Publishing companies face lots of challenges, as I heard when I met up with Markus Karlsson and Jonathan Collins, CEO and CCO respectively of Affino in London recently.
I was reminded during our chat of something Margaret Thatcher once said about one of her ministers: “Other people bring me problems; David [Young] brings me solutions.” Markus and Jonathan had lots to say about the “problems” we all face, but more excitingly, lots about the “solutions” too.
Affino is a specialist SaaS platform and consultancy for the publishing and media sector, founded by Markus in 2008. The company’s vision is, says Markus, to “define a new category for media companies, a business platform for them in the way that other sectors have enterprise resource platforms such as SAP.”
The Affino platform allows editors to quickly create attractive and responsive websites and pages; marketers to control visitor access and user journeys and commercial teams to manage their sales processes and prospecting. In short, it’s an integrated real-time CMS and CRM platform, with comprehensive editorial, sales, marketing, e-commerce and events functionality all rolled into one system. That is why Affino describes itself as a ‘unified business platform’ to run a successful publishing business on.
So, what then are the challenges publishers face?
“Of course,” says Markus, “there are exceptions, but taken as a whole, the publishing industry is working in the dark when it comes to traffic numbers and engagement levels. The use of privacy tools means that a lot of the stats collected are not reliable. The huge amount of non-legitimate traffic, coming from bots and server farms, is not being accounted for, which means publishers’ visitor stats are often inflated. Furthermore, the ever-increasing adoption of ad blockers means that up to 30% of the ads publishers think they are serving, they’re not, which means that publishers do not have a clear idea of what their visitors are actually seeing on their sites and advertisers are almost certainly getting short-changed.”
“Inflated figures might make selling ads easier in the short term, but it’s only a matter of time before industry reporting requirements catch up, so it is much better to get the correction in early.”
“Publishers are also in danger of believing their own incorrect stats, which means that they will be unaware of the true state of play – not a good place to be, as it makes it impossible to make informed business decisions.”
“The widespread use of legacy publishing systems means that many publishers are slow to roll out new initiatives – be it new sites, layouts, landing or e-commerce pages – meaning that commercial opportunities go begging, because all those simple processes require expensive programming time.”
“Automation – something our biggest rivals, Google and Facebook, excel at, is still underused in the publishing world, due to the existence of too many disconnected systems. This means that workflows are inefficient and prone to bottlenecks.”
“Finally, IT is underrepresented in the upper echelons of publishing companies. Technology is at the centre of the publishing world and publishers will under-perform if they don’t employ first rate technical expertise at senior level and involve them throughout the decision making process, especially when it comes to anything that needs to be delivered digitally. Too often, the tech team are seen as an adjunct with limited or no decision making ability.”
Now, if our conversation had ended there, I would have staggered out, slightly punch-drunk, onto Tottenham Court Road. Err, what can publishers do about this, I ask them. Happily, Markus and Jonathan, had eight solutions to the sector’s challenges:
1. Work with real numbers
“As comforting as inflated figures are, they help no one in the long term; we need to screen out the non-legitimate traffic. The answer is to not count ‘pageviews’ but, instead, only ‘verified human views’ and the way to do this is firstly to require visitors to register. Once registered, their activity on site can be tracked, even if they’re not logged in. Registration is the key to clean and accurate visitor numbers and such an approach has the added benefit of allowing you to properly analyse visitor behaviour on your site. Secondly, to back this up with sophisticated visitor verification protocols.”
“Similarly, ‘ads viewed’ is a much more legitimate measure than ‘ads served’. You will need to manage advertiser expectations, as the numbers will go down in the short term, but the medium to long term benefits of trading on accurate data are immense. And… it’s only a matter of time before the industry as a whole requires it. It’s much better to get in there first.”
2. Defeat the ad blockers
“As much as 30% of ads served on a typical website are blocked. Ad blocking software, and browsers like Firefox and Safari, can easily identify ads because they usually come from third party ad servers. The solution is firstly to serve the ads locally and secondly to take steps to make the ads not look like ads; the trick is to make them look like other standard page elements.”
3. Integrate front and back end, in real time
“Visitor analysis, content publishing and marketing activity are much more effective if done in real-time and this can only be done if the web interface is fully integrated with the visitor database. This allows you to tailor content to users’ interests in real time, to spot trends and take corrective action, such as automating some form of relevant marketing communication triggered by visitor activity. This allows you to increase engagement and drive positive outcomes, such as sales, click-throughs or sign-ups. As soon as you start using offline data repositories, you will always be playing catch-up.”
4. Greater use of out-of-the-box functionality
“The word ‘template’ still elicits negative reaction in some quarters, conjuring up images of bland homogeneity, but they are the enabler of rapid agile publishing. Creating a new website, setting up a new landing or e-commerce payment page, tweaking an existing layout are all greatly facilitated by a comprehensive library of templates, with elements such as workflow management, security, digital asset management and analytics already plumbed in, out-of-the-box.”
“You need to ask yourself the question, how much development time does it currently take you to do any of the above? If the answer is anything other than zero, then you will not be as nimble as you need to be. Effective templating needs a large number of templates covering all the things you might conceivably want to do, and within each template, a large number of publisher-controlled settings to allow you to customise the look and feel of the page. No two pages using the same base template need look remotely similar. By using a template, you are not having to reinvent the wheel each time you want to add or change anything on your site.”
5. Become audience-centric not brand-centric
“Historically, publishers have been brand-focused, but this can be limiting. Focusing on topics is crucial because that’s how people find things nowadays, whether it is a Google, Siri or Alexa search, it all starts with keywords (rarely brand names) especially for new users.”
“In the digital world, scale counts and it’s much easier to build bigger numbers using a topic-based audience-centric approach. In terms of SEO, for instance, a single audience of 300k people interested in, say, aviation, is much more efficient and effective than ten separate audiences of 30k, each segment being interested in a different aspect of aviation.”
6. Focus on KPIs
"Successful publishing is about making money. The best way to achieve that is to focus on KPIs. Facebook built its scale by remorselessly focusing on two or three metrics and everything they did was assessed through the prism of those metrics. Publishers need to be similarly laser focused. Focus on what makes money – everything else is cost and time.”
7. Employ top tech talent
“Retaining good tech talent is one of the biggest challenges the industry faces, and it is possibly the biggest gamechanger of them all. Technology lies at the heart of modern publishing, so major publishers need to employ top tech talent to give themselves the best chance of thriving in the digital world. Employ good tech people, pay them well, put them on six-month retainers, and keep a place on the board for one of them.”
8. Use fewer systems!
“Publishers use a lot of different systems and platforms. Publishing, content management, commercial, audience, production all have their own systems and within larger publishing organisations, these are often then duplicated across divisions. The consequences of this are manifold: publishing companies spend too much time working on integration projects rather than on productive activities. The greater the number of systems that have to ‘talk’ to each other, the more links there are in the chain, the greater the likelihood of something going wrong and the greater the risk of being hacked. Last, but not least, it means that expertise is spread very thinly across the organisation. The fewer the platforms used, the greater the depth of expertise accrued. Multi-platform publishing is a dead-end that stops companies evolving.”
It is this last point that probably best illustrates what Affino sees as their USP, because the Affino platform can handle the work currently being done by multiple other systems.
“Sometimes”, says Jonathan, “publishers will come to us wanting to replace part of their tech stack, for instance by providing an audience CRM, or publishing platform, or new generation of websites. Sometimes, they want us to modernise their entire tech stack. Affino can handle as much or as little as the publisher requires.”
So why, I ask Markus, should a publisher pick up the phone and call you.
“The chances are that readers of InPublishing will have multiple systems already in place that theoretically do the things we do, but we can add considerable value by doing all those things on a unified business platform.”
“Our mantra is to ‘maximise revenues’. We help media companies to build better more profitable businesses. So, essentially, if you want to grow your business faster and more effectively and feel that you’re spending too much time, effort and money on your tech then, let’s talk. Give me or Jonathan a call.”
One Alfred Place, 1 Alfred Place, off Tottenham Court Road, London, WC1E 7EB
Jonathan Collins, CCO
Tel: 020 3393 3240