Eight years ago I set up my consulting firm, Penmaen Media, with the intent of helping publishing and media businesses navigate the complex world of digital.
Life hasn’t got any simpler since 2008 – I thought to mark the anniversary I’d sum up the timeline of digital publishing challenges, and look ahead to the future.
2008 – grappling with website launches
Specialist publishers were busy working out how to translate magazine propositions to the web. The business case was all about driving print subscriptions and selling advertising. In those heady days CPTs were £10+ for niche audiences! The biggest challenge was hiring developers and learning about coding, bugs and user testing.
2009 – building an email database and the mystery of SEO
Publishers realised the power of websites to build email databases, and the power of email newsletters to grow traffic and attract advertising. SEO still seemed a bit of a black art, and indeed often was, but publishers were in a strong position with plenty of archive content, listings and directories.
2010 – enter the iPad
In May 2010 I launched the Specialist Media Show, and delegates were excited to play with the six iPads smuggled into the event. Magazine publishers swooped on the idea of translating spreads designed for print directly to a screen. Those with big budgets created amazing combinations of video and graphics, but they took hours to download and not many people owned iPads.
2011 – the paywall emerges
The FT and the Times started to get some traction on their paywalls for premium online content, and there was much discussion about the relative merits of hard paywalls and metered models. B2B publishers started to experiment with the idea of registration walls, with some content only available to logged in users. Ashley Friedlein, CEO of Econsultancy, wowed the audience at the Specialist Media Show with a live demo of the information he could retrieve on the behaviour of a logged in user in real time (me).
2012 – march of the replicas, and a few iPad pioneers
With tablet and smartphone ownership rising, more services developed that made it easy for publishers to create a PDF replica as a digital subscription, and some discovered a new revenue stream. Many however, were tempted to offer digital as a free add-on to a print subscription. A few brave publishers, such as LOOP, dropped print entirely to create a new, interactive, stand-alone product on iPad
2013 – marketing solutions and social revenue
As publisher websites matured, display ads became less appealing, and publishers started to collaborate with advertisers to create bespoke content, native advertising and sponsored sections. Social media, which had been seen as a PR vehicle, started to become valued by advertisers and used to drive sales. Rock Sound won a Media Pioneer Award for using Google Hangouts and twitter to run a live Q&A with their cover band.
2014 – the year of mobile?
After a few false dawns, this was the year that smartphones started to become the main access point for the web, and publishers went into a flurry of shifting their websites to responsive design. Digital only news services, such as Huff Post and Buzzfeed, worked out how to get their content shared on Facebook, and persuade advertisers to pay for that expertise.
2015 – data and user experience
Media owners realised that they were becoming tech businesses. B2B publishers explored the heady world of enterprise sales, with web-powered workflow products offering subscribers multiple logins and constantly updated information. And some developed pure data products, charging over £10kpa for slick search, real-time leads and accurate forecasts. This meant hiring developers, data scientists and product managers and learning about agile development.
2016 – media at a crossroads
The media industry feels beset with problems: ageing readership, declining print circulation, the cost of tech investment, low digital ad rates, ad blockers, and now the insidious growth of Facebook as a quasi publisher and ad intermediary. Plus digital magazine sales have stalled and online subscriptions are hard to establish in mass consumer markets.
But some businesses are managing to take their brands, content and networks in new directions. B2B publishers are growing paid subscriptions, developing premium data products, making more of marketing solutions for their advertisers and extending their live events portfolio. And consumer publishers are moving into live experiences, and experimenting with transactional revenues. Plus both are realising that there is a big international audience hungry for top quality, targeted English language content.
2017 and on – VR and AI?
Technology doesn’t wait for us to catch up – the big trends on the horizon are virtual reality and 360 video, and chat bots and the growth of AI. The New York Times has developed a profitable business creating VR films for ad clients, and more publishers are experimenting with chat bots for mobile friendly news services, and even considering creating simple news stories with robots, freeing up journalists for comment and analysis.
So I feel the story of the digital transformation of media isn’t yet complete and there will still be plenty of new technologies for former publishers to consider, as they shift the focus of their business from a printed product towards supplying trusted and relevant information and inspiration to a defined audience. With a following wind, that should keep me occupied for another eight years!
If you think I have missed a trend, or you’d just like to share your digital journey over the last few years, please comment. And if you’d like to have a chat about the digital media conundrums you are facing and learn about how other publishers have tackled them, do 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.