Online and new technology – threat or opportunity for publishing companies?

Obviously the answer to the question posed in the title is ‘Both’. In this blog I’m going to explore the nature of the threats and opportunities posed by online and new technology, expose a few myths, and provide an outline strategy for adding value to your print publishing business.

Where are we up to with online publishing?

Ever since the web started to hit the mainstream back in the late 1990s people have been predicting the end of publishing as we know it. Let’s look at some of the things that have been tried since then and where they’ve worked and where they haven’t. As a quick review this is clearly glossing over a lot of detail.

The first response from publishers was to put magazine content in so called walled gardens online – websites run by internet access companies like AOL or CompuServe – where content providers looked to earn subscription fees from people paying to get their content.

This didn’t work, and publishers looked beyond the walled gardens to set up their own websites, extending their brands into online and targeting subscriptions and advertising.

Again that didn’t work, and, worse than that, a new breed of online-only competitors entered the market.

Publishers then largely dropped the subscriptions to focus on advertising revenue (of the major newspapers the FT is now probably the only one to still have paid-for subscriptions, with even the Wall Street Journal finally throwing in the towel).

To get better advertising demographic data the publishers still required people to join and provide email addresses so that they could send emails and track user behaviour. Email marketing proved more powerful than web marketing.

The early 2000s brought the period of the ‘special report’ and the ebook. Longer-form reports and ebooks started to sell online, and magazine publishers that offered these specials were able to start making money both from sales direct to consumers but also from the advertising sponsorship.

With the vast expansion in small publishers offering ebooks, reports and blogs came the biggest challenge – how to be found? With customers drowning in spam, email became less likely to be delivered or read. With the rise of Google if you couldn’t be found on Google’s first page of results for your market you likely couldn’t be found anywhere.

In recent years publishers have even begun to drop the requirement to register for free for access to their content – partly in order to boost readership and so advertising revenue, and partly to boost their visibility in Google’s all-important rankings.

Long form special reports live on now only really if they can be advertising funded or sponsored rather than sold direct to consumers. There remains a market for paid-for content on the B2B side, but this is most sustainable where there is large amounts of proprietary data under control, or where there are extremely strong brands (e.g. The Economist).

So in general, what we’ve seen is a headlong dash to give away more and more content for free online in a market where it’s harder and harder to be seen and be found.

So where does that leave print publishing?

Print publishing is in a very interesting situation. Faced with the deluge of information on the web, often available for free, customers are having different problems.

One is that they can’t trust what they are reading on these millions of free websites. As a result there is more strength in having an established brand and readership that trusts the editorial content of your publication.

Another is that reading online, even with a laptop, is inconvenient, and printing is expensive (1ml of HP colour inkjet ink costs £1.70, compared to 23p for 1ml of 1985 Dom Perignon vintage champagne). A professionally printed copy of a magazine is read differently, and competes for a different share of the reader’s time – a share of their offline time.

A publisher with print titles has a unique offering, which, balanced with the right online elements, can bring great strategic advantage and long term value to the company.
So how should online and print media be used together?

The key to getting a real return on investment from print and online media together is to focus on the fundamentals – manage costs tightly and drive out every bit of revenue.

Revenue in publishing either comes from advertising or subscription. The most important question to ask before making any change to either online or offline publishing is ‘Will advertisers or subscribers pay enough more for this if I change it?’

What adds value for subscribers?

The answer to this question depends on having a good knowledge of your subscribers. If your subscribers are businesspeople, then look to see whether online services can help them grow their businesses.

If you have a large number of subscribers who run small businesses then they may not be able to profitably take advantage of online opportunities, but you could bring them together.

One concrete example could be where subscribers run high street businesses selling a physical product. Offering a simple online e-commerce site for your subscribers might give them another route to market, and the content on the site would boost your and their search engine rankings.
The answer for each type of publishing business will likely be different and will depend on their particular subscriber base and markets.

What adds value for advertisers?

Looking at the advertiser’s business can help here, but the main answer is likely to be to help them to sell more of their products.

Check that you’re not missing some of the simpler options first, like having an email newsletter. As a print publisher you have a stronger relationship with a customer than you do as an online only free content provider. This means that people are much more likely to read your emails – if you ensure that they have something interesting and useful in them.
This provides you with a simple extra marketing channel to place adverts in.

Again, the special reports option is worth exploring – this is likely to work better for a print and online publisher than it will for a pure online publisher because of the greater loyalty and closer relationship you have.
So what’s the bottom line?

The bottom line is that print publishers have a real strategic advantage over online-online publishers.

By carefully considering the added value for subscribers and advertisers of each element of your offline and online presence you can cut costs and add new revenue streams.

It’s not all doom and gloom in print publishing, and you can act now to protect and strengthen your business.
That’s all for now – I hope this post kicks off some thoughts. It can only scratch at the surface of this subject so let us know your thoughts and what works/ doesn’t work in your business.