Nov. 24 — What does “digital” mean, should digital teams be “free,” and the resurgence of print

We need to stop talking about “digital”

The imprecise language people use about the “digital transformation” of publishing is getting frustrating. I just read an article that says “Hearst got a late start in digital.” Gee, thank you very much. That tells me almost nothing.

Saying that a publishing company has increased its investment (or revenue, or staff or whatever) in “digital” is about as helpful as saying that a farmer has increased his investment in plants. We need details.

“Digital” can mean so many different things. Is that website traffic? Is it desktop or tablet or smart phone? Is it on the publisher’s site or is the publisher syndicating the content elsewhere? Is it on social media? Is it in an app? Is it ad-supported or subscription-based? Is it data or articles? Or how about video?

For that matter, print on demand could be considered “digital” in some ways.

“Digital” means nothing because it means everything.

Imagine three companies. One is going great guns with a subscriber-only website. Another doesn’t have a website at all but sells 50% of its subscriptions through Google Play. (Remember, we’re imagining.) A third has ad-supported, free content that it serves on its own site and syndicates out to lots of other sites.

All these are “digital,” but they are very different models.

The confusion when people discuss “digital” with reference to magazines is almost comical. Many people read about increasing “digital revenue” with magazine publishers and they assume that means people are buying the magazine through Magzter or Apple. No. Only seven or eight people actually do that. Most of the “digital” revenue that magazine publishers report is from ads sold against content on a web page.

We need to find ways to be more precise. We should distinguish subscription, ad-supported and sponsored revenue. We should separate periodicals (or issue-based publications) from the daily stream of online posts. We should separate sales on the publisher’s terms (their own app or website) from sales in someone else’s walled garden (on Apple or Amazon).

The world of publishing is incredibly fragmented, and it’s going to get more fragmented. To keep our heads we have to be clear what we’re talking about.

Free up your teams, but maintain a common strategy

This article about goings on at Hearst includes this little comment: “their digital teams needed to be freed up to act independently.”

I think that depends on what you mean.

There are different rules and expectations on different platforms. You can’t expect tweets to follow AP style, on the one hand, or require your shy expert who sits in his corner and cranks out brilliant copy for your weekly newsletter to become a social media butterfly.

However, sometimes there are radically conflicting visions of the business of publishing between the print folk and the “new media” people. To take a somewhat extreme example, some internet-only folk are suspicious of copyright and have a “content should be free” attitude. A publisher simply can’t afford to allow that sort of perspective to warp his business practices.

It’s also easy to create conflicts over the use of your resources. Should you sell your site’s banner ad to the highest bidder, or should you use it to promote your own products? That may depend on your business model, but you want to make sure the decision is made to the benefit of the company as a whole and not only to the benefit of the people who sell ads on the website.

In short, departments should have the freedom they need to function in their niche, but it all has to tie back to a consistent strategy for the company as a whole.

New magazine launches defy “print is dead” mantra

Mr. Magazine says there have been 862 new magazine launches in the last year. I’m not sure how that compares with other periods, but it sounds like a lot to me.

The whole “print is dead” meme was aided by two things. First, the 2008 recession, which shoved advertising sales off a cliff. Second, breathless excitement about the appearance of lots of new toys — ereaders, tablets, smart phones, etc. — which had everyone staring into bright little screens.

Now that we’ve caught our breath it’s obvious that reading isn’t some monolithic thing that will all, collectively, “move to digital.” It will vary by niche. Hardly anybody looks in the paper for job postings — that transformation has been almost complete — but magazines seem to be stubbornly print-centric — not because of publisher recalcitrance or “old school thinking,” but because readers like print magazines.

Publishers can’t start with a “print is dead” mindset. They need to listen to customers and be prepared to deliver content how the user wants it.

The downside of landing page testing

There are lots of ways you can improve a landing page to get better sales results, and wise marketers do lots of testing to find out what pages work best.

But have you wondered … If you manipulate someone into buying a subscription have you done yourself a favor?

There are all sorts of ways to help the sales process. Expert copywriter Bob Bly recommends things like testimonials, credibility enhancers (e.g., “this is a secure site”), guarantees and the like. Those all reflect something tangible about the offer.

Then there are other ways to increase sales, like using a pretty woman’s face, or using the right color button. Those things do increase sales, but they have nothing to do with the offer.

When you’re selling a subscription service, you are often willing to lose money on the first year, hoping to make it up on renewals. If you use parlor tricks to manipulate someone into buying, is that helping your bottom line? If the pretty woman’s face causes a 10% lift in sales, will those sales renew at the same rate as the people who bought without the pretty face?

If your renewal rate dips one year, you’ll look back and wonder what might have caused it. Was your content less compelling? Did you use lower quality lists? Did you change your offer?

In an environment where marketers are constantly testing and refining landing pages, you may be bringing in orders from people who didn’t really want your product. You just tricked them.

I’m not sure what to do about it. It would be cumbersome to track every little change to a landing page — by assigning a different code to the order, perhaps — and then following it through the renewal process. But it’s an issue I think about from time to time.

I’m re-branding this site

Rather than sporadic posts, I’m going to write one weekly column on my thoughts on issues in publishing.

I’m not going to limit myself to B2B or even professional publishing. Some of the material will be about transformations in the industry. Some will be about writing. Some will be about self-publishing. I’ll discuss magazines, newsletters, books, blogs … any and every variety of publishing.

On some of these issues I am quite expert. On others I’m only learning. I’ll try to keep that clear in my articles.

Expect a new entry every Monday morning, starting with November 24. I will probably also add the ability to sign up for these by email.

“Send this to my real computer”

There were some interesting discussions at BIMS about optimizing email for mobile, including a great session by my friends from Real Magnet. This is an important thing to watch because more and more people are reading (or at least triaging) their email on mobile devices.

My biggest concern is the next step — getting the recipient of the email to place an order on a mobile-optimized sales page. It’s my contention that very few people want to fill out an order form with one of those silly on-screen keyboards. Yes, I know that 13 year olds are experts with those things, but most publishers are not trying to sell to 13 year olds.

What’s the solution? I don’t know, but here are some ideas I heard over the last few days.

  • Add an option on the landing page to “email this page to myself” so they can do it later on a real computer.

  • Segment your list by how much data you have on the recipient. For the recipients where you have their name, address, etc., include that in the link to the order page (that is, send it as a query parameter in the link) so the recipient doesn’t have to do as much typing on the landing page.
  • Add Paypal, Amazon 1-click, or some other easy checkout option on your landing page so the recipient doesn’t have to type much.
  • Include a phone number (with click to call) so the recipient can place the order on the phone.

I’m not sure which is the best solution, but I’m going to try to test these.

The dangerous technology that’s going to kill your ad-supported website

You probably have it in your pocket.

I had a lot of interesting conversations at BIMS about monetizing mobile traffic. The concern is that as traffic moves from a desktop, where there are several ads per page view, to tablet and mobile, where there are fewer ads per page view, it’s harder to keep the same revenue.

Everyone I spoke with at BIMS agreed that it is a serious problem and that you can’t reasonably hope to make up the difference by charging more for the ads on mobile. That would be an easy and convenient solution, but it’s not going to happen.

The consensus seemed to be that it’s better to have a completely different monetization strategy for mobile, but there was a lot of confusion on what, exactly, that other strategy ought to be.

Some said you should move mobile traffic to sponsored apps, but it wasn’t very clear to me how that would solve the revenue problem. It seems to me it could make the revenue problem worse because now you’d have to spend money to support the app.

Also, a lot of the traffic on an ad-supported site is “drive by.” Or “one and done” as my friend Ed Coburn called it. If the “one” view is “hey, go get our app,” I think you get a whole lot of nothing out of it.

A few people were promoting native ads as the solution, although that seems to introduce a split personality problem in your content strategy — i.e., you’d have one type of content on the desktop and another on mobile. Wouldn’t that be a little odd?

Another option is to change the revenue model on mobile from ads to engagement — i.e., try to collect more emails on tablets and mobile and monetize the emails. That could be a matter of pushing email sign-ups more heavily, or you could do it by requiring registration to view all or some of the mobile site.

I prefer that last option because I lean towards subscription-based models for publishers. Relying on ads has always struck me as a very iffy way to go. However, I admit that I don’t have an answer to this question. It’s something we’re going to have to watch carefully.

The end of this iPad nonsense, finally?

A colleague went to a meeting of publishers — mostly magazine publishers — and reported that many of them are finally realizing that this “the iPad will save the magazine” stuff should be filed right there next to “the Segway will transform city life.”

Digital, yes — in a very fragmented, confusing way. iPad magazines, no.

Flipboard (or something like it) will do decently well — until publishers wise up and refuse to feed it content. But the idea of the digital magazine replacing the print magazine was a silly fantasy from the start.

The Apple newsstand was an abortion from day one

Apple never even tried to understand magazine publishing, and magazine publishers were stupid to play along. Now Publishers want out of Apple’s Newsstand jail.

It was a bad deal from the start, but publishers were willing to jump in because of all the breathless promises about the “digital revolution” — that still hasn’t done much for magazine publishers.

If you think publishers are stressed now …

This morning I gave a talk to some Chinese businessmen on publishing. Mostly on ebook publishing.

Right now, the big publishers are facing serious competition on many fronts.

The Unique Selling [Proposition] (or USP) of a trade-publishing house is its ability to print large numbers of physical books cheaply and get them into lots of bookstores. That’s the real reason a writer hands over a huge chunk of his or her royalties to a traditional publisher.

However, with print in terminal decline and bookstores on the way out, this USP is becoming less valuable by the minute.

Source: Let’s Get Digital by David Gaughran

I disagree that print is in “terminal” decline, but I agree with Gaughran’s point that publishers have lost a lot of their advantages in the market. As book stores continue to close it’s only going to get worse, because a big publishing house has little benefit in a digital book marketplace, like Amazon.

Of course a lot of books are sold in other places — like Supermarkets and Sam’s Warehouse and such — but an increasing proportion are sold online, where being a big trade-publishing house doesn’t help you much.

This morning a few Chinese publishers asked me how they could get English translations of their math and science-realted texts into American schools.

Think about that. China has world-class scientists too, and their work has already been incorporated into age-appropriate texts. Why not translate them into English?

I realize that the marketplace for school books is very complicated, but look at the larger issue here. As English becomes more common around the globe (mostly because of the Internet), and as trade becomes easier, American publishers won’t just be competing with domestic start-ups and self-publishers, they’ll be competing with English translations of foreign books.

Update: And today I see this — Publishers aim to take Chinese literature to the world.

Journalism is being replaced

Matthew Ingram posted an interesting article a few days ago: Journalism’s biggest competitors are things that don’t even look like journalism.

The point is that people have more options today.

Think of all the things you used to get from the newspaper. Classified ads. Information on style trends. Political opinion. Social opinion. Local news. National news. Comics. Deals on tires. Sports scores.

You don’t need a newspaper for any of those things now, and you don’t even have to read about it. Youtube is a popular source of information for all kinds of things.

I call this whole phenomenon “digital fragmentation.” It used to be that an information publisher’s product went to market in one (or maybe a couple) outlets. Usually print. There were other options — cassette tapes, phone conferences, floppy disks sent through the mail, etc. — but they were weird niche things.

Now everything is a weird niche thing because there are thousands of niches. For any given outlet you have tons of options.

Consider “social media.” Does that mean Facebook or Instagram or Pinterest or Twitter or ….

How about audio. Does that mean podcasts or audio books, iTunes or Audible, satellite radio, internet radio, FM, AM or … what?

The number of options has simply exploded, creating thousands of niches with very specific characteristics. It’s no longer a choice between a newspaper or the evening news. It’s a choice between hundreds of different kinds of outlets.

The challenge for modern publishers is finding the right audience(s) in this tangle of possible delivery options, knowing that little parts of your audience will always be peeling off to the Next Big Thing. Or, rather, the Next Little Thing, because most new options are going to take an increasingly small piece of the pie.

“Send this to my real computer”

Conversion rates on mobile aren’t very good, at least in part (I suspect) because nobody wants to fill out a form with one of those silly keyboards on a smart phone. Especially if you have autocorrect! Argh.

However, a lot of people like to shop on their mobile device. They may be at a store, or maybe they’re having coffee with a friend and somebody recommends a product. They look it up on their smartphone, but then … the form! Oh no!

Amazon has this down. It’s one click and you’re done. So one possible solution for m-commerce is to use Amazon payments.

But there are other times when you have to fill out a form or do something that requires a real keyboard on a real computer.

I think there’s a need for a browser plug-in that allows people to send things from one device to another, so if I’m on my smartphone and don’t want to deal with the horrible form, I can send it to my desktop where I have a real keyboard. The plug-in would be like foxmarks, or some other bookmark managing plug-in, but it would have to deal with other variables.