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The Direct-to-Consumer opportunity in publishing: why DTC is the place to be

The Direct-to-Consumer opportunity can help publishers transform their business model – for higher engagement and revenue. But what exactly is it and how do you get started?

By John Fong

The Direct-to-Consumer opportunity in publishing: why DTC is the place to be

What is Direct-to-Consumer publishing?

DTC publishing is about creating digital products that allow you to cut out the middleman and build a direct relationship with your readers. Not simply using digital platforms as a distribution channel for existing print content, but developing digital products that are desirable in their own right.

The unique opportunity in DTC publishing is using the analytics available in digital platforms to understand how readers engage with what you publish. Then using that information to serve up more of what they like and less of what they don’t.

This improves your value proposition with your different audience segments and encourages their loyalty (and likelihood to subscribe) to your digital products.

The magic doesn’t just happen behind the scenes on digital platforms either. It’s also about exploiting the full capabilities of digital channels to deliver added value – features that printed publications just can’t offer – such as video content and interactivity.

These digital products don’t exist in isolation or have to replace your print products. They become part of your portfolio which - by offering more products and channels to readers – can become more attractive and viable.

“The strategic agenda now is about maximising on the direct-to-consumer opportunity - having an integrated portfolio of print and digital products that deliver a premium brand experience and become greater than the sum of their parts,” says Craig Llewelyn-Williams, principal consultant at The App Lab, one of WoodWing’s authorised solution partners serving publishing clients.

What does DTC publishing look like in practice?

  • Developing a digital product that readers are willing to register for or subscribe to – collecting volunteered data that allows for direct communication with your readers
  • Creating value through editorial quality, digital-first design, interactivity, rich media, personalisation and more
  • Using analytics to understand reading preferences and automation to serve up evermore relevant content
  • Using in-app digital functionality – such as push notifications – to promote offers or collect volunteered data (like what topics they’d love to see more of)
  • Using external digital functionality – like email or SMS – to nudge lapsed readers back to your platform
  • Using data insights to develop more attractive and targeted opportunities for advertisers

Two DTC success stories

At the end of Q4 2020, The New York Times announced that its digital revenue had overtaken print. “The last ten years were about proving our strategy of journalism worth paying for. The next ten will be about scaling that idea,” said their president and chief executive officer, Meredith Kopit Levien in their accompanying press release.

In 2022, the Financial Times hit one million digital subscriptions, announcing that its digital journalism revenue outstrips all other income streams combined. Editor Roula Khalaf credited the FT’s journalistic integrity and “ever more engaging formats like visual storytelling, film and data journalism” for the swell in subscribers.

Both brands recognised – and strategised around – the emerging DTC opportunity and have reaped the benefits.

But DTC isn’t only open to large publishers. The very nature of DTC has democratised publishing. Brands no longer need to gamble on costly print production and a physical distribution network to profit from publishing – DTC is an opportunity for publishers of all sizes to transform their fortunes.

Six expert tips to get started with DTC

1. Be strategic

As the quote from Meredith Kopit Levien above shows, success doesn’t happen overnight. Their digital subscription growth is built on a decade of driving – and communicating – the quality of their journalism. Your DTC efforts should be equally strategic. Look three to five years ahead at where you’d like to be and work out the steps to get there. Are you looking for efficiencies, growth or both? Do you want to complement your print offer or replace it? Do you have the people and processes you need for future success?

2. Take a product development approach

The three pillars of successful product development are customer desirability, business viability and technical feasibility. Put simply: What do your readers want? Does it make sense commercially? And can you deliver it? Evidence shows that readers are willing to pay for quality digital content. So, what can you offer your unique audience? And how are you going to produce and distribute it profitably?

3. Create desirability

To create a desirable DTC product, you need to think about digital-first design that makes reading on a screen as pleasurable as picking up a book or magazine. And, of course, you need excellent editorial content that people want to read. Plus supporting media – like video – to optimise digital experiences for increased engagement.

“More and more content is being read on mobile devices, and pinch-and-zoom PDFs just don’t cut it for consumers. Publishers need to invest in creating an enjoyable mobile reading experience if they want to win brand loyalty,” says Craig Llewelyn-Williams of The App Lab.

Also, consider digitising your back catalogue before you launch your product. This gives new subscribers plenty of content to get their teeth into (and gives you more opportunities to gain insights into their reading habits).

4. Stimulate demand

The DTC approach makes your product evermore relevant to subscribers. But how do you get them through the digital door in the first place? Consider the marketing methods you’ll employ to recruit new readers – from ads and SEO, to previews, metered access and third-party partnerships. Think about your brand in advance – what does subscribing to your digital product say about the reader and how can you leverage that?

5. Ensure technical feasibility

Many publishers struggle with multi-channel content creation because their production processes are designed for print. Digital production is added as a post-script once a publication is shipped. This isn’t an efficient, sustainable or scalable way to create content for publishers with DTC ambitions. As part of your strategy, explore channel-neutral publishing that allows you to create content once and ship it - almost simultaneously – to print and digital platforms.

“Channels change but articles are fundamentally the same, wherever you publish them,” explains Tom Pijsel, VP product management at WoodWing. “They comprise the same editorial and design elements. The body copy. The headline. The byline. The captions. Channel-neutral publishing is about breaking down and identifying every part of an article, so it can be easily recognised and rebuilt on any platform.”

The channel-neutral approach will allow you to streamline processes and consolidate teams into a single workflow – efficiently producing print and digital content that’s ready for your own platforms or third-party opportunities.

6. Experiment with third-party syndication

DTC is about cutting out the middleman but there are also profitable opportunities in third-party syndication – whether that’s pushing your whole portfolio through big hitters like Apple News+ and Amazon – or micro-syndication opportunities for individual articles. Once you have your content in a channel-neutral state, it’s much easier to provide it to third parties and experiment with what works for your audience.

“If you have your content available in a channel-neutral way, you’re more ready to take advantage of new opportunities as they arise, with less investment and risk. Having content ready – in an HTML format – for multiple endpoints… That’s the endgame for publishers looking to harness emerging opportunities,” says Craig Llewelyn-Williams.

Key takeaways

  • The DTC approach can revitalise traditional print publishers
  • It builds brand loyalty through increased relevance to readers
  • Publishers must adopt a product development approach…
  • And create a subscribe-worthy value proposition
  • Redesigning processes will support your DTC ambitions

About us

WoodWing software empowers ambitious enterprises to reclaim control of their publishing, digital asset, and document management processes. Download our ebook for 28-pages of in-depth actionable insights into DTC publishing.

For more than 20 years, WoodWing has been an innovative and trusted partner to the world’s biggest publishing brands. Today, we serve all business sectors and brands, with five solutions spanning publishing software, Digital Asset Management systems, Enterprise Information Management software, and Quality and Knowledge management software.

We also offer professional services – from cloud-hosting and system management, to workflow optimisation and software integration consultancy, and outsourced publishing and design services.

WoodWing Software is a private limited company (BV) headquartered in the Netherlands and with offices in the US and Malaysia, commercial staff in LATAM, and a partner network that extends all over the world. It was established in 2000 and employs 200+ staff worldwide.