ALM's Chief Digital Officer: Publishing's Future is Digital AND Data-Driven
ALM Media's Jeff Litvack is bullish on digital magazines. If paired with a smart web strategy, useful mobile apps, and the data that connects all the pieces, the chief digital officer expects digital magazines will in the future serve much the same role printed magazines have in the past.
"We look at digital editions as being a huge value proposition to our readers," says Litvack. "The print version delivers something that we haven't really succeeded in delivering in the digital world in general. In the digital world and online world, it's about the 'linked economy.' You go online and you go from one link to the next link and you never end. The beautiful thing about the print version that we've always had is that when you start you have a beginning and you have an end and there's a sense of completeness."
Litvack is confident that a digital strategy that connects all of ALM's products -- printed and digital magazines and newspapers, apps, websites, and more -- from a user experience and data standpoint, will yield plenty of opportunities to grow the business. Litvack says it has already proven to drive audience retention and engagement, convert more casual readers to members or subscribers, and spur the launch of new, scalable content verticals.
Crucial to this strategy has been bringing the digital publishing process into the in-house workflow, powered by Adobe's Digital Publishing System. It's helping ALM gain the control and connectedness needed to make the products truly their own and understand how individual are using all their different platforms. More sophisticated knowledge of how readers behave and what their interests are has led to more personalized content experiences, more robust advertiser offerings, greater subscriber conversions, and new revenue streams.
What do you see for the future of your digital magazines?
We've been an early adopter of digital editions, although I don't think we really succeeded with it up until now. I see us really accelerating the growth by switching over to Adobe DPS. The main reason for that is because we're going to change it from [an outsourced] relationship to making it part of our internal workflow. The really beautiful thing about Adobe DPS is how it connects with the current workflow programs, whether that's InCopy or InDesign or K4, basically allowing our full production team to get their hands on it and produce an edition that's really our style, our look, our feel, and even including the Omniture piece of it.
You need to connect all the information about pageviews and time-spent and really wrap it together. The interesting thing in the early days of apps and digital editions and the like is a lot of publishers dipped their toes in and said, "I'm going to go off and do this because I need to be in the marketplace." Now what we're working towards is an integrated solution. We have one core audience and we need to have all the solutions in place and they all need to work together in a very symbiotic relationship.
What's the benefit of having all your digital publications created internally using one system?
We've got both paid circulation and controlled circulation magazines and newspapers. What we're looking to do is take the paid circulations and bring them onto the Adobe platform so we can bring them into the whole paid subscription model. Right now we distribute our daily newspapers in a print format, digitally on our websites and mobiles websites, through apps, and the digital edition right now is a PDF version. And what we've found is that people are reading that regularly and we have no stats, no data, no information about that and it's not controlled within the entire subscription workflow. We see that as an opportunity to bring them into the family and long term really grow our subscriptions because we'll have much better data.
How would you say your digital publishing model has evolved over time?
What we see, like most media companies, is there's a huge shift in media consumption habits. Print consumption is down by over 50% on time spent. Where are people spending more time? They're spending it on digital and the most interesting thing is they're spending it on mobile. In fact, today only 3.5% of all time spent with media is print and 23% is with mobile, which is above the time spent with online even.
So we've been shifting our entire strategy from being a print-centric organization to being a digital organization and becoming a mobile-first organization as well. We've gone to market over the last year that I've been here and launched mobile-optimized websites. We were one of the first in the B2B space to launch all of our newsletters in mobile-optimized versions. We've seen a huge increase in terms of the traffic and interaction: open-rates, click-throughs, and the like.
How are you positioning your digital magazines?
I think we're holding so many print readers because there is a real value to print in our marketplace and in general [that lies in its] completedness. I really can't overstate that. When you wake in the morning, you have so much information coming at you. It's nice to feel you started something and finished something. You've got one thing done. How often can we say that? That's what the print version always delivered.
Then there's a world that we look forward to where print really isn't around anymore. But the aspects of print that are really valuable for readers shouldn't go away. We're delivering it now in a digital version that has interactivity—that makes it faster and easier to comb through the information. We have a number of things laid out so that you can quickly find the articles that are most relevant to you. And then you're going to go online to use our websites, use our apps -- they'll be additive to the start of the day, the digital edition.
In addition, from our perspective the digital edition delivers a quasi-physical feel: it flips from page to page and day-to-day it's the same version, so if you stop reading it midday, you can go back and pick up where you left off. It's obviously lighter, faster, and easier for you to take with you than having to go on the airplane with lots of paper magazines. But it also combines the interactive elements: No longer do I have flip the page to 46 to continue and try to figure out where that page is. It goes right to that page. It's continuous. The advertising can be interactive. It's got all the great attributes of digital but also the great attributes of print.
What's the added value of digital from the advertising side?
From an advertisers perspective, the one consistent problem that we've had is you sell digital on a CPM-basis and the advertiser goes on the site and says, "Where's my ad?" In print, they know exactly where it is whenever they go back to it. It's there. It's glossy. It's full-page. It's a great experience. You bring all that forward now to digital editions. That's why we're investing more.
You top that off with the idea of data, data, data. Now all of a sudden I'm actually able to tell the averages of how much time is spent with what, what demographics are looking at the advertising and interacting with it.
I'm also able to go to the next step of the interactivity element by creating conversions and signups that you can't do with the printed physical edition. That's been our strategy: digital editions that bridge the gap from the print world into the digital world.
Can you explain how you're developing digital products with the use of data?
One of the big changes we're investing in very heavily is personalized content and big data. There's a huge acceleration there to being able to make sure we're delivering the right content to you at the right place in the right package.
We took a somewhat aggressive stance and require just about everyone to register with us in order to get access to our content. So we're building profiles of individuals from day one and we're taking the profile data and matching that to what they're reading alongside our taxonomy. We're taking all that information and building that towards what we're calling a universal profile that we can then use to ensure we're delivering the right content, the right marketing messages, and the right products to our readers as we move on.
Is this where the real power of data comes into play?
It is. We've been missing all that opportunity without Adobe DPS. If it's a PDF I don't have that information feeding back into the same system. I want to know: This individual is reading on these three or four different devices in the following ways throughout the day here's what the arc of the day looks like in terms of how they're consuming that content. [We then can] create cohorts of individuals that we can then market and deliver content to. The most important element for us is not necessarily marketing because we're subscription based, but it's really about highlighting and helping discoverability of the things that are most important to them.
One of the initiatives we took in April of last year is that we re-launched all of our newsletters on the Sailthru platform and what they do is allow you to build behavioral profiles. They track every click, every time you open, and we get an understanding of what you like to read. Now, instead of our editors curating all the content, we're allowing the computer to say, "Hey, based upon what this person read before, these are the articles we recommend." And we're seeing that become very effective and we're seeing click-through rates increase because we're getting more relevant to them.
What else do you see on the horizon for ALM?
We're looking to launch niche publications. Even within a niche world, you can get even more niche. In California we're launching a new digital-only publication and it began because of the economics of digital and because of what DPS offers. You can begin to put together an audience that has a profit margin that makes sense.
How do you see ALM and the publishing industry reshaping in the future?
We see ourselves shifting away from being a media company and being a data driven organization more akin to an Amazon and a Google than a traditional Time Inc. We're one of the leaders in this space in terms of what we've done already and how aggressive we've gotten with this.
The future is digital, but that doesn't mean print is dead. It just means that we have to reimagine print. The media industry as a whole is beginning to understand that the print experience is never going to fully go away—it's just going to come at you in a slightly different ways. Certainly the tablet and the smart phones are good platforms and if you're smart about leveraging them you can really reach some really good audiences as a media company.
Denis Wilson is the content director for Target Marketing, Publishing Executive, and Book Business, as well as the FUSE Media and BRAND United summits. In this role, he analyzes and reports on the fundamental changes affecting the media and marketing industries and aims to serve content-driven businesses with practical and strategic insight. As a writer, Denis’ work has been published by Fast Company, Rolling Stone, Fortune, and The New York Times.