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Key landmarks to look out for on your digital exploration

Digital transition – two innocuous sounding words that imply neatly defined start and end points with a nice straight line between them. If only! Peter Houston looks at different areas of publishing strategy and outlines some of the digital challenges and choices publishers face in each.

By Peter Houston

When I sat down to write this, the big metaphor I had in mind was a roadmap, point-by-point directions to help publishers navigate from A to Z through their digital transition. It didn’t work.

Digital transition is not a journey, not even in the tortured reality-TV sense of a journey. It’s nowhere close to linear; there are too many stops and starts, detours, cul-de-sacs and parallel paths. Plus, everyone starts from a different point and, if there is a final destination, I haven’t seen it yet.

The journey metaphor just doesn’t describe the process of moving away from a print past toward some as-yet undetermined digital future. It’s more an exploration.

I’m not an expert on explorers, but I do have a memory of visiting Dr David Livingstone’s birthplace in Blantyre, Scotland, when I was a kid and the big thing that has stuck in my mind is that explorers should absolutely avoid getting lost.

So, although a roadmap won’t work, I’ve tried in this article to identify some of the landmarks that publishers should be looking out for as they search for their digital El Dorado.

Distribution Landmarks

Publishing’s digital adventure began with the straightforward distribution of content through the world wide web. There can’t be many publishers left that don’t distribute at least some of their content through their own website; they’ve had 25 years to figure it out.

The baseline benefits of putting content on the web have been repeated ad nauseam over the years. Global reach at negligible cost; freedom from mechanical production processes and deadlines; scope to add depth to content beyond words and pictures.

But as more and more digital publishing platforms have emerged, the homepage has been all but demolished as an online destination. Banner advertising, still the leading digital revenue line, is also increasingly under threat, from ad-blockers, advertisers up in arms about poor viewability and fraud, and from Facebook and Google who are capturing three-quarters of all new digital ad spend.

Pressures on the web have pushed publishers to take on other means of digital distribution.

As one of the original digital communication channels, email has been a publishing staple for almost as long as the web. Notices of its imminent demise have been common, driven by user frustration at spam-filled inboxes and annoying midnight messages from workaholic colleagues. But thanks to better email management tools and the smartphone revolution, email is making a comeback.

Publishers are particularly interested in targeted email distribution, leveraging lists that allow them to reach increasingly narrow niches with highly relevant content. Some are even beginning to personalise content for individual readers.

Device Landmarks

One of the key drivers of the email resurgence is the ubiquity of email apps on smartphones, meaning almost 70% of the population carries their inbox with them everywhere they go.

Establishing a robust mobile presence has become all but essential as audiences shift their attention from the desktop to their phones. The mobile must-have is a responsive web design to optimise existing web content across a variety of devices and aspect ratios.

Apps, huge on the digital landscape just a couple of years ago, have slipped in prominence, mainly because of problems with discoverability and difficulties in recouping up-front development costs. That doesn’t mean there aren’t successful apps. The winners tend to focus on daily updates, like Espresso from The Economist, or real-time, actionable information that will help people work or play smarter. The Time Out app is a perfect example.

Benedict Evans, analyst for Andreesen Horowitz, distils app strategy neatly into a single question.

“Do people want to put your icon on their home screen?”

Basically, if you are not going to sit on the front screen of your audience’s smartphones, forget developing your own app.

The other way to reach your audience on their phones is to climb on board the off-platform bandwagon and distribute your content through the leading third-party apps. But be aware, that way be monsters…

Audience Landmarks

The fastest growing channels for distribution of digital content are the social platforms, especially Facebook.

With unparalleled scale and providing an easy alternative to slow-loading mobile websites, pushing content through Facebook’s Instant Articles can seem like a dream come true for publishers that don’t want the expense or hassle of trying to reach their readers on their own mobile platform. The promise of a 70% revenue share from ads sold by Facebook sweetens the deal and content producers of all shapes and sizes have happily taken Mr Zuckerberg’s shilling.

But every opportunity has its costs and many publishers are beginning to wonder if the added reach and revenues will ever be enough to compensate them for ceding control of their audience. None of the social platforms deliver the audience metrics that can be captured on a wholly owned platform. Also, content viewed on a third-party network picks up platform branding, with the audience talking about stories they saw on Facebook or Snapchat and the publisher identity slipping into second place.

The fear of losing control has brought the importance of brand value into sharp focus and where publishers were once satisfied to count ‘Likes’, ‘Follows’ and shares on the social networks, they are now working hard to re-connect with their social audience.

This has led some publishers to treat the social networks as conversion funnels, taking advantage of huge scale at the top end to try to re-establish the direct relationship that they used to be able to rely on.

At the heart of audience activation strategies is the offer of content that is not available off-platform. That could be email newsletters or webinars, or content behind a paywall. More and more publishers are giving readers that arrive from social networks metered access to paid for content, teasing them towards registration and, eventually, a subscription.

Transaction Landmarks

Convincing the audience to spend money directly is a huge challenge for publishers, but one that offers real rewards if it can be accomplished.

Digital subscriptions are an obvious starting point for organisations that want to monetise their audience. Digital publishing’s ‘Original Sin’ – giving content away for free – has made it difficult for publishers to get back to charging for content. But the subscription model of business is booming online, with companies charging monthly fees for everything from razor blades to socks.

To capitalise on the trend, publishers need to develop a very clear offer that allows the audience to see at a glance what the value is. Print digital bundles have worked, as has access to ‘member only’ content and events. Whatever the approach, the trick is to make the added value obvious.

Beyond subscriptions, ecommerce transactions are beginning to become more common on the digital landscape. Easier, more-affordable access to cloud-based ‘marketplace’ technology has cleared a path for publishers to test the waters in ecommerce. From cars to homewares and furniture, publishers are selling things their audience wants.

The secret is to align the products on offer with the content delivered by the brand. Trading on long established credibility in a narrow field gives publishers the opportunity to compete with general online retailers. But, as always when content and commerce meet, it is important not to be seen to be selling out.

Advertiser Landmarks

The ‘Sell out’ charge was levelled relentlessly at the first businesses to embrace native advertising, but in just a few short years since we first heard of native advertising, most publishers now offer some form of commercial content.

From programmatic social posts, through immersive video series, to old-school advertorials, the range of sponsored content formats produced is mind-boggling. The one thing they all have in common is that they set out to couch the advertiser’s message in a content package that is more engaging than a banner ad.

The rise of sponsored content is easy to explain. It sits at the centre of a perfect storm whipped up by audience disillusionment with digital display advertising and the rise of content marketing. The publisher’s role is to create content that counters banner blindness and placates Google’s quest for quality content over keywords, creating a context for soft-sell marketing promotions. It’s an opportunity to trade on years of expertise in storytelling, audience building and content distribution.

Always looking for better ways to connect the audience and advertisers, more and more publishers are venturing into the world of moving pictures. Demand for video has grown exponentially over the last twelve to eighteen months, and publishers have begun investing in the staff and equipment to supply the audience appetite.

Advertisers are paying significantly higher rates for pre-roll video advertising than for other forms of digital display, but video is not a panacea. Controversy over viewability figures in video is reaching fever pitch, the audience is almost as dismissive of video pre-roll advertising as they are of banner ads and as more publishers develop some level of video production capability, prices will fall.

Organisational Landmarks

The biggest challenge with publishing’s digital adventure lies with the fact that it is an exploration and not a journey. The landscape is constantly changing and getting from A to B, never mind A to Z, involves navigating a staggering array of unknowns.

To do that successfully and repeatedly, requires a flexible approach to publishing; test and learn must sit at the centre of digital development. And data on current audience behaviours is crucial. As audience preferences shift, a solid understanding of what content works is the only way to set the direction for future expeditions.

There is a perception among many publishers that they don’t have the skills or the technology required to move forward. On one level, that is a little depressing. The publishing industry has been dealing with digital disruption for the best part of three decades. Surely by now, businesses would have the core skills and technology in place to handle the disruption?

But maybe that’s unfair. To stay current with every emerging publishing technology or trend is probably impossible for all but the biggest organisations. Companies will never have the capabilities to deal with every new feature that rises on the digital landscape. And given the attrition rate among digital platforms, investing in everything as it emerges would be incredibly wasteful.

Getting to the digital future will require an unlikely mix of adventure and caution for publishers, an ambitious and enthusiastic exploration of a select group of promising development areas. A headlong rush into the unknown won’t end well; at least it didn’t for Dr Livingstone.