Does Digital Publishing Success Mean Going Analogue?

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For niche, quality publications, print and offline could be essential parts of your strategy

On Tuesday 11th September a group of London’s forward thinking digital publishers gathered at WeWork Shoreditch for the first State of Media and Digital Publishing event. SMDP (for short) is a new event dedicated to insights and actionable advice on how to thrive in the business. 

With two knowledgeable speakers and a panel of industry innovators, we were well set up for a great evening. We want everyone to be able to benefit from what we learnt, so we’re publishing two in-depth articles about the event, starting with the talks from our speakers. Both speakers were from digital publishers who still have print publications and whose success rests on being thought leaders in a particular vertical. Is there a connection?

Physics World makes a big bang with its new site

Dens Milne
Dens Milne, Senior Product Manager, Physics World

Dens Milne is Senior Product Manager at Physics World, a monthly print publication with a popular website. She started by telling the crowd about how the company had found itself with a problem. They had great content, 20 years and 95,000 articles of it, but they hadn’t updated their website for a long time. Having an old system was creating a real cost: they didn’t have the tools to make the most of both that content and also the goodwill they’d built up with their audience. Things were disjointed and hard to manage. This meant they were missing out on opportunities to grow users and advertising revenue. So, they needed to build a new website, and brought in London WordPress agency 93Digital to do the job.

Just how much they were missing out became clear when the job was done: the website is outperforming all of its competitors and has seen strong growth in registered users, with 60% of them are opting in to receiving advertising messages. 40% of users have also rated the new website a 9 or 10 out of 10. What did they do to get these kinds of results?

Physics World Homepage
The new Physics World homepage

One thing that Dens felt really helped was paying close attention to the information architecture: every piece of content is now defined and tagged with article type and subject. This was, unsurprisingly, a lot of work. They had to change all of the content URLs whilst making sure that that wasn’t going to impact organic search. There’s been a big upside though: people can now navigate by these labels, and they can also be used to target advertising.

The site also now has a totally editable framework, drag and drop page creation with modular components and WYSIWIG creation of articles, so it's much easier to change the site and publish new content. Previously developers had to be involved in all of these processes. What's more, managing native and programmatic advertising has become much simpler.

One example of the benefits of the new site was when an article on black holes, published a decade earlier, received 10x the number of page views in one week than it had in the previous 3 years after black holes had featured in the news. This was down to how much easier it was after the rebuild for visitors to find relevant, evergreen content, which Physics World has a lot of because of the nature of the subject matter.

A Physics World article on black holes
Physics World's successful article on black holes

Dens had some takeaways for anyone also thinking about revamping their website:

  • Think carefully about how to organise your content in a way that’s relevant to your users (and advertisers) - content is still very much king.
  • Every action you take needs to be geared towards the relevant KPIs – people don’t give you a lot of money to not move the business forward, and…
  • Be brave and don’t worry about getting a bit of negative feedback. Some people just hate change.

The results show that the redesign has generated a lot of real value for Physics World.

Unpacking SUITCASE’s success

Linda Blank
Linda Blank, Commercial Director, SUITCASE Media Group

Up next was Linda Blank, Commercial Director of SUITCASE Media Group, an award-winning travel media company with, again, a quarterly print magazine as well as a digital offering. She started on a positive note, pushing back against the prophets of doom: print isn’t dead and publishing isn’t dying. Digital publishing is predicted to grow by 12% by 2020. That’s actually faster than the travel industry that SUITCASE operates within. And, although overall print sales for magazines are declining, independent magazine subscriptions grew by 78% in revenue in 2016. There seems to be a great future for high-quality, well-targeted content.

That’s certainly the view that SUITCASE take – they’re aimed at an aspirational, experiential traveller with a “millennial mindset”. This audience doesn’t want a run-of-the-mill experience at another Four Seasons. Catering for them means having differentiated content with a perspective that can't just be found anywhere. That’s true for most audiences these days: it’s often pretty clear why a publisher is struggling when you read its output. If you could read it in 10 other places, why would people pay to read it or advertisers pay premium rates to feature alongside it?

Ads are going native

Great content still needs to be monetised though, and how advertisers spend money is evolving. Linda pointed everyone’s attention in the direction of native advertising and content marketing. This is now a huge industry, she said, projected to be worth $300 billion in 2019. Publishers can work with that.

Not only do SUITCASE do native advertising on the site, they’ve also launched their own content marketing agency. This was actually created in response to client demand. Brands were already coming to them and asking “how should we decide on our social strategy” and “how should we write content”. Then, an advertising client said they needed to rebrand themselves and asked SUITCASE to do it for them. They wanted a new tone of voice, and SUITCASE’s output resonated with them. This all flowed directly from being an expert and thought leader in travel.

Suitcase Group - Native Advertising and Content Marketing

Content marketing is also beginning to blend with e-commerce – a great example is Hodinkee, whose luxury watch blog content has also become a way to reach customers for those watches. Linda said that this is a very cost effective way to find new customers and retain them.

Offline can’t be an afterthought

Linda was also adamant that offline is not just a channel for diversifying revenue, it’s an essential part of their business. Print is a luxury product, and that’s what makes it a precise fit with their online audience. SUITCASE Media actually wouldn’t exist without SUITCASE Magazine’s role in building the audience, and the magazine buffs the thought-leadership credentials that SUITCASE Media needs. It’s a business card for the agency side of the business, and one that generates income: you can bring it to meetings, leave it when you go, and leave a powerful example of your expertise with a potential customer.

Offline also isn’t just the magazine – SUITCASE recently did a pop-up bar with Horizn Studios, and partnered with Muji to design their new store windows. In another indication of the power of becoming a thought leader, Muji actually approached them, even though SUITCASE had no history with this sort of project. It’s not a coincidence that Muji roughly translates to ‘quality’ in Japanese, and they loved SUITCASE's approach to travel.

The idea behind all of these projects was to create valuable interactions with users, which Linda said is the secret to growing a loyal audience and creating a great community. If you can do that, it becomes a lot easier to monetise users. Asked about how to do that, Linda responded that one of the keys for them is rewarding highly engaged readers, e.g. with events, competitions and providing free products from partners. They also really listen to feedback and comments from members of their community, SUITCASE Club, and act on them, e.g. by updating reviews when members give them new information.

Currently SUITCASE are focussing on trying to fix the customer experience of travel, which is very disjointed. There are lots of different sites for research, booking etc., and it’s a chore for travellers. SUITCASE have developed the ‘travel planner’ which allows you to explore different cities, populated with recommendations, and make your own itinerary – basically a personal travel guide that you’ve created yourself. Check it out here.

Linda summed everything up by saying:

Suitcase Group - Key Take Aways

It doesn't seem to be a coincidence that both Physics World and SUITCASE have successful print offerings. It might not be crucial for generalised content, but in a well-defined vertical where your specialist content is valuable to a loyal community, print might even have an increasing role - both as a luxury object for readers and as a 'business card' for commercial clients.

We hope this was a useful insight into the approaches behind the success of two great digital publishers - stay tuned for the next instalment from SMDP, featuring the panel discussion.

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