The Levers of Power

Jim Foster’s publishing world…

By Jim Foster

The Levers of Power

You should see the view I have as I scribe this – I’m looking out over the Pacific Ocean from atop a hill on the west coast of Costa Rica. The girlfriend is in the pool and I've just ordered a chilled Imperial beer. Oh, and some wild scarlet macaws have just flown overhead. Costa Rica is a twitcher's paradise.

Talking of twitching (the nervous kind, this time), I'll be interested to see what's been happening at work when I get back. That does sound quite sad, but prior to coming out here, I worked tirelessly for a month on a strategy presentation for Bauer's UK board, in which I outlined where I see our digital strategy heading - specifically, showing how we can double our digital content revenue by end 2020.

The presentation will have been made to the board in my vacational absence. Part of it included a section pitching for investment in order to grow. Nothing outlandish, just a recognition that the business I run is projected to be nearly 10 per cent up in contribution year-on-year, that we're now contributing significantly to ABC circ figures on the majority of our titles and that, to accelerate this positivity, my small team of four (of whom only one is a specialist marketeer) needs some assistance.

The work I did involved collating a lot of data, analytics, stats and figures, most of which I cannot share with you for (P) 45 obvious reasons. While the majority of that analysis clearly shows trends moving in the right direction, some of it also demonstrates the fact that – despite delivering growth, we haven't been performing as well as we should have been in some areas. Specifically, I'm talking here about our market-share of app installs, which has been declining over the last quarter against a select competitive set.

Once we get a customer to install one of our apps, we're good at persuading him or her to buy. Our conversion rates from free downloads to paid subs are excellent and despite the decline in installs, our digital subs base has been increasing steadily this year. On some Bauer titles, well over 30 per cent of people who install our app go on to take out a sub.

But we don't get everything right and, while writing the strategy paper, I knew the board would want to know what we're going to do to reverse the declining trend in app installs and get our share back. Growing share while maintaining conversion rates would equate to healthy and accelerated revenue growth, after all.

The answer lies largely in marketing and the ability of our apps to tell us how effective that marketing is.

Really, the promotion of app installs has to be done on a multi-channel basis, the first of which should be sorting out how easy it is to find your app organically in the app store. We estimate that some 65 to 70 per cent of our app installs are made this way. It's therefore massively important to optimise your apps for search, something I've talked about in this column before.

The forthcoming changes to the app store as part of iOS 11 should help boost organic installs, as they probably mean we no longer have to compete with, say, the gaming industry for various keywords in app store search.

Learning from the experts

One thing that excites me – should we get board approval – will be to collaborate with a specialist agency to properly sort out our rankings performance in the iOS store and get the likes of Car, Bike, Practical Photography, Empire and Grazia back in the top 10 mag and newspaper category free downloads charts, where they belong.

The idea will be to learn from the experts in this field, then implement the learnings within the team and manage that expertise across the whole portfolio. The business rightly considers SEO on the web to be important enough to warrant a specialist SEO team, so one day, maybe, we may get our own App Store Optimisation (ASO) specialist working full time as part of my team.

By the time I get back from holiday, I should also know when our next app update will be available to test. Installed in this build – finally – will be the capability to track where downloads originate, via an SDK from a specialist analytics company operating in this field. Hence, we'll be able to monitor more accurately than ever before how efficient each marketing channel is – which campaigns produce the most app installs and, more importantly, which channels produce the most revenue.

Thus, we'll finally be able to invest in some specialist marketing on Facebook, where we can push our apps to enthusiast audiences we know will be interested in our brands. Imagine pushing Bird Watching globally to ornithology groups on Facebook. So simple, but so perfect. Yet we've not been able to do it, to date.

Most importantly, we'll be able to monitor the return we get on that investment. The cost per app install can be pretty high – I hear in the region of £3 and above for other media companies as a figure that's widely accepted. So, the first-class in-app CRM we now have in place was a vital prerequisite to sort before spending thousands on social media marketing.

In any form of publishing, digital or otherwise, growing a good business is massively reliant on getting multiple factors and strategies right. Imagine it like this – there are ten levers in front of you. One might represent content. Another, app store optimisation. Another, iPhone strategy. Another, utilisation of free content channels for promotional purposes, like Apple News.

June saw us pay a visit to Apple HQ in Hannover Street, where we met with the Apple News team. It was interesting to hear (albeit without sensitive stats) how successful our competitors were being in driving iOS subs directly from Apple News feeds, having integrated CMSs with the simple plugin Apple supply. "It's SO easy to do," was their vocalised message. "Why ON EARTH haven't you done it yet?" was the unsaid implication.

Coincidentally, it seems some of our competitors started Apple News strategies just after the implementation of iOS 10 some nine months ago. Shortly after, our market share decline in installs began. They turned on that particular business lever and maintained it nicely. We didn't. And of course, if you were Apple, would you be more likely to devote 'editorial' promotions on your store for apps whose brands utilised your content channel, or those that didn't?

Having a great product is of course a prerequisite, but for you to really succeed, every lever needs to be switched on, managed and maintained. If one flicks off, for example if your app has a bug in it, or you're not on Apple News, or your print distribution mucks up one issue, then your entire business performance can be put in jeopardy. If a new lever appears, you need to evaluate it and switch it on pronto, if it's right to do so.

The strategy paper I wrote really just outlines what those levers are and the state of Bauer's at the moment. It'll be fascinating to see on my return whether the board agrees with my summations and recommendations. Or not.

Right. Article written. Time to settle back, order another beer, start some twitching of the avian kind and watch those scarlet macaws…