There probably aren’t too many positives to being in the publishing industry in Ireland these days. Margins are being squeezed, competition is fierce and the move to digital hasn’t made up for diminishing returns in circulation and print ad revenue.
The Facebook/Google duopoly is hoovering up ad revenue and forcing companies to make Faustian pacts to share their content, while trust and credibility in media has taken a hit the world over in the past year.
Something needs to change. For the majority of Irish publishers, the choice is between a slow (but increasingly faster) march to death or changing things around and trialling new ways to make money using existing resources.
There is one big positive about trying to come up with a winning strategy in the media industry. Unlike in most global businesses with media the vagaries of language and national relevancy mean publishers can observe and copy the models of media companies in other country markets, without falling into a ‘me too’ trap.
One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received was that
“there’s always going to be someone out there who has faced your exact same problems and come through, so find them and ask them how they did it”.
In media it’s no different. And this week, I came across a short presentation that I’d recommend media execs. around the country should print out and read through with a fine tooth comb.
Speaking at a digital publishing summit organised by Digiday, Bloomberg Media CEO Justin Smith delivered this. For me, it’s the clearest summation of the modern media business model that I’ve seen. Across 11 areas, Smith offers a pithy, one line strategy for publishers to aim towards. He examines how to fend off platforms, how to maintain and grow revenue levels and what ancillary businesses make the most sense for media companies to enter into.
Here are a four key points that really hit home for me when I think about Irish publishers.
1) Obsess over differentiation
Most breaking news is commoditised. Indeed most journalism is commoditised. The only value is in differentiation and being a high value outlet for your readers. What marks you out as being a product that people will want to pay for? In a dog eat dog world, what’s your competitive advantage? Is it brand? Tone? Journalists? Sources?
Differentiation and uniqueness means you can charge more for advertising, and also potentially charge for a subscription. But if your content is based on taking stories from elsewhere, re-writing ‘news’ and chasing clickbait headlines, the game is already up unfortunately. Just like in the old days, unique voices, strong editorial slants and investment in journalism that stands out from the crowd is the only way to succeed. The race to scale is over and there isn’t enough digital advertising money to go around, so your only option is to be very valuable.
Here’s the key question to ask: Would anyone miss your company if it died tomorrow? If the answer is Yes, you’re in business.
3) Fight to keep a direct relationship with your audience
Publishers used to be in control of their own distribution channels. Readers could either buy the paper or come to their site. But as the importance of social distribution has grown, the direct relationship between publisher and consumer has lessened. Only 23% of Irish consumers recognise the news brands responsible for a piece of content on social media. We’ve become blinded. The brand gets stripped away, the publisher struggles to gain recognition and much of the credit is wrongly inherited by the platform.
Thus, as Smith says, it’s vitally important that publishers struggle to stay connected to the people who buy and consume their product. Subscriptions are the holy grail, but there are other options – live events, apps, accounts, email etc. Brands have quickly figured out that building your house on the rented land of social is dangerous, since one algorithm change can take your ‘community’ away. It’s about owning the relationship rather than outsourcing it.
Another media critic that I rate, Rafat Ali is very strong on this topic too.
“Building direct relationships is the only way to build a long lasting media company, email works very well.”
5) Reinvent brand advertising and wean yourself off programatic
Programatic is inefficient and ready to explode, while adblocking is rife because of annoying, intrusive digital display. Thus, giving away free content in return for digital ad monetisation hasn’t been the cash cow that many publishers hoped. According to a report this week, last year, The Guardian conducted a test where it bought its own ad inventory on open ad exchanges so it could get a sense of how much of the money put into the ad tech ecosystem made it back to the publisher. In the worst case scenario, The Guardian found that for every £1 spent on its inventory, just 30p actually made it back to The Guardian.
Relying on programatic is unsustainable, so its up to publishers to regain control and begin to revalue some of their assets in the eyes of brands. Already, most of the large global publishers have custom content houses, and their advertising deck offers everything from branded events to sponsored content to video licensing. Smart brands want different, attention grabbing ways to advertise. It’s up to smart media companies to concoct and sell these opportunities, without mixing up editorial and advertising too much.
Monocle magazine is a brilliant case study in how to offer beautiful, effective advertising options to brands in print and online, without needing to sell your soul to do so.
10) Do things that platforms can’t do
The media industry has to get it into its head that it’s no longer Goliath. In the shadow of Google & FB, its David. And the only way to take on the duopoly is to do things they can’t or don’t want to do. As Smith says, the onus is on publishers to use their strengths like storytelling and expand into areas that others can’t reach. If it’s a matter of ‘who can offer the most optimised advertising’, there’s only going to be one winner, but media brands can offer tailored, bespoke ad packages that offer real value for brands looking to reach a high worth audience.
There’s some great advice in here for publishers. Not all of it is applicable, but it tallies very much with stuff I’ve been saying for a few years. There are no quick wins to the situation that Irish publishers find themselves in, but with a smart strategic approach and a focus on long term sustainability beyond short term clickbait metrics will ultimately pay for itself.
The full deck is available here and is well worth a look: