Innovation in digital media: inspiration from international publishers

When looking for new inspiration for your own digital transformation journey, it pays to cast the net as wide as possible, looking outside your own industry and beyond your own borders. Carolyn Morgan moderated a number of sessions at the Digital Innovators Summit in Berlin in March and discovered new ideas and innovation from around the world.

By Carolyn Morgan

Innovation in digital media: inspiration from international publishers

The Digital Innovators Summit (DIS) has been running for twelve years, jointly organised by FIPP, the network for global media and VDZ, the publishers’ association in Germany.

Whilst many publishers are facing a challenging economic and competitive environment and a bewildering rate of technology change, there are plenty of examples of smart, original thinking. This article summarises the main themes of the event and shares some innovative ideas from media businesses from around the world.

Leaning into the headwind: tips on digital transformation

Troy Young, global president of Hearst Digital Media used this dramatic phrase to encourage media owners to embrace the changes in their industry. It’s more important than ever for publishers to differentiate their content – ensuring that it is both unique and useful. A direct connection to customers is crucial to be able to build a relationship of trust and to gather a detailed data history to understand what content is read and enjoyed. Media owners should see every interaction with a customer as a learning opportunity. Hearst are particularly focused on connecting their inspirational content with the ultimate transaction, and have ‘shop now’ buttons on their fashion reviews. But they are also keen to develop reader subscription revenues.

Andreas Wiele of German publishing giant Axel Springer exhorted publishers to: “cannibalise yourself, disrupt yourself, trust yourself.” Springer did this itself when its profits crashed in 2001, and it created separate digital business models for editorial (paid subs now total 347k for BILD), classified (Springer is now the world’s largest classified operator, largely built up via acquisition) and marketing solutions. In the last decade, digital revenue has grown twelvefold to €2500m.

The South China Morning Post is a traditional newspaper based in Hong Kong. CEO Gary Liu has reframed their mission as, “lead the global conversation about China” and has invested significantly in technology, growing the tech team from 40 to 120. He believes that moving to a new HQ with flexible seating has contributed to changing the culture. The newsroom is now focused on digital (and mobile) content first; a small dedicated team are the only journalists working on the paper product. SCMP have invested in a new CMS and CRM, production and analytics to enable editorial teams to learn faster.

The new digital storytelling rules: how journalism is changing

With mobile becoming the default device, and visuals overtaking text as efficient communication, journalism is evolving fast. Navigation is now about tap and swipe, not search and type. And content has to be available on third party platforms to get the widest audience. There’s an avalanche of data available to media owners on who reads what, when and where. These are the main trends:

* Mobile first design: Traditional publishers are reinterpreting their content into graphics and short video for more visual, tactile platforms, such as The Economist or Washington Post on Snapchat.

* Breaking content into smaller units: In order to be able to repurpose content for new platforms, smart CMSs enable articles to be disaggregated into video, images, graphics, quotes, and smaller chunks of text, and tagged, so that they can be reassembled efficiently into new stories.

* Creating bespoke video: Norwegian newspaper has launched a dedicated video channel, VGTV with impressive reach and strong sponsored content revenues, while Dutch women’s magazine Libelle has grown the audience for its video channel to 500k. And Vogue has developed a strong following for its vertical backstage videos on Instagram.

* Using data and smarter analytics: Washington Post has developed tools to suggest alternative headlines, predict which stories will go viral and track the performance of a story in real time, enabling marketers to boost its reach.

New thinking on digital subscriptions

Reader revenue and paid subscriptions were hot topics at DIS. The industry has perhaps reached a turning point where it is moving away from reliance on advertising and actively exploring digital subs. These seemed to be the most successful approaches:

* Segmenting audiences and testing offers: All the success stories, from Washington Post to BILD or the New York Times, talked about an extensive testing programme.

* Bundling different services and products: Dennis offers Money Week and The Week Junior to subscribers to The Week, and the New York Times adds digital crosswords and cooking services into their digital subscription.

* Adding in experiences and services and developing membership: BILD offers exclusive event tickets to their subscribers, and The Week curates offers on books, wines and events. Consumer publishers can learn from B2B media who are more sophisticated in packaging memberships with exclusive events.

* Reducing the friction to subscribe: Washington Post make it as easy to subscribe on a mobile as it is to order from Amazon – no big surprise!

* Testing dynamic and personalised paywalls: While simple metered models are popular, the next step is personalised, dynamic paywalls, as used by Schibsted and the Wall Street Journal.

* Tracking what content triggers subscription: A digital news start-up from Slovakia can track which articles prompt subscription – and pays its journalists accordingly.

* Engaging mindfully with platforms: Facebook, Readly and the rest are useful for new prospects, but the ultimate goal has to be a direct subscriber relationship.

* Establishing a subs-led organisation: This takes time, and it pays to hire in experts from other sectors, according to Stefan Betzold, MD digital for BILD.

How should publishers engage with social platforms

Facebook and other big tech platforms have been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently. Publishers need to tread carefully – as they risk losing the distinctiveness of their brand if their content is only seen in a standardised format. The best advice is to diversify and use a wide range of platforms.

Vogue has built up a large following on Instagram by bringing in a central dedicated team, led by Hannah Ray, which then works with all the international editions, collaborating to create exclusive content for big events like Fashion Month. Relatively raw, vertical video content shot backstage has performed well, and emphasises Vogue’s exclusive access to models and designers. On Instagram, engagement is the key to building followers, so Vogue runs creative projects and competitions to connect with its young fashion-hungry community. Hannah also advocates a close focus on analytics and fast iteration to learn what content attracts attention.

The Economist has been creating bespoke content on Snapchat Discover for some time, and is learning how to translate its brand values with detailed, highly visual explainers on single news topics. This is changing perceptions among a younger demographic and has generated a modest amount of ad revenue.

Bleacher Report, a digital only media brand which focuses on sports culture, designs its content for Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter to be original, engaging and shareable – and achieves four times the engagement rate of their closest competitors.

New digital business models for media owners

Media businesses have to diversify their revenue sources to balance the uncertainty of straight advertising. New digital business models seem to use a combination of these approaches:

* Subscriptions focus: Paid content is now the goal, with publishers like The Economist and Washington Post using social media, email and metered access to build a pool of prospects to whom they can market paid subs.

* Multi-media: Magazine media are diversifying into video channels, events and awards, podcasts, vlogging channels and social platforms, to reach a larger audience. Some services are packaged with subscriptions, others are funded by sponsored content.

* E-commerce and affiliates: Business Insider, Hearst, Future and the New Yorker are all making the link between independent, comprehensive reviews and transactions, by adding affiliate links and ecommerce.

* Added value services, research and consultancy: B2B media, such as National Journal in the US, are focusing on their best customers and tailoring premium content and services to their needs.

* Classified advertising: Axel Springer has become the largest classified ad operator in the world.

* Marketing services and data: IDG combines their own data and third party data and adds in content behaviour to provide valuable insights for their advertisers.

* Analytics platform: Washington Post have developed their own suite of tech products to track content, enhance its reach and make subscribing easy, and now are marketing this to other media owners.

Future Tech – what to watch

Technology developments that only recently felt in the realms of science fiction are now being explored by innovative digital media businesses. These are some to watch…

* Voice, using services like Alexa or Siri or Google Assistant is becoming a highly popular way for people to search and consume quality content. Harvard Business Review provides a management tip of the day on Alexa and publishes podcasts. Washington Post publishes a politics briefing on Alexa every weekday with hundreds of thousands of listens a month.

* Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used to power content recommendations and generate article headlines, moderate comments and predict which articles will go viral. Associated Press is using AI to generate templated articles, allowing journalists to focus on more creative tasks.

* Chatbots and assistants are being used to automate simple customer requests. Harvard Business Review is experimenting with Facebook Messenger, and Quartz has built a mobile news service in the style of a chatbot.

* Visual search is becoming more popular, especially on mobile. Start-up SnapTech allows publishers, including Marie Claire, to offer shoppable versions of items shown on editorial pages.

* Blockchain is perhaps best explained as a highly secure permanent ledger. A number of start-ups are building content management systems for independent publishers and collectives of journalists.

What next?

The message from the most innovative publishers is clear – lean into the headwind, be ready to disrupt yourself, explore new technologies, develop new revenue streams and adopt an experimental, test and learn approach.

This may all sound quite intimidating, but to use a cliché, all journeys start with the first step, and investigating the experiences of media businesses from around the world is a pretty good place to start.