5 Tips for Setting Your Digital Media Priorities
Publishing used to be a pretty simple business: Write stories your audience wants to read, look after your advertisers, pay attention to paper, print, and postage costs. Presto: a profitable publishing business.
These days, the bit that used to be simple typically brings in a lot less money than it did, and the new digital bits are developing so fast, few publishers have managed to lay a foundation for anything resembling profitability.
When so much is new -- untried and untested -- it’s impossible to know precisely what will work in any given publishing market. And there are so many digital media initiatives that every publisher could take on -- how do you decide which will deliver the best short-term impact or long-term return? There are no silver bullets in digital media. Publishers need to explore a mix of digital products and supporting technologies and move forward with those that drive the best results. Following are a few tips for setting your digital media priorities.
Test New Revenue Models & Products, But Avoid Imperial Overstretch
Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that pithy advice is heard too often in media boardrooms -- publishing executives are too busy throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. I’ve taken to calling this "imperial overstretch," a phrase stolen from academic analysis of the historic collapse of empires. Basically, I describe it as the boss having an idea (often in the shower) for a killer new digital initiative (perhaps a virtual reality product) and sending the troops chasing off after it with no clear measures for success or proper analysis of the resources required.
The alternative, but equally damaging problem is prioritization according to resource availability rather than effective strategy. That’s not a problem unique to publishing – a recent article on the Harvard Business Review outlines similar problems in banking where, “Capacity, not strategy, was determining which projects launched and when.”
What is possibly unique in media is the rapid pace and breadth of change from devices to distribution platforms and the wholesale disruption of audience behaviors. Planning the perfect publishing portfolio now means blending a varied mix of publishing products supported by a range of revenue streams. That probably means mixing established digital advertising income with a renewed interest in digital subscription earnings. It probably means mashing up distribution platforms, bringing together web and mobile, direct channels like email, and distributed content platforms like Facebook Instant Articles, Google AMP, and Snapchat Discover.
Even advertising managers should be looking to supplement display earnings with cash generated from marketing services including the creation of sponsored content and native advertising, but also from data sales and campaign management.
5 Things to Consider Before Tackling a Digital Project
The difficult decisions for publishers are not strategic, but tactical. The need for innovation and diversification is a given in digital medial. Where and how to focus your attention is not. We all love to have options, but the ‘Paradox of Choice’ means that the more options we have the more difficult it becomes to make a decision. A 2014 article in Fast Company illustrates the problem perfectly, describing author Jane Porter’s failure to pick a toilet brush from Amazon’s line up of over 1,000. She eventually satisfied her toilet cleaning needs the local dollar store where they only had one option.
One of the central points in Porter’s article is that putting limits on your options helps you make the best decisions. So here are five factors to help you limit the choice of digital projects worth considering. If any on your shortlist don’t tick at least one of these boxes, throw them out.
- Profit - Are you making more than you’re spending?
Prioritizing projects that deliver straight to the bottom line is a no-brainer, but too few digital projects are benchmarked for profitability at the outset. Costs are unclear, revenue forecasts uncertain, and trying to gauge returns is difficult, but given sustained contributions must be the endgame for every business – even digital businesses.
- Revenue - How much are you making?
If it’s too hard to predict profits, or even costs, the next best thing is to be clear on whether your shiny new digital project is at least going to bring in some cash. Of course, forecasts are forecasts, but without them how can you judge whether you are winning? More importantly, how will you know that you’re losing badly and that it’s time to pull the plug?
- Audience – Do your readers care enough?
Maybe money isn’t everything, but even where you’re willing to see project costs as an investment in a better future, you need to be able to judge if that future is getting any closer. Improving your audience metrics is a solid rationale for choosing digital projects. Will this project increase good old-fashioned pageview counts or will it enhance engagement times? Will it increase your reach or expand your store of audience contacts in email and social media?
- Attention - Will anyone notice?
Getting attention is important, from your audiences, from your advertisers, and from potential partners and investors. Shiny new digital projects get noticed, they let you tell a stronger story about your publishing operation and if the people that matter are paying attention, it’s easier to create and capitalize on opportunities that could lead to more concrete successes.
- Learning - What will you discover?
Every day’s a school day in digital media and projects that deliver learning into a business are never a waste of time. The problem is that too often no one manages to capture the lessons learned or to act upon them. If you’re justifying a digital project in terms of organization improvement, make sure you’re clear where you expect those improvements to be. Will it make you a better storyteller, more efficient, better at sales and marketing?
Peter Houston runs Flipping Pages Media, an independent consultancy and training firm, helping publishers build multi-platform success. He has run Guardian Masterclasses, spoken at Google’s ThinkPublishing and was formerly Editor-at-large for The Media Briefing. He now co-hosts the Media Voices Podcast, delivering a weekly take on the media news and guest interviews with senior players at a leading media organizations, from Facebook to Nieman Lab, The Economist to CNN.