10 strategic themes for the future of publishing from FIPP Congress

FIPP World Congress

What is the future of publishing and media brands?  Magazine media businesses from around the world gathered in London for FIPP Congress 9-11 October to share experiences and emerging business models, listen to tech innovations and navigate an increasingly complex world.

These are the top strategic themes I took away from the event.

1. Focus on subscriptions

With advertising under pressure, more publishers are concentrating on subscription models for digital rather than free content.  Innovation Media painted a very stark picture: all content that creates value should be paid for with data or money. Where information is scarce or specialised it is easier to charge: so publishers must find their scarcity or niche.  Nordic publishers like Schibsted and Bonnier are focussed on subscription revenues rather than advertising for their specialist magazines. More publishers are experimenting with dynamic paywalls that can spot demand and adjust rates.


2. Leadership and culture biggest challenge for transformation

Culture is a bigger challenge than technology in transforming media businesses.  Leaders need to be willing to place bets, take a risk, and give up some activities to evolve quickly.  Organisations need to change culture before they can innovate.  James Tye of Dennis believes they have to combine innovation and efficiency, being agile and thinking long term. The ability to blend journalism and tech culture is important to success in digital transformation, according to Lucy Kueng of RISJ.  However, not everything imported from Silicon Valley is right for media.  Zillah Byng-Thorne of Future and Julia Jakel of G&J both made the point that diversity of staff fuels creativity, and an influx of new blood from acquisitions can be energising.


3. One media brand, multiple businesses

Media brands can deliver value to their audiences in many different ways.  The Business of Fashion started as a blog, and an e-newsletter, then moved into events, a directory, recruitment, training and a professional membership proposition.  Good Food has events, how-to videos, and is expanding into transactional revenue. Psychologies magazine in France runs events and a directory of professional therapists. Bonnier’s specialist science and history magazines run a subscription video streaming service.  Forbes have developed their 30 under 30 brand into events and a venture fund.


4. Print has a role, but is not the long term answer

Dennis has enjoyed dramatic success with news weekly The Week Junior, which is print only, growing subscriptions through social media and sampling via schools and at events.  The Business of Fashion, a digital native publisher, has found that launching a print magazine added trust and credibility with their audience.  But publishers need to build a sustainable digital model before their print model becomes unsustainable, according to Innovation Media.  Print can play a role in the short term, but is better seen as a bridge to the future than the long term answer.


5. Advertising shifts to marketing partnerships

Publishers can’t win the reach game, with Facebook and Google taking 73% of the digital ad market in the US.  So they must focus on engagement, time spent and ultimately, the effectiveness of advertising.  Content marketing partnerships are proving valuable to clients and publishers.  Canada’s FASHION magazine created a powerful bespoke campaign for L’Oreal with cover images, print features, celebrities, social media, video and backstage access.  Time Inc has brought together retailers with broadcast TV, bespoke content and a community of social media influencers to change brand perceptions and drive sales.


6. Video = social

Social media is now driven by video content. According to Karla Geci of Facebook, 40% of all video watch time now comes from shares, so people are discovering video from friends rather than media brands or search.  Interestingly, 55% of video viewing time on smartphones is now long form content.  Refinery29 creates high volumes of video for social media and has 300 video advertisers.  They even create long form narrative video series and licence to Facebook Watch and other new digital video platforms.  AJ+ content is driven by video on social media.  Producer Shadi Rahimi demonstrated the power of emotions in news videos to dramatically boost shares and views.  Golf Digest is building up its video tutorial content and putting it behind a paywall.


7. Mobile first

Smartphones are becoming handheld life management devices.  China’s behemoth app WeChat combines chat with friends with multiple e-commerce options, and has also spawned a community of content publishers, the “WeMedia”.  Google is developing a voice-enabled chat interface for smartphones, Google Assistant, which could allow third party apps in areas like recipes and entertainment. For many publishers, mobile is well over half their traffic, and formats like Facebook Instant Articles and AMP are driving up to a quarter of visits, so content needs to be optimised for these channels.  Axel Springer has adopted an unusual strategy: partnering with Samsung to develop news aggregator Upday curating publisher content from all over Europe and selling advertising to a mobile audience.


8. Engaged readers are loyal

Traditional print brands like Vogue and Paris Match are investing in tailored content for social platforms like Instagram and Snapchat to engage a younger audience.  Editorial teams have to acquire new skills but the benefit is greater engagement and feedback for the brand.  Regional news media are using platforms like Hearken to encourage readers to submit questions for journalists to investigate, vote on topics and then comment on and share the articles.  This builds traffic, engagement and loyalty.  Business of Fashion developed a series of live events to engage the community they had built up online.  With the focus on a subscription business model, engaging your audience is an essential step.


9. Technology frontiers are getting closer

Technology that only recently seemed distant has now arrived and will affect publishing.  Artificial intelligence (AI) powers voice-enabled chatbots like Google Assistant, which could create content opportunities for publishers.  AI could also free up journalists to focus on adding greater editorial value.  Augmented reality (AR) is a way to add a layer of useful digital information to the real world, and has already been tested by hotels and travel companies.  And both the New York Times and the Guardian have been experimenting with virtual reality (VR) with Google.  Here the funding is largely from sponsorship.


10. Build resilience to external threats

Media brands are under threat, with tech giants chomping up digital advertising, insurgent digital native brands eating into audience attention, and, perhaps most disturbingly, populist governments in Poland, Hungary, India and the US chipping away at the freedom of independent news media.  To build resilience, media brands have to secure their business model, so they can withstand advertising declines and invest in digital platforms. At FIPP, the conclusion seemed to be that subscription models provided the greatest long term security.


So maybe it’s not the most comfortable environment for media owners.  But there are some examples of innovative thinking in developing subscriptions, engaging audiences, partnering with advertisers and experimenting with new digital platforms and technologies.  One prerequisite though is creating the right culture and organisation to be able to adapt and evolve more rapidly.


If you’d like to discuss these themes in more depth and consider how they might apply to your organisation, I’d be happy to chat over the phone or over a coffee.  Just get in touch.


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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 digital publishing strategy.

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