Metrics, channels, innovation and trust: what’s on the minds of digital publishers

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Takeaways from the panel at the first State of Media and Digital Publishing event in London

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 industry.

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, and this is the second, reporting the key points from our panel discussion. You can find the first here.

The panel, moderated by Alex Price, founder and Managing Director, 93digital
The panel, moderated by Alex Price, founder and Managing Director, 93digital

How to measure up

Alex Price, founder and Managing Director of agency 93digital, moderated our panel and kicked off by asking whether there’s a single metric that digital publishers should be concentrating on that defines success.

Mads Holmen, founder and CEO of Bibblio, suggested that the key for publishers, even if it can seem hard with quarter targets coming up, is thinking longer-term. You need to survive, but you’re not going to thrive unless you build a brand. He said that publishers need to try to move from measuring clicks to deeper metrics like time spent, and really get a grip on whether audiences are happy with the experience.

Carl Hazeley, VP Content at Finimize, said that the metric that really mattered to them was Net Promoter Score – everything boils down to that. For Carl, this is the real measure of who will recommend and push your product, and Finimize can see that reflected in the growth of their newsletter and app.

Dens Milne
Dens Milne, Senior Product Manager, Physics World

Dens Milne, Senior Product Manager from Physics World, chose returning visitor rate as their most important metric. To her that’s the best measure of loyal users. Returning users stay longer and are more committed to your product.

Reflecting on Mads’ response, Alex asked how publishers and their employees can actually break free from the pressure of the next performance review?

Mads admitted that this is the million dollar question for publishers, and he didn’t have a simple answer. He suggested that publishers have to live their lives as much in the future as they can without jeopardising today. In any case, whatever your shorter-term concerns, it helps to have one metric that tells you the ‘truth’ about the long-term success of your business, even if it’s not the one that’s managed. NPS, as Carl suggested, could be the right one. Alex wanted to know if commercial leads will actually accept NPS as a relevant metric, and Carl said that this was certainly true at Finimize.

Changing channels?

The question then shifted to acquisition channels. Dens said that, for Physics world, organic search and direct visits were responsible for the vast majority of visits. This is pretty unusual, and she conceded that Physics World isn’t your average publisher because of the longevity and niche nature of their content. This means that Facebook’s algorithm changes haven’t really affected them. Although their social numbers dipped at the beginning of the year, they’ve since come back up, and social referrals have only ever accounted for about 4% of their traffic.

Alice Revel, founder and Editor of book box subscription service Reading in Heels and Running in Heels, said that their most important channel was also organic. In their case though it’s in the form of word-of-mouth, often on social platforms. So far, they’ve actually done no paid digital marketing: growth has all come from consumer advocates. Facebook has also been a useful channel for them. Since the deprioritization of content following the algorithm change they’ve created a Facebook group which has been successful in attracting engaged members.

Carl Hazeley
Carl Hazeley, VP Content, Finimize

Carl said that at Finimize, whose users don't pay for access, the main acquisition channel is referral through sharing. This mainly happens on Twitter and Instagram though - Facebook is actually not a large part of their traffic.

It was an interesting part of the discussion, and highlighted that the different business models within publishing require diverse approaches to audience acquisition. Not all content is the same. It was also interesting to hear that nobody was relying significantly on Facebook.

New horizons?

Mads agreed with Dens that returning visitors are the most valuable, and publishers should try to avoid too much new traffic. Think of new visitors as being like tourists: if you’re not careful then what’s cool can change very quickly and then tourists all go to a different part of town. Although Google seems to be a more stable source of traffic than Facebook, the fact that around 80% of all traffic to publishers is coming from these sources is a strategic danger sign. One solution to that is to look to genuinely new channels to diversify acquisition.

One channel that publishers seem to be ignoring completely is… each other. Faced with the threats in the ecosystem, Mads suggested that publishers need to see other publishers as friends not enemies. YouTube stars have known for a long time that cross-pollination of audiences from similar channels is good for everyone, and they’re happy to feature one another on their channels. They’ve realised that they’re rarely directly competing, even with channels with similar content. They’re competing with other distractions and someone logging off because they can’t find anything else that’s interesting.

Alice Revel
Alice Revel, founder and Editor, Reading in Heels and Running in Heels

The next question Alex asked was about how to get the balance right with the different commercial models available to digital publishers. Alice said that this didn’t really apply to her, since book boxes were her main product, but despite the struggles of many physical publishers, they’d had great engagement offline. The interesting challenge for them was actually making people put their phones away! She pointed out that there are now just so many content sites out there, and as digital sources increase the meaning and relevance of most of them decreases. This echoed Linda’s earlier comments on the importance of differentiation. It’s getting harder, and more important, to stand out.

Dens noted that Physics World have their physical magazine, so as well as advertising they also use a subscription model. Advertising means that volume is important to them and that affects priorities, but it also means that there’s a strong incentive to use data to make ads more relevant and to target people with products in a more tailored way.

Mads zoomed the discussion right out, mentioning a famous illustration by Walt Disney showing while films were core to the business, their significance wasn't the just income they generated, it was the way that they supported a whole range of other money-making activities, like merchandising, theme parks and games.

Walt Disney's famous illustration
Walt Disney's famous illustration

Publishing needs to focus on content in the same way as Walt Disney focussed on films, as the enabler of a whole range of other ways of making money. This was something that Linda Blank, from SUITCASE Media, had talked about earlier in the evening, with a particular emphasis on print. Every business is different though, and the key thing is getting the right mix, as Alex had alluded to. The Daily Mail Online is primarily a high volume advertising play, but they’re now doing a lot of affiliate sales. Dennis Publishing now make a huge amount of their revenue, forecast to be 45% in 2018, by promoting their second-hand car sales business, Buyacar, on the three biggest auto magazines in the UK, which they own.

Mads Holmen
Mads Holmen, founder and CEO, Bibblio

Mads maintained that publishers haven’t been creating enough value from the audiences they’ve made, but they’re getting better at it. More needs to be done though. Why was he seeing adverts on BBC good food for shoes at 6:45 on a Friday evening? For all the talk about clever technology, the ad industry is still pretty bad at delivering value to audiences. Publishers should think about how they can own the relationship rather than outsourcing it: they know their audiences a lot better than the ad networks do, and they should use that.

Carl mentioned ASOS.com in this context. One of the reasons they were so successful in their space was because they understood their audience. When it came to social channels, they were sharing anything they thought was cool, not just their own clothes. This gave them authenticity, because their followers saw quality contributions that they wanted to see, not just what ASOS wanted them to buy. Mads added that ASOS also created their own team of influencers in house as part of this strategy.

Trust issues?

Alice commented that she sees a lot of mistrust around influencer marketing these days: consumers are realising that a lot of apparently organic coverage is actually bought. In particular there’s a lot of suspicion around the affiliate model, and brands need to rethink how they do that. She said that the solution was prioritising authenticity – the right partnerships with the right brands – and being transparent when commercial relationships exist. Don’t try to pass things off as organic when they’re not. People know.

Mads said that he had thought about this, and that there actually seems to be a split going on here. One part of society is now very savvy and demands authenticity, and they’re a very valuable market, but with the rest of consumers, the people peddling dodgy endorsements are winning. He had read recently that Instagram influencer / YouTuber is now the top job choice of a staggering number of American teens in recent surveys, and the vast majority of paid-for posts on Instagram don’t actually have #ad on them. He suggested that we’re seeing this general split across the board – in politics too – and the scary thing is there seems to be the commoditization of people’s attention.

Considering this, Dens said that the Physics World audience are firmly in the first camp Mads mentioned, because of the rationalist, evidence-based tendency of people interested in their content. Physics World is very careful to badge native content clearly, and they don’t use Instagram. Alice said that she didn’t use Instagram either, and that a full page spread in Vogue was by far the most effective campaign they’d ever run.

The audience and panel at the first State of Media and Digital Publishing event
The audience and panel at the first State of Media and Digital Publishing event

Mads returned to the trust problems that Alice was describing in digital, suggesting that they can actually be brand building opportunities for companies. To illustrate this he mentioned the well-known story in Denmark of McKinsey and the Danish equivalent of the BBC. McKinsey realised that they couldn’t actually do the digital transformation job that they’d been hired for, and instead of taking the money and keeping quiet, they owned up and forfeited the contract. That honesty is now their calling card. Similarly, publishers can really distinguish themselves by championing transparency in their dealings with advertisers and their audiences.

Mads finished by saying that above all, publishers need to recognise that they live in the attention economy. The average American sleeps one hour less than they used to, and that time is often being replaced by media. The age of Trump has exposed the fact that a lot of the media and tech companies we used to admire have been abusing our trust. Fundamentally, their business models mean that they need to consume more and more of our time and data to keep growing their profits. That’s a problem that’s increasingly being recognised. Digital publishers can’t compete and shouldn’t try to become more like them – the future lies in quality content and audience trust.

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