The Tool Kit for Profitable Publishing

Most publishers realized several years ago that business as usual doesn’t work any more. However that realization hadn’t initially come with any useful ideas about what would work.  It was easy enough to complain about the rise of the platforms, the cannibalization of audiences, and erosion of the premium display business. My project for the last seven or eight years has been to identify the components of a profitable publishing strategy for the creators of quality content. I have done this through investments, board work and consulting.

In a sense, my project began after Harvard Business School professor Jeffrey Rayport and I created a presentation for the Online Publishers Association in early 2011.  That organization is now Digital Content Next. We were probably the first to identify the competitive juggernaut of the Big Four web superpowers: Google; Apple; Facebook; and Amazon.  We summarized that presentation in this article Who Rules the Web Now?  which was published in the Harvard Business Review blog.  Once we had fully embraced the reality of their dominance, the question was what could publishers do about it.

Obviously, weeping and wailing and gnashing teeth might feel good but it doesn’t pay any bills. The reality is that there is also little hope that consumers will lose affection for the Big Four or that the federal government will do anything useful. In short, we are on our own.

I was recently given the opportunity to speak to the AdMonster Publishers Forum about my work on identifying the components of a profitable 21st century publishing model. My conclusions are based on my work with a variety of mid-sized and smaller publishers as well as conversations with the executives who operate larger media properties.  Here is a copy of the slides that I shared: AdMonsters-Media Investing PCH Final  .

More than anything, it’s essential that publishers form deep relationships with both readers and marketers.  As a group, we have lost the battle for scale.  Our reach pales in comparison to the number of people that Google, Amazon or Facebook reach every day. Additionally, they have more and more meaningful data that can be used for targeting. For those important reasons, they are vacuuming up ad dollars. But the essence of strategy is to turn your opponent’s strengths into weaknesses, We need to think as if we have a black belt in judo–use their momentum against them.

The platforms are all about scalability.  Low touch. High volume.  Inch deep. Mile wide. They want to offer standard programs at scale to marketers and a clean sheet of paper to consumers.  Publishers must counter breadth with depth.

Everything starts with the reader.  Platforms may have data but publishers must have a visceral understanding of the reader’s dreams, fears, wants and desires.  Platforms may do well with the intellect. Publishers must do well with emotion.  Publishers must communicate that they like and care about their readers. They must aspire to have their readers care about them in return. This is an admittedly high bar. It’s a much higher bar than most publishers have attempted to clear.  Yet that relationship is the only long-term counter to the platforms’ advantages of scale.

When that relationship is established, publishers then have the ability to bring marketers into the mix.   Platforms run ads. Publishers can bridge brands over to their readers within a relevant context. This is more than native advertising. It’s more than inserting Vibrant links on random words.  It’s about helping brands to understand why their audiences would be interested in the marketer’s products and how to explain the product to the consumer.  These programs will live both within the confines of a standard IAB ad unit and beyond.

When done properly and clearly disclosed, this type of advertising becomes a welcomed part of the content package not an intrusion.

This is usually where publishers complain. This is hard work. It requires investment. It’s not the way that we’ve usually done things. It’s not as easy to scale.  All true.   But that’s also why this approach is hard for platforms to copy.

Within the deck that I have provided, I share some examples of how this has worked for the companies in our portfolio. You will see that I am a huge fan of events. Again, I know that events are hard. But they also elevate marketing from an abstraction that typically only lives in spreadsheets to a real world experience in which flesh and blood consumers and marketers actually converse.

Over the past six years, Skift has become an important and trusted voice within the travel industry.  Their global travel forums have become “must attend” events for the top executives within that industry.  As a result, Skift is now seen as an essential partner and influencer. This stature informs all of their conversations throughout every level of travel companies. They are now a partner–not just a vendor.

Outdoor Project has built a strong , growing and engaged community that has contributed more than 7,000 adventures to the site. Outdoor Project has used their summer street fairs to bring their readers together–and to bring them to life for brands.   It’s one think to share analytics and research about a young , vibrant audience of outdoor enthusiasts. It’s another thing to have 5,000 of them jammed into the street in front of  a brewery in Portland or Austin or Denver. Marketers enjoy being in large crowds of customers.

At the other extreme, Topix has rebuilt the company and its strategy to fully leverage the platforms.  By drawing audience from Facebook and others and monetizing via programmatic, Topix has become one of the fastest growing publishing companies in the business.  No direct sales force.  Revenue per employee above $1.5M. Highly efficient.

Purch has become important to its readers and marketers by helping to streamline purchase decisions and bringing buyers and sellers together.Marketing programs with Purch clearly drive results. Marketers pay attention when they hear the cash register ringing.  Publishers have historically avoided responsibility for conversions and sales.  In the cold, cruel world of modern publishing that’s a luxury that we can no longer afford.

I will write a separate blog post that will talk about Spirited Media‘s efforts to create a local news product that younger readers not only read but care enough to pay for.

There are no silver bullets.  What I am working on is a tool kit from which publishers can draw ideas that fit their audience and model.  But in the end, every publisher must commit to being important to its readers and its marketer partners.