PPA Festival: Digital-first strategy roundtable

Louisa Cavell/Tony Treacy

At this year’s PPA Festival, for the first time, delegates partook in roundtable discussions about some of the most pressing issues in publishing, featuring some of the industry’s leading figures. The sessions included ‘New ways to monetise your content’, as well as ‘Data' and ‘Sustainability’ and 'How to design and implement a digital-first strategy'

Here, Tony Treacy from Evolved Media details the keys points from the session on ‘How to design and implement a digital-first strategy’ which was hosted by Russell Pierpoint, Managing Director of Evolved Media and featured Camilla Newman (pictured), Publishing Director of Glamour.

Digital-first is a buzzword in the publishing industry. In a digital age it seems a clear and obvious way for publishers to go. But exactly what does it mean, and how do you go about it?

The starting point for many titles is print. Print is the foundation of publishing and despite predictions of its demise, print continues to evolve and thrive. Nothing wrong with that. However, having a print-first mindset when it comes to developing a publishing strategy is a disadvantage, according to Russell: “The print-first approach sees print as the main product, and everything else as a secondary bi-product. Digital content is repurposed from print content, often after it has been published. This means publishers cannot unlock the full capabilities and benefits of digital content because the content they produce is naturally limited by the characteristics and constraints of physical print and by conventional processes and timings.”

Print certainly requires discipline. The page has dimensions, and pages are designed, and text is edited to fit the space. Digital platforms have fewer constraints and support multi-media content, which means the publisher can include numerous photos in a gallery, rather than having to pick one of two. Text is not constrained as it does not need to fit Video, animation and graphics can also be included – pieces of content that would ordinarily not have been created. Therefore, a print-first approach allows print-content to be repurposed, but it inevitably produces a smaller pool of content for secondary digital publishing.

The story of how Glamour moved from a print-only format and strategy to a primarily digital platform is one of bravery, clear purpose and business transformation. At the heart of the decision to move to digital, and to cease publishing a monthly magazine, was the recognition that the digital platform (particularly the mobile platform) was better, more versatile and more engaging for readers. It was also essential to its future. It allowed Glamour to reach a significantly bigger audience and establish itself as leaders of ‘glamour’ in the digital space. It also recognised that the cost of publishing a monthly print magazine of the highest quality was unsustainable commercially, as advertising revenues could not keep pace. Moving to a digital-first strategy did not mean completely moving away from print. Glamour publish a coffee-table magazine ahead of the Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter seasons which are extremely popular.

Digital-first doesn’t, of course, require a shift exclusively from print to digital. In fact, there are many interpretations of what this term means in practice. For some publishers the focus is automation, finding a slick way of getting pages converted and published on the web automatically. For others the focus is to get content onto the website first, where they can provide news, opinion and information driven by events and social media trending, which is later adapted for print in a longer form.

For Russell, placing too great an emphasis on delivery can prevent publishers unlocking even greater benefits by focusing on digital content creation. “Although, we have the technology to create very efficient workflows and templates to deliver content to production teams, I would urge publishers to look at the bigger picture. Publishing is really about storytelling. Thinking how best to tell a story to the reader changes the editorial and creative conversation. It leads to the generation of content that is channel agnostic rather than single channel-focused. This approach inevitably broadens the pool of content available, and means assets are created to be adapted and repurposed to every channel.”

The concept of being agnostic sees the content creation process and the content delivery process being separate. How content is packaged and delivered to a specific media channel is at the point of publication. The content creation process, where decisions will be taken regarding choice of subject matter, editorial approach, creative design and the choice of media, happen at the beginning. If the content creation process disregards choice of media, then the options available at the point of publication are inevitably reduced.

The content development process that Glamour follows today is unrecognisable by comparison to the way it worked before. Glamour publishes to web (which is optimised for mobile), social media and video channels. Although content or topics are driven by similar inputs, including editorial direction, the personal views and experiences of the team and news, in addition it is informed by trending on social media platforms, analysis of reader behaviour on Glamour’s digital platforms and input from brands. This ability to fine tune editorial direction is the result of a more transparent, deeper and more personal relationship with readers and the wider target audience that resulted directly from the move to digital. It is a 360 approach, which encompasses all channels. However, it also required investment in people with new skills that simply had not featured in the editorial team before.

The ‘agnostic’ content-strategy approach, championed by Russell, is important for a number of reasons. It recognises reality, because a story will not be reproduced in the same way, or with the same words and images etc. in every media. The print story may well be different to the story published on a digital platform, or to that pushed out on social media or to an app platform. It will also be very different to the increasingly rich interactive content published through channels such as Apple News. Meeting the requirements of every platform requires a much broader approach from the outset. This approach does not prioritise one channel over another, for example web over print. The emphasis on digital by Glamour reflected the behaviour and media consumption preferences of their readership. Every title is different. Print can remain the foremost channel, augmented by other digital channels, or might be repositioned in a broader portfolio rather than removed.

How content is produced can also be driven by commercial needs. Wall Street Journal subscription content, for example, differs from the Apple News publication to protect subscription revenues. it is a business imperative that the content in each channel is different. Digital platforms also generate revenues differently, such as online advertising, content promotion and branded content, which offer new revenue generating opportunities.

It is important to carefully select which media channels to use to future proof and protect the business interests of the publisher. Digital platforms come, go and change, and as the publishing landscape evolves, publishers need to be agile to take advantage of market opportunities or change direction; as Glamour found out in the early months after going digital. They used Facebook heavily to promote the digital content. However, this approach was significantly undermined when Facebook changed its search algorithms to prioritise personal over professional content. Their approach today is to have a more diverse portfolio of channels, so they are not reliant on one.

If the publishing processes is focused too narrowly and the technology platforms that support it are closed systems, adapting to new opportunities becomes very hard. Plus, for obvious technical reasons, publishers need flexibility to connect and publish to every channel, and to be able to add new channels in the future. It is also essential publishers are able to get the benefits of new technology, such as AI. One area where AI has had a significant impact is in automatically finessing the information and metadata of images that are stored in DAM (digital asset management systems). The value is not that image data is enriched for its own sake, but because if the DAM is serving content to the publishing web platform, enriching the data enhances the site visitor experience because expanding the dataset opens it up too much broader search criteria.

The agnostic strategy can also help publishers make better technology investment decisions, as Russell explains: “It is a mistake to focus on one digital channel and therefore to investment in technology that supports one channel brilliantly but doesn’t work with other digital channels or integrate with business systems.”

A good example of such thinking is CMS. Many CMS systems, which aren’t ‘headless,’ primarily drive a single-channel (e.g. a website or blogsite) and cannot be integrated with publishing workflow tools. This undermines effectiveness and can create much manual and repetitive work down the line.

Digital-first is a transformational strategy for publishers who need to think more broadly than print. It can transform a business, as Glamour have, or be the next evolution for a traditional mixed media publisher. It can unlock new revenues, provide a platform to deepen the engagement with readers and broaden the opportunities to reach new readers. The key piece of advice from Russell, is approach digital with a blank canvas. “Of course, publishers need to address the issues they face today and make sure their processes and technology deliver the most effective end-to-end publishing solution. However, it is so important to keep sight of the bigger picture, to enable the creative and editorial teams to flourish as they embrace a broad landscape that includes numerous digital and print channels.”

About Evolved Media

Evolved Media are experts in providing technology solutions to the media and television, retail, publishing and content syndication industries. Our work is focused on enabling clients to control, manage and repurpose digital assets globally, and on accelerating and streamlining the creative, publishing and production processes.

 www.evolvedmedia.co.uk

tonytreacy@evolvedmedia.co.uk

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