4 Print-Centric Assumptions Publishers Should Avoid Online
In the early years of television, news broadcasts were virtually identical to their radio counterparts, except you could see the guy who was reading the headlines. It took a few years for the networks to rethink how to present news using the new capabilities that TV offered.
In many ways, online publishing has been even slower to move away from its legacy roots. Despite the fancy algorithms, reams of data, and always-changing technology, even digital-native publishers often seem to act as if the web is just digitized old media – rather than being a truly different medium with its own set of capabilities.
Here are four assumptions from the world of print media that seem to haunt, and hold back, so many web publishers:
Assumption #1: Marketing Copy Alone Can Persuade People to Subscribe
I’m still amazed at the number of web sites that fill my screen with an interstitial ads for their newsletters as soon as I land on their site for the first time. Who signs up for a newsletter before knowing whether they’re interested in its content?
I really shouldn’t be surprised: Print publishers have been doing this sort of thing for decades, such as sending direct-mail subscription solicitations that are filled with breathless descriptions of the magazine but show no actual content from the magazine. Or even a web link to a sample of the magazine.
Take a tip from Amazon, which seems to be somewhat successful at selling books: It typically lets a shopper see up to 20% of a book’s content for free, without even requiring an email address. Do you suppose it does that because its data show that’s the best way to get people to pay for content?
Assumption #2: All Eyeballs are of Equal Value
Circulation is a key measure of a magazine’s reach, but it can’t incorporate any insights on reader engagement. A copy read by 20 different people in a hair salon counts the same as a copy that a subscriber never even bothers to open.
“Unique visitors” is the web equivalent of circulation. It’s a measure of volume, not value. And it ignores the fact that, rather than being a single product like a magazine, a web site is a network of products in which each page has its own, measurable ROI.
Even a cursory glance at the data would show that some of those products are more valuable than others. And that some of those unique visitors are reading multiple high-ROI pages, even buying products and subscriptions, making them orders of magnitude more valuable than drive-by readers who glance at a single item for just a few seconds.
Yet Topic One in web publishing is often how to attract more visitors -- not how to increase the value of readers. An article or video that goes viral is widely celebrated, though it rarely contributes to new subscriptions or ad revenue in proportion to its sizeable page views. Obsessing on the wrong metrics causes publishers to aim for content that might become a big hit with people who are unlikely to become repeat visitors – rather than content that builds a steady, loyal audience.
(See “How Lee Enterprises Used a CDP to Tailor Its Monetization Strategy to Unique Audience Segments” for a look at how one publisher segmented its audience and then optimized the user experience and the monetization of each segment.)
Assumption #3: Space is Limited
Print media are constrained for space; adding pages costs money, after all. A web site, however, can accommodate additional content with virtually no incremental costs.
Yet one of the ironies of the digital revolution is that web articles tend to be briefer than printed ones. The usual explanation is that people have short attention spans on the web. The real reason goes back to the myopic focus on maximizing the number of unique visitors by trying to be all things to all people rather than on building a highly engaged fan base.
Not everyone comes to your site with a short attention span. Some are passionate about a subject you cover, are seeking answers or guidance about important decisions, or are trying to understand how a certain event might affect their lives or their livelihood.
Sure, put that 400-word summary article with one photo on your homepage. But delight those who want to go deeper with additional resources – more photos, a transcript or audio of the full interview, the full text of the report or proposed legislation in question, the data behind an analysis or ranking, or anything else that adds value for the reader and doesn’t take much work by your staff.
Assumption #4: Publishing an Item of Content Is A Single Event
Print and broadcast are one-and-done media: Once a magazine is printed or a TV show is aired, they are rarely altered for future re-printings or airings. The web is a friendlier format for revisions and updates, but that capability is rarely used.
Online publishers still tend to focus on creating articles, videos, and graphics that are published on a specific date – just like legacy media. They’re not taking advantage of the web’s unlimited space and its capacity for hosting such non-article features as calendars, glossaries, profiles, photo galleries, charts, and data feeds that can be frequently updated with little effort.
Such evergreen, ever-growing content will never go viral, but with careful tending it can score well in search, become a go-to resource for readers, and perhaps turn into something readers will pay for.