Disruption Needs to be Part of Day-to-Day Processes of Publishers
If disruption is really the “new normal” in the media business, then it stands to reason that publishers should no longer by surprised by it. It should be mundane enough that it’s accounted for in how publishers work every day.
“Disruption can be a lot of things,” says Cory Munchbach, VP of Strategy for BlueConic. “We kind of think about it only from this really big standpoint. I think we’re a little bit past that. We’ve got through the digital disruption aspect of publishing and we’re reconciling with how to incorporate this kind of thing into the day-to-day.”
Munchbach’s comments came during the keynote panel at last year's FUSE Media Summit, where representatives from four different technology outfits shared the ways in which their teams are helping publishers successfully stabilize and thrive.
Munchbach says the real challenges lies with establishing day-to-day processes that reflect a disruptive world. “Sort of by definition it stops being disruption -- it’s just what we need to deal with and figure out ways to be a business that rolls with the punches that disruption delivers, whether Facebook changes something, Google changes something, or a new device [is released].”
Following are four steadying moves the panelists see for publishers in a mercurial business environment.
1. To diversify and grow your revenue streams, audience data should be your lifeline.
Of the multitude of changes happening throughout the industry today, perhaps one of the most auspicious involves the fact that so many publishers are stretching the definition of what being a publisher means. "We're finding customers paving their own path for what success means to them," said Sachin Kamdar, CEO and co-founder of Parse.ly, during the FUSE Media summit. "And that's actually something I really encourage." Kamdar suggested that businesses put in place an "offensive play" that will move their own objectives forward, whether they align with macro industry trends or not.
Revenue stream diversification will almost certainly continue to be a crucial play for publishers, said Kamdar. "I think the best publishers are going to be thinking about four, five, six different revenue streams in the future. But they're going to have to do that with less, and I think data becomes a really important component to that."
Sortable founder and CEO Christopher Reid suggested publishers need to understand their audience data with greater nuance in order to settle on a sustainable business model in the first place. If publishers can understand not only how they make money today, Reid offers, but also which of their audiences are worth more, they can take more intelligent actions. "They can target their marketing spend intelligently, so they can push those users through the funnel, and figure out lifetime values."
2. Content may still be king, but analyzing performance is more important than ever.
Regardless of the degree to which the publishing and media industries continue to be disrupted, quality content will almost certainly remain their most powerful playing card. Today's media consumers, after all, are savvier than they've ever been. If you aren't starting with a good product, you're going to struggle.
That said, being a successful publisher today will also mean working with content in more sophisticated ways. For instance, tracking which pages are drawing the most attention with the right audiences -- rather than just pages with the most views -- is crucial.
Also crucial, according to Kamdar: tactics such as tracking engaged time onsite. That's an especially important metric, he says, that not enough sites are paying attention to. As an example, Kamdar shared the story of a company that tracks the metrics of readers who find their articles via Facebook links. If the reader leaves Facebook to digest your content but then returns to Facebook almost immediately, "that means [the] article wasn't valuable to them, and [the publisher] de-promotes it on the newsfeed."
Likewise, if it takes readers a good while to return to Facebook after clicking a specific link, that article will most likely be promoted higher. The caveat, Kamdar clarified, is that this sort of metric tracking might not work for every publisher. "But it could be something to look at for your own sites."
3. Own your audience by doubling down on email
According to PostUp CEO Tony D'Anna, email can still be one of a publisher's strongest drivers when it comes to growing the top of a marketing funnel. Especially given that media consumers today have a higher quantity of choice than ever before, it's probably worth investigating the ways in which a technology as relatively old as email can attract new readers. “Email is really core to diversifying your revenue streams, and not putting all your eggs in that one basket,” said D’Anna.
As a word of caution, though, D'Anna pointed out that focusing on the top of the funnel in an effort to grow email lists has to be done "in a way where you don't negatively impact the experience on your site." If a reader visits your site for the first time and is immediately met with a lightbox ad or some other aggressive marketing tactic, it's unlikely they'll ever return.
A potentially more elegant solution, D'Anna said, involves incorporating sliders or active widgets that are contextually related to specific content and can actually engage the user experience. And yet tactics as simple as personalizing emails or developing a suite of newsletters, he added, can still "really help you drive traffic back to your site."
4. Look for tools that can make data actionable
It wasn't long ago at all that the raw data publishers were using to inform a good number of their business decisions was just that: raw data. Large amounts of information that publishers had to translate on their own, with little to no interpretation to guide them. Thanks to the growth in power of prescriptive analytics, however, that's in the process of changing.
"Analytics is going to change from being descriptive to prescriptive," explained Parse.ly CEO Kamdar." Where instead of you looking at things and figuring it out for yourself, [the data will] start to guide you down the route of what you should be doing."
Thanks to rapid growth happening in the fields of machine learning and artificial intelligence, Kamdar's company is already experimenting with prescriptive analytics. One example: Benchmarking a publisher's data not to compare its performance with that of its competitors, but to discover how well it's doing now in relation to how well it's done in the past.
In the near future, Kamdar said he hopes to use prescriptive analytics to find untapped opportunities within the larger social networking sites. A fairly simple test, he suggested, might involve a supply and demand comparison. "What is the supply of content out there, how many people are reading it, and where is the opportunity for us to grab some of that authority or voice?"
Indeed, machine learning has provided a lot of opportunities that publishers may not be taking full advantage of, according to Kamdar. His recommendation? Don't stick solely with vendors who can help you with your own data. Instead, look for those who can offer data that may "help augment your view of what you're seeing happening in [your] space." Ask those vendors to help you understand what else is going on, and how that can inform what your company should be doing next.
Dan Eldridge is a journalist and guidebook author based in Philadelphia's historic Old City district, where he and his partner own and operate Kaya Aerial Yoga, the city's only aerial yoga studio. A longtime cultural reporter, Eldridge also writes about small business and entrepreneurship, travel, and the publishing industry. Follow him on Twitter at @YoungPioneers.