started as a weekly magazine the same year Darwin went public with his theory of evolution – 1858. At its fattest, during the property boom of the early 2000s, an urban myth circulated that someone’s cat had been wasted standing under the letterbox on delivery day. In 2013, the magazine is more likely to stun than kill, but is still read by the majority of people who make their living from commercial or residential property. And its opening advertising section is still the marketplace in paper for property for sale.
Investing in online
The business invested in online early – co-operating with property agents on an availability listings service in the 1990s. This has grown into Propertylink – the commercial property equivalent of Zoopla and Rightmove – with more than 60,000 properties for sale or to rent. Revenues come from paid-for listings and enhanced listings.
Also in the 1990s, Estates Gazette developed EGi, a news and data service, which is flourishing despite a subdued post-recession market. At its heart is a database of every significant commercial building in the UK, including land which might be built on. It has information on sales, prices, rents, tenants, lease breaks and rates. This data is also the heart of the transactional property industry as agents and brokers require the information to advise clients on the value of assets they may be buying, selling or lending money against.
EGi has developed other services alongside this huge database. There is a module for property lawyers, one with detailed data on the market for London flats and apartments and another which follows the property requirements of major retailers.
Revenues for EGi are mainly from annual subscriptions, but, like Propertylink, it carries advertising. Property people, transactional business people to their core, are comfortable with advertising appearing within a paid-for service.
A third site, estatesgazette.com, publishes some material from the other two sites and acts as a funnel, collecting advertising and subscription prospects and allowing their development towards a sale.
At every opportunity, we link our material together. So all EGi’s news stories which refer to specific UK buildings or land are linked to the Building Report on that property in the main EGi database. With the weekly magazine now available as a digital edition or tablet app, the joined-up experience has become even better. For example, the magazine runs a quarterly detailed look at buying and selling trends for London offices. In the tablet version, there are as many as 30 links back to core data from each print page. It’s a seamless jump from topic to in-depth research which fits precisely the way surveyors, agents and developers pursue market intelligence.
The connections criss cross all the sites. So, if a building in the main EGi database is available to sell or to let, there is a link to the paid-for listing on Propertylink - which usually includes a sales brochure and picture gallery.
Incidentally, the introduction of digital and tablet versions of Estates Gazette has pushed circulation numbers up after years of gradual decline. One customer has moved from 250 print copies to 850 digital copies.
The property industry, often pigeon-holed as traditional or reactionary, has rapidly adopted tablets for business use. Nearly half the subscribers across Estates Gazette’s businesses now use a tablet at work – a proportion which has doubled in a year. Property is a sales orientated, visual, business where the ability to present images and information attractively and at any location is a real advantage.
It’s easy to make wrong assumptions about an audience. So, going on stereotypes, you might imagine that farmers would be slow adopters of technology. The opposite is true – form, grants and regulations covering agriculture have been online for a decade so farmers are sophisticated web consumers.
I’m long enough in the tooth to have seen most of the online business model theories thrown at business publishers trying to cope with the pressures on their print businesses. Like everyone, I’ve longed for a plug-in model which, with some magical distillation of algorithms, creates new revenues and bolsters the old.
Of course, the theories don’t work. The reality is that business markets are sophisticated communities with work flows which may resemble each other, but can seldom be standardised.
When considering online models for your business, there are some blatantly obvious factors to take into consideration:
* What’s the value of the content? If it is non-essential in print, it’s not going to be must-have when digital.
* How tech-savvy is the audience? This is important because it determines how much time and resource you commit to educating your audience, but, in my experience, a technically backward community is no barrier. If the content gives a reader an edge, they’ll learn how to retrieve it regardless of medium.
* Do you know the advertisers’ views on the effectiveness of online advertising and sponsorship? It’s here, more than among the readership, that you’re likely to find traditional thinking. And if the advertisers think online campaigns are just a cheap add-on to print, it’s hard to change their minds.
* Is social media an important ingredient in your strategy? If so, do you expect to monetise it – because it is extremely difficult to do so. And does the output of forums or networking match the rest of the content on your site. I still wince when I find ostensibly serious business sites which have an attached forum with chat about the X Factor or holiday tips. No, this is not the eclectic nature of the internet – it’s a straightforward mess.
Our top priority is to make the changes to our core products which directly influence our customers’ decision to buy us, or go to a competitor. The result of this thinking is that we have won competitive battles where our customers see us as a partner rather than a supplier – consulting with them and introducing products and features they have requested. The downside is that we don’t always have the funding left to make our online branding and structure as clear as it could be.
A key driver of our online strategy has been an instinctive defence of the value of our content. In a competitive sector, we are surrounded by rivals offering services cheaper, or trying out their own theories by – for example – applying an advertising model to a traditionally subscription based market.
It’s predictable that confidence in the value of what information providers supply would be shaken by the online revolution, but the level of wobble is surprising. There are always companies who believe they can grab ownership of an audience by charging little or nothing – then work out a business model when they are established. But they’re outnumbered by the providers who have a genuine model, but discount to a level where it no longer works.
The next couple of years will see our online strategy evolve further.
* We’ve moved closer to customers - but still not close enough. We are planning a number of initiatives which will embed customer requirements in our development workflow, then get them closely involved in all aspects of product testing.
* We are still a relatively inexperienced data supplier. One result is that we’re not great at describing our huge bucket of data - and customers often don’t understand how much we have to offer. We need to become experts at bringing our data to life through illustrations, analytics, benchmarketing and indices.
Our most exciting strategic change will be to give ourselves time to innovate. On one level, we’ll be pushing out extensions of existing products. For example, we’re launching a new digital and tablet monthly publication – EuroProperty Trends – in the New Year. This is a “controlled circulation” addition to EuroProperty, a monthly paid-for print newsletter. Content will be produced in-house and emailed to 120,000 European property decision makers - a list provided by our sister exhibition company Reed Midem. Revenue will come from advertising and sponsorship and with no print involved, the costs are low.
But we are also giving our online development team time to come up with radical ideas. Regular innovation days allow them to clear their desks and – using open source code - focus on how to build the key new services we will want to introduce over the next five years. This process has already driven the launch of a mobile news service. Next up is the development of software which allows customers to view - on their mobile devices – our data on nearby buildings as they walk down a street.
The success of these new ideas is the true measure of our self confidence as a business. A focus on the nitty gritty of current product improvement has been understandable in difficult market conditions. But the cliché that businesses decline the minute they stop creating new things is entirely true. If we haven’t got the confidence to innovate, we really will have to trust to luck.