Digital media success depends on the three Cs: Content, Community and Commerce. But newspapers and magazines struggle to create new business models, often because they are trying to impose hard copy habits on an online world that is unimpressed. Many simply ignore the opportunities for video and reader/user engagement by making web sites and tablet editions that imitate their fading paper products. And they’re surprised there’s no profit in it.
The mounting task for legacy media is not so much how to migrate from hard copy to digital, but how to build sustainable online businesses. Publishers must find ways to combine the strengths of their traditional brands, relationships and content AND new digital skills, resources and attitudes. They must be able to put together totally new businesses, not tweaked versions of the old ones. Everything will change: the content, costs, revenue and marketing. And video (and live streaming) will be increasingly important.
A minority of major daily newspapers (like the increasingly-international New York Times and the UK’s Daily Telegraph and The Times) are making digital progress, especially with subscriptions. And Rupert Murdoch’s “Sun+” is using English Premier League football video clips in a real blurring of online media categories, as you would
expect. But the free-to-read global audiences of The Guardian and Daily Mail underline the urgent search for new advertising and ecommerce which can turn these gutsy digital adventures into profitable businesses: for all the hype (even at the amazing 134m-uniques Mail Online) the losses remain camouflaged by cost subsidies from hard copy. And in magazines, only the handful of major international brands (and, by no means, all of them) and some narrowcast specialists will be able to generate ecommerce revenues sufficient to compensate for lost advertising sales. For the rest, there’s a long way to go.
In a word, publishers must get W-I-S-E :
Newspapers and magazines must wake up to the 21st century definition of digital content that includes user-generated, social networking, and reader interaction – in video, pictures, animation, and text. Most just haven’t come to terms with the whole concept of aggregation. The fact is that online readers want to access a wide range of digital resources, so web publishers should meet the need.
They must forget the past when they could credibly purport to be their readers’ exclusive source of information, when they could expect to own all the material they published, and to treat all other outlets as competitive and unmentionable. If media sites don’t make it easy for readers to find everything, they will go away and look for themselves.
This is becoming increasingly important for all kinds of consumer and B2B media, including newspapers that suffer at the hands of arch-aggregators like HuffPost, Flipboard, Twitter or BuzzFeed. Traditional media brands should stop being scared of user-generated content: in many markets they could actually use aggregation to renew their authority and reader loyalty. It is an opportunity again to become the single trusted source of informed content. But they will have to work at it, and learn to trust other people’s content.
Most legacy media companies have lost more hard copy advertising than readers. But online is more problematic still because the large-space ads that made newspapers and magazines rich are (mostly) just not viable on the web.
Many publishers (especially those with constrained cover prices) now realise that, even if
they manage somehow to take all their readers online, they can’t monetize the audience: there is simply not enough inventory to sell without cluttering the screen and driving readers away. There are plenty of web sites that have audiences to match their hard copy publishing, but only a small fraction of the advertising. The problem of falling values for such “flat” advertising is exacerbated by the growth of small-screen mobile web traffic – with even less space to sell. The task of retaining advertising (not to say, readership) revenue has become an almost insurmountable hurdle in the search for viable print-to-digital strategies. Bizarrely, it is starting to feel as though the digital services of many newspapers and magazines might make sense only so long as the hard copy is there to soak up the advertising. Some hope.
Traditional media must find new digital ways of monetizing their growing web audiences. This calls for major digital development and also a fundamental re-casting of the relationship between content and advertising, because it is not only readers whose media appetites have been changed by the web.
Advertisers now want direct and effective interaction with target audiences and insight into the ‘net result’ of promotional campaigns. They are, to say the least, losing interest in “flat” advertising. Publishers must move decisively away from being mere suppliers of advertising space to helping advertisers engage with readers. Only in this way can they hope to find a digital substitute for what had once been an almost limitless inventory of advertising in hard copy.
That dictates the need for a structured approach to monetizing content through advertising and sponsorship: “Infotising”. This Flashes & Flames addition to the lexicon can be defined as the process of enabling advertisers to engage with readers by integrating promotional messages into independent content. This might include the following:
- Linking advertiser messages to relevant content. Someone reading or viewing online sports news could be alerted to the offers from a fitness retailer, either in the text, in the “margin”, or following the story.
- Identifying an advertiser with ‘compatible’ themes: certain types of coverage or news could trigger sponsored, pre-programmed series of high-interest “factoids”.
There is always scope for overtly-sponsored content and ecommerce, especially linked to specific coverage like books, travel and music. But Infotising would be more powerful – and valuable – because it would embed targeted messages into high-interest, independent coverage. It would specifically not be the kind of feature-based advertising for cars, holidays, and houses that has been the staple of newspaper advertising for decades. And it would not be advertorial, the curious tradition of advertising made to resemble editorial.
Infotising would use the new advantages of digital media to help promoters engage with readers of “hot” stories, things that have just happened and which command maximum attention, whether as online reading or video. There is wide scope for digital tools that would trigger a message or engagement with a reader without undermining the content – and plenty of room for innovation in highly-targeted ‘addressable’ advertising. The better the targeting and data, the higher the value to the advertiser and the more agreeable the process will be for the reader.
The value of such engagement would be driven by cookie-fed data on readers and their online behaviour. This is where advertising meets ‘big data’. The key is advertisers’ involvement with ‘hot’ content, something which traditional media has seldom been able (or found it necessary) to deliver in hard copy. And that is the point: Media companies need readership revenues and/or direct engagement with the content in order to monetize online audiences. Hence, the need for Infotising. If readers won’t pay enough for high-impact content, advertisers might.
Further, this integration of advertising would represent a step towards securing revenues in future times when readers are able to choose only the specific content they want. The iTunes-like unbundling of content is on the way, whether publishers like it or not. It is the flip-side of Flipboard-like aggregation, giving readers the opportunity to pick and choose – and effectively to separate the content from the ‘original’ ads. Like ‘ TV On Demand’, it will tend to reduce the power of the brand (the channel, newspaper or magazine), in favour of the content. But that’s digital.
Even before then, Infotising would dramatically increase online promotional inventories for consumer, business and specialist media. It might also turn news and more general reading back into a source of revenue. However, this game-changer in content integration requires new skills and collaboration in media companies between content providers and sales teams. It might need dedicated, system-savvy Infotising groups. Magazine publishers and B2B media may more readily accept that than daily newspapers. But give it time.
The precision of the web can take away the sheer chance – or serendipity – of hard copy. Newspaper readers have loved the whole idea of reading about something they weren’t really looking for while they turned the pages. It’s the sensation of consulting a dictionary and reading about fascinating words you weren’t looking for, on the way to the ones you were.
Web publishers must, similarly, seek to captivate readers by including the offbeat, humorous and surprising especially (but not only) in information searches. Serendipitous coverage is part of what will keep readers loyal to sites rather than reduce their information requirements to an endless number of Google Alerts or Flipboard pre-selections. It’s a simple idea that should become a serious focus for all media sites. Get online readers addicted to being surprised.
Success on the web is, increasingly, all about engagement and a continuous dialogue with (and between) readers/users. Engagement delivers valuable peer-to-peer learning, user-generated content, ‘stickiness’ – and a sense of community. It also, of course, provides real insights and data to help media understand its audiences, their online habits - and to help monetize them.
Web media can at least learn something about creating this vital sense of community from the vintage days of local newspapers, with stories and pictures of readers on every page. Almost every site should have its own social network. Don’t leave it only for Facebook or LinkedIn. But readers’ interactions, images and sentiments should also be woven throughout a site’s content. Publishers on the web need to abandon the ‘transmitter’ instincts of their hard copy past when the only engagement was readers’ letters and occasional market research.
Media outlets everywhere need now to value web interactivity for the compelling content, reader loyalty and commercial power it creates. The irrelevance of this whole topic to hard copy merely emphasises the change in mindset now required if publishers are to generate sustained profits online. One more time: newspapers and magazines must reinvent their whole approach to online content, advertising and audiences. The clock is ticking.
Traditional media must get WISE.