10 smart digital media strategies


With dramatic shifts in how digital media is consumed, how can publishers evolve their digital strategy to keep up, or even to stay in business? I spent two days at Digital Media Strategies listening to a wide range of old and new media businesses sharing their experiences, from Washington Post to Al Jazeera, and from Schibsted to The Economist. This article is my take on the most important trends and smartest digital media strategies.

Changing media behaviour

Phone first: People are increasingly using a smartphone as the remote control for their life: smartphones are expected to reach 80% of the global population by 2020, and 60% of the population check their phone within 15 mins of waking up. So the phone is the default source of news, information and entertainment, which means that content has to be designed for mobile first.

Social discovery: Social platforms are now an important way to discover new stories. Most news media report that Facebook is a bigger traffic source than Google. And the growth of distributed publishing platforms like Facebook Instants, Snapchat Discover, Apple News means that even more power is with the digital giants.

Lock screen is the new inbox: Messaging apps are becoming a news platform in their own right – from What’s App to Snapchat, Line in SE Asia and WeChat in China. And notifications are growing as a source of more tailored news alerts.

Video explosion: In the US, Facebook video views now rival Youtube: they deliver 8bn videos a day, 75% through mobile. Twitter has seen a 22 fold increase in video views since opening its video platform to publishers.

New formats: Beyond video, other visual and rich media editorial formats are booming, from infographics to audio, animations to podcasts. Within b2b markets, data-sets are increasingly valuable.

Changes in environment

Ad blocking: The scariest trend for publishers is of course the growth of ad blockers. In some tech markets this can mean up to a third of the audience have chosen not to view ads. Combined with low display ad rates, this is pressurising free content, ad-funded sites. Native advertising is a partial solution, but some native formats are also affected by ad blockers.

Global audiences: many interest groups and audience segments cross borders, which creates opportunities for publishers to expand internationally but also the risk of new competitors.

Analytics & automation: the digital data revolution allows publishers to understand behaviour in more depth, but the challenge is sifting for the meaning, and deciding what action to take. The growth of automated journalism might seem threatening, but could help mine data-sets for newsworthy insights and generate simple stories more effectively.

New platforms: Just as publishers get to grips with Facebook, twitter and Linked in, they have to assess the potential of Line, WhatsApp, Snapchat and more and prioritise resources


10 smart digital media strategies

So what seems to be working well in this rapidly shifting digital environment? Among speakers from media businesses as varied as Schibsted, Immediate Media, Al Jazeera, The Economist, Ascential and the Washington Post, plus start ups like The Memo, Panoply and Politico Europe, these were the common themes:

  1. Knowing your audience

Publishers need to make a subtle shift from creating the content they want to create and then seeking an audience, to identifying an audience and then discovering what content they want.

Julia Beizer of the Washington Post explained their targeted US-wide audience for their digital news service and tailored the content to suit their needs – with as much coverage of food, science and consumer news as politics.

The Economist defines their prospective audience as the “globally curious” an estimated 70m people worldwide – and they don’t all work in banking and finance.

AJ+, a new launch from Al Jazeera, aims for a younger, international audience that don’t consume their traditional service. Yaser Bishr, head of strategy, defined the “golden triangle” of being audience centric as a combination of the right content, strong engagement and excellent analytics.

  1. Thinking product not content

The packaging of a digital media product is as important as the editorial content within, believes Julia Beizer of the Washington Post.

So that means having a product mindset and thinking as much about the user experience as the articles; a substantial shift for may traditional publishers.

  1. Exploring social distribution

Rather than viewing the global digital platforms as the enemy, publishers are increasingly seeing them as a powerful way to reach new audiences. But it makes sense to spread the risk and not be reliant on any one platform.

The Economist believes it has an awareness and perception problem, so has embarked on a massive programme of distributing free content across ten different social platforms, garnering an audience of 20m. The team of 10 have an editorial background and work closely with section editors and correspondents. Each specialises in a single platform so they can adapt content to suit, and use data intensively to prioritise effort. Contrary to perceived wisdom, Denise Law, Community Manager, has found that social traffic is actually more loyal than users who arrive by search.

Washington Post has been actively experimenting with Facebook Instant Articles, and has discovered that a significant number of users who arrive from Facebook do return to the site within 7 days.

AJ+, a new launch from Al Jazeera, has taken this a step further: they only publish on social platforms, and have no website – just a mobile front page. Yet they have 3.5m Facebook likes, 190k twitter followers and 186k Youtube subscribers.

  1. Engaging audiences & offering more personalised services

Audiences become more loyal when they feel they are getting more tailored content or they become more involved in the content

AJ plus actively encourages readers to get involved in the news stories and move up the “hierarchy of engagement”, from observing to following, sharing, then contributing. A dedicated engagement team meets daily with the editorial team, considering how to involve the audience in the development of the story.

Schibsted is a long established Norwegian local newspaper business that has undergone a remarkable transformation with revenues now 65% digital. Their CEO believes strongly in encouraging readers to login as they can then view more tailored and relevant content and gain access to personalised services, such as online marketplaces. This provides the publisher with far better insight into how content is read and used.

  1. Testing aggressively

With so many new traffic sources and emerging audiences, the fastest way to learn and develop new products is by rapid experimentation. Julia Beizer of Washington Post advocates an aggressive approach to testing, being bold and setting up dramatic tests. For readers arriving at their new mobile site via social, the challenge is keeping them reading, so they tested a narrow strip teasing the next article along, and saw a 22% growth in engagement. WaPo has also developed a tool for editors called bandito, which allows multiple headlines to be tested in real time, shutting down the test once a winner is established

  1. Reducing dependence on display advertising

Ad blockers are the big threat, and as they show no signs of disappearing, the smart long term strategy for publishers is to diversify revenue streams.

Ascential CEO Duncan Painter has a simple, if slightly uncompromising approach for his B2B brands: a complete focus on paid content and no free content at all. With a growing proportion of subscriptions at enterprise level and a ruthless concentration on renewals, he’s aiming for 96% subs renewal rates.

The Guardian, long a proponent of free content and ad-funding, is now saying it plans membership to make up a third of its revenues in three years. Already branded content via Guardian Labs contributes 17-18% of ad revenues, with a target of 25-30% in next 2 years.

Niche digital start-ups are building sponsorship and native ads into their business models from the beginning.

  • Politico Europe sells pro multi-user subs to organisations and builds one-off sponsorship properties around key events.
  • The memo focus on native ads, and have developed “baked in” ads in the videos they distribute via Reuters so they can’t be halted by ad blockers.
  • Panoply Media have developed integrated customised audio ads within their podcasts and can achieve impressive CPMs to reach niche audiences.
  1. Developing new kinds of storytelling

Publishers are getting cleverer at using visuals and data to tell complex stories

The memo explains challenging tech subjects such as blockchains with animated videos

AJ plus tells news stories in quick videos with captions and graphics (audio optional)

At the Telegraph, Malcolm Coles and his team have developed tools to help editors create in-depth online stories faster, eg timelines, explainer cards for context, photo grids, mobile friendly charts.

The Atlantic builds multiple content types around major stories, from traditional 10,000 word magazine articles to videos, image galleries, even books.

This in-depth storytelling can work exceptionally well for commercial partners. A podcast called “the message” that Panoply Media created for GE had its own website, videos, games and interaction, and achieved 5 million downloads.

  1. Getting teams on board

The speed of change required can be challenging for existing editorial teams, so an important part of evolving a digital media business is supporting them through that transition.

The Economist community team literally tore down the partition walls between magazine section editors and the social editorial team, helping to foster more conversations, and actively shares stories of success on social platforms.

The Telegraph invested significant time and money in overhauling its CMS to make it far easier for journalists to create more complex, socially linked, and in-depth articles in less time, with some tasks taking 4 minutes rather than 27 minutes. Schibsted has also implemented a new, more user-friendly CMS.

The Telegraph has a vast screen in the newsroom with data on what readers are viewing online plus trending topics in social media, to provide real-time feedback for journalists.

AJ plus went on a university tour around the US to recruit new reporters for its mobile/social site who were closer in age to the target audience.

  1. Launching new brands

Sometimes in order to reach a new audience, on a mobile friendly platform, a new brand is required, and this can be challenging for established media businesses.

Johnston Press has just acquired i newspaper which has no website – so they intend to launch i-news as a brand new mobile first service, creating new content sections and focussing on native advertising. It will be able to draw on content from JP’s network of 600 local news reporters.

AJ Plus is an entirely new brand, with its own editorial team, but with a feed of news from parent Al Jazeera.

Politico Europe is a new launch from Washington based publisher Politico, boosted by a local acquisition, but with its own editorial team and a focussed business model

The memo is a start-up aiming to demystify technology for a mass audience. Founder and editor Alex Wood has built up 100k audience and 20,000 email newsletter subs on 1000+ articles and a minimal marketing budget. A distribution deal with Reuters for video content has helped awareness.

  1. Exploring the ecosystem

Online retailers know the importance of content in attracting an audience and prompting them to purchase, so equally publishers need to look at the value of the ecosystem surrounding their audience and the opportunities to develop additional services to diversify revenue.

Immediate Media has mined its specialist communities particularly effectively.

  • Radio Times has developed a database of 10m customers and has sold holidays worth £5m in the last year.
  • By acquiring hitched, the leading marketplace for wedding venues in the UK, they have a b2b subscription product in a £10bn marketplace, powered by their wedding magazines.
  • And the acquisition of TV shopping channel Jewellery Maker has brought in a new skill set and the potential to expand across all their craft magazines.


So there are ways for smart publishers to surf the technology waves and reinvent their business for a social, mobile, visual media world, but it does take a bit of bravery and experimentation to get started.


If you have a story to share about how your media business is tackling the digital challenge, please let me know.

And if you want to have an initial chat about your own digital publishing strategy and learn a little more about some of these strategic approaches, feel free to get in touch.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on the topic of digital publishing strategy for media sector publishers and events.