How can digital media and publishing diversify audience acquisition? Part II

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We asked the Berlin digital media and publishing community about the future of audience acquisition, and the role of diversification.

On 26 September, Bibblio hosted the second edition of the Future of Media and Publishing meetup at Impact Hub in Berlin. As part of the evening we had a panel on audience acquisition and diversification featuring a trio of audience development executives, which enabled a really informative deep dive on the subject. So deep in fact, that there was too much for one blog post! This is Part II, and you can check out Part I here. Let's dive straight back in.

Syndication and cross-pollination?

With the disclaimer that it’s an area that Bibblio is exploring, Mads brought up the subject of syndication and cross-pollination in digital; i.e. working with other content businesses to cross-post content or share each other’s content on social. On Instagram and YouTube content creators do this a lot: they'll appear in each other's posts or videos and try to share audiences with one another. Media companies are beginning to pursue this route too: PopSugar in New York has a whole team focusing on making partnerships with other publishers and individuals. Business Insider is another good example. It’s common for them to contact a smaller publisher and offer to post one of their articles on Business Insider, but with a link back to the original article. The idea is that they get good content for free, and the publisher gets extended reach.

Future of Media and Publishing meetup, Berlin
Panellists Deana Mrkaja from Handelsblatt, Christian Pieper from Funke Digital, and Emily Dreesen of Highsnobiety.

Emily said that Highsnobiety do have a network of partner publishers, although it’s relatively small. Business Insider was actually syndicating their content, but they haven’t seen much of an improvement in traffic (something that we’ve heard other publishers comment on). For Emily it's a cool idea to be able to leverage the power of a much bigger brand than Highsnobiety, but they’re just not seeing results in terms of referral traffic.

What has really worked, though, is when bigger brands pick up their video content. They created a documentary on the huge culture around fake clothing in Russia, and Business of Fashion picked it up. It massively extended their reach, and the video ended up getting a million views just from Business of Fashion. So syndication in that way is great for the brand and their videos and podcasts, but it doesn’t drive much revenue from referral traffic. In response to a question about how Business of Fashion picked up the video, Emily said that she just reached out to them and suggested that they feature it.

Mads mentioned that Bibblio actually happens to work with Business of Fashion too, and it seems to him that they’ve embraced the idea of syndication. As well as featuring content from Highsnobiety, in the way Emily described, they now have an offering called Daily, where their editors will find five or six stories from other publishers and just link to them in one place on Business of Fashion. The idea is that if you find the most interesting content there then you’ll come back, regardless of where it originated. They’re prepared to let the original publisher have the traffic, because they win too by becoming a source of interesting content.

Working with influencers?

Mads next question was whether any of the panel had tried to organize a similar syndication arrangement with a social media influencer?

Deana said that Handelsblatt have their own take on the formula – they work a lot with famous German politicians and business personalities who write articles as contributors for the website. This helps the individual to get publicity at the same time as creating interesting content for Handelsblatt. These sorts of pieces are one of their biggest traffic sources. They do retain some control over the editorial to ensure that the content is suitable for the site.

Mads was interested in this point because City AM in London, a popular daily commuter paper aimed at the City of London, recently opened up a commercial product where, for a fee, you can get your own editorial pass and publish content to the website without the constraints of it going through City AM’s editorial team.

Tourists and locals?

Mads mentioned the idea of tourists and locals – people who click through to your site from e.g. a social channel as opposed to people who spend time there maybe every day. He asked whether the panelists knew whether there was a difference in the revenue generated by returning visitors vs a visitor they might only see once, or very infrequently?

Moderator Mads Holmen, co-founder and CEO of Bibblio
Moderator Mads Holmen, co-founder and CEO of Bibblio

Emily said that it was hard to say for Highsnobiety, because most of their revenue comes from branded content. From a revenue point of view, it doesn't really matter if it's someone new or someone loyal that's looking at the content. She said that that doesn’t seem to be the case with ecommerce though. They know a few publishers that are really successful with e-commerce, both affiliate and own products, and the learning from talking to them is that the loyal audience is responsible for a huge part of their revenue.

Mads said that that reflected what he’d heard at Bibblio as well there seems to be a Pareto distribution where about 20 percent of visitors generate about 80 percent of revenue (although that’s obviously a bit of a generalization).

Mads added that that publishers are increasingly trying to exploit the potential value of these visitors. Daily Mail group now has a group of 18 staff who are dedicated affiliate writers - they only write content for the purpose of affiliate sales. He acknowledged that not all publishers will feel comfortable with this approach, but in many places it's now almost part of the normal editorial process to include commercial elements with copy.

Publishers need to learn from ecommerce?

He suggested that maybe this is just an evolution of what publishers have always been doing: writing about products and things in the world and making people want them. Isn’t it only fair that publishers start to try and take a bigger share of that revenue, if that's the value they've always created? Rather than just running banner ads and giving the users to e-commerce sites which makes all the money. Acknowledging that he was being deliberately provocative, Mads asked whether publishers should think of themselves, in some sense, as ecommerce platforms too?

Christian agreed, saying that if publishers want to survive they have to face up to the reality of the new commercial landscape. Funke Digital has ticket shops for e.g. concerts, merchandise, and of course newspapers and books. They even have dating.

Deana said that it’s hard for Handelsblatt to take this approach, since they have one unified, journalistic site. They have a hard paywall: all their content is behind it and you have to pay. You can’t ask users who have paid to access that content to read affiliate content. Handelsblatt would need a separate site for that sort of content. Deana agreed that on a free site affiliate content is fine, and that the audience are probably aware that that’s part of the deal when they get it for free.

Christian added that publishers had realized that they needed to radically change their commercial models, because banners and other forms of ads weren’t generating enough revenue. In Germany a lot of publishers are switching to the subscription model.

Subscription and what else?

Mads next question was on the topic of subscription and premium products. A lot of what the publishing industry has done up until now in response to the need to find other channels for revenue is to bring in paywalls. Sometimes you can view a few bits of content before you need to pay, and some are like Handelsblatt and you have to pay straight away. Mads wanted to see what the panel thought about another approach. Should publishers think more in terms of membership, where content is free, but you get additional benefits if you pay to be part of the club? What could those things be? Perhaps better personalization, or access to events?

Deana was very positive about events. She thinks that we have to stop trying to reach as many people as possible, and more about how to find great content for a specific audience. If you do that, people will be loyal to your brand. Good events and other exclusive perks help people to really identify themselves with your brand. Handelsblatt are trying to do a lot of events which are very exclusive and only aimed at certain groups of people.

Pizza Zeit! Fuel for the mind and body at the Berlin meetup.
Pizza Zeit! Fuel for the mind and body at the Berlin meetup.

For the final point, Mads was curious what the panel thought about personalization. He told the story of Foodora, who had built a recommendation engine for their food delivery website to make restaurant suggestions to their users. When they implemented it, they got lots of angry feedback. The engine was recommending McDonalds and other chain restaurants a lot, and people weren’t happy. Foodora quickly discovered that this wasn’t the system malfunctioning. The system was suggesting the chains because they were popular choices that got good ratings. The trouble was, that a lot of people on Foodora didn’t want to be the ‘McDonalds person’, at least not when they were on Foodora. They didn’t want to have it suggested to them, to be labelled in that way, even if they sometimes bought McDonalds through Foodora.

Mads suggested that maybe the lesson for publishers from this was that they should still try to appeal to the people that we would like to be, and not just the people that we are. Algorithmic personalization can trap people in narrow silos. In a world where all these other platforms, Facebook, Google etc., are personalized to us, should publishers try to do something different - something more aspirational? Is that, in the end, what people want to pay for?

Emily had a very interesting story in response. As affiliate sales became a bigger part of Highsnobiety’s business, their strategy changed. They used to cover a lot of niche Japanese streetwear brands that you can't buy in Germany, which meant they weren’t making any affiliate revenue from those stories. So the strategy changed so that content would emphasise products that people could actually buy from the site. The result of that was lots of complaints that the site was becoming too mainstream, so they listened to their audience and returned to their more niche content.

Emily said that, in the short run, it would have been helpful for them to continue with the more mainstream content: pop culture content is easier to monetize right away. But it doesn’t appeal to the audience that they really want. So growth is a bit slower when they don't feature ‘click bait’, but in the long run the real value is in maintaining a great brand, which means not succumbing to the lowest common denominator.

Mads sympathized, pointing out that the Facebook publishers who really optimized click-baity content were the publishers who've been hit the hardest by far by the changes to the algorithm. Maybe there was never a shortcut to building a great publishing business.

That's all from the second Future of Media and Publishing meetup from Berlin - join our group here to be there for the next event!

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