On Thursday 21st May, we gave a talk at the PPA Festival about Digital Megatrends in the publishing industry.

Our talk covered the digital advertising transformation, the death of edition-based publishing and Facebook’s changing relationship with publishing.

We drew on trends from our post at the end of last year; Digital Publishing Predictions for 2015. The full notes from the talk can be viewed below, as well as a slideshare of the presentation.

 

Digital Megatrends

1      Introduction

At the end of last year, we wrote ‘Digital Publishing predictions for 2015’, which listed 10 trends we thought would emerge over the coming year.

These covered a number of potential digital trends, from ‘bring your own devices’ in classrooms to the rise of audio and the ‘phablet’ phenomenon. Because we’re limited on time, for this talk, we’re going to discuss three predictions that have developed into industry megatrends this year so far. This will very much be a whistle-stop tour, but I’m happy to chat more about any of these afterwards.

The first trend we’re going to take a look at is the digital advertising transformation.

2      Digital Advertising Transformations

It wouldn’t be an understatement to say that advertising’s relationship with digital publishing has been strained. The reluctance of advertisers to invest in digital magazines has been holding back the industry, and we’ve had many conversations with clients who are unable to innovate as their advertisers are ‘playing it safe’.

However, since the beginning of the year, there has been a huge increase in the buzz surrounding digital advertising.

Industry news sites are now constantly running stories about the boom in digital ad spending, the growth of mobile revenue and the subsequent fall in interest in print space, which is an exciting contrast to the latter half of last year where advertisers were very much ‘playing it safe’. We can see here some of the major headlines that have been published in the last few months, including one from just a few days ago which describes how the Times advertisers have agreed to pay the same rate for advertising in the digital edition as in print.

The ‘Pangaea’ alliance is the key development to come forward from this trend. This collaboration between The Guardian, Financial Times, The Economist, CNN International and Reuters will involve them pooling their 110 million-strong combined audiences to let advertisers access and display native advertising across the group. Pangaea is launching in beta form any day now, and this is likely to be a significant bridge for trust between advertisers and digital output.

But one of the key points about this trend is not just that digital advertising is gaining traction, but that brands and companies are being more innovative about how they advertise.

Native advertising is a fantastic example of how traditional advertising methods are being re-thought. A native advert is one where the ad content matches the form and function of the platform.

Take this example from Buzfeed. This native advert looks almost exactly like one of their standard articles, but if we take a closer look at it, the content has actually been put together by Spotify, who are a ‘brand partner’.

An estimated 40% of brands are currently trying examples like this. In the digital magazine world, this trend could easily be evolved by publishers to support the changing relationship with advertisers.

That’s not to say that the average advertiser is now clamouring for space in digital magazines, but many are now approaching the table willing to talk and learn about how to use that digital space effectively.

Another trend we talked about in our publishing predictions was the overturning of the monthly publishing model. We’re beginning to see this trend move over from the news industry to magazine publishing, and it’s worth having a look at what companies and individuals are saying about it.

3      The death of the ‘magazine’

There have been rumours flying around for a month or two now about The Times’ plans to switch back to ‘edition-based’ publishing across its digital media. In some ways, it makes sense to release stories around peak traffic times in neat little bundles, but there is concern between journalists in the newsroom that this is an unnecessary backwards step – after all, content is bundled into editions for economical reasons in the world of print.

Let’s take a step back and translate this from the news world to magazine publishers. Many of us have digital versions of magazines, and for most of us, that is simply all it is. The magazine in digital form.

Paul Blake recently published an article about the lessons he’d learned from his digital-first magazine ‘App publisher’, which he has now scrapped. One line particularly stuck in my mind: ‘The concept of a magazine’ may just not work digitally’. I’m just going to read you this brief statement from him on the subject, and see whether you agree or not.

‘As someone who has bought magazines most of my life and who has spent a fair amount of my professional life creating them, this one pains me to write. However, I’m just no longer sure bundling together sets of thematic content into a wrapper called a magazine works digitally. I suspect the world for readers is becoming too fluid and open for that. I do think there is a place for great branded content and also for the role magazine editors have played in commissioning and curating that content – however, we may need to disrupt our core businesses to find the best way of doing that. That takes a lot of bravery and carries not inconsiderable risk. It may, however, be the only option that publishers have available to them.’

This statement, I believe, gets straight to the heart of the issue.

Continuous publishing is certainly not a new concept, but it is one that is making more and more sense in the world of magazine publishing. It’s a trend that news publishers jumped on a while ago in the app world, but that magazine publishers have been slow to twig.

The idea is simply that rather than releasing ‘May’ as a huge app magazine at the beginning of the month, content is released steadily over that month, and is tagged by themes or interests. This keeps reader engagement at a continuous level – they know that the app will be regularly updated with stories and will visit it much more regularly than simply once a month when a new issue comes in.

It doesn’t even have to mean the death of the ‘edition’ for now – we’re working with some magazine clients to develop apps that support both. The readers will be able to see all the latest stories by topic and theme, but for a reader who wishes to stick to the traditional print model and read May’s edition from cover to cover, the option is still there for them to do just that.

Now for a completely different trend. We predicted that Facebook was looking at getting up to speed with publishing, especially with features it was beginning to roll out like ‘trending stories’ and hashtags.

4     Facebook jumps on the publishing bandwagon

Just to provide a quick bit of background to this trend and clarify something: Facebook has supported posting links to other news and publishing sites as a driver for a long time, but since ‘Notes’ which ended in 2011, has not had any mechanism for publishing directly to the site.

For a while, Facebook has been the primary driver for popular blogging and news sites – Buzzfeed being one of the largest. But there are a number of problems with Facebook itself merely being a signpost to these sites.

Firstly, there is no guarantee about the user’s reading experience when they are taken away from the main newsfeed and into the external post (which since August, has been hosted in Facebook’s own in-app browsers – when a user clicks a link, rather than opening the link in Chrome or Safari, it opens the page in Facebook’s own browser with easy access back to the app).

On a mobile device, that article could take a while to load, may not be mobile-optimised, and, primarily, may be filled with adverts which are of no interest to the user and which bring no revenue to Facebook, which has directed you to it in the first place. So while Facebook loves the content, it hates the clunky technology that many publishers use for mobile.

And this comes right to the heart of the issue, and brings us to the brink of what is likely to be one of the biggest changes in publishing since the launch of the smartphone.

Facebook’s ‘Instant Articles’ rolled out to a limited audience last week, and have been polarising opinions in the news ever since. The publishers who have partnered with Facebook for the trial have produced a variety of articles, some with adverts and some with extra features like video content, and these are all hosted in Facebook’s mobile app.

This could be a fantastic boost for publishers – with over 1.3 billion users, the potential audience reach is unparalleled. But this would also make them mere subjects in Facebook’s giant kingdom, and would greatly reduce their power, especially with advertisers.

We had a conversation last week with industry leaders about their digital strategies, and as a collective group, they all dismissed publishing to Facebook as an unimportant phase that would soon pass. For people in that camp, this graph may give you some food for thought.

This graph shows referral traffic to publishing sites from Facebook and Google. When Facebook launched its own in-app browsers in August, a definite trend emerged which has since seen it overtake Google as the top referrer to articles.

This gives a different perspective on the significance of Facebook’s influence over traffic. I’m not suggesting we all flock to publish content straight to Facebook, because there are a number of pros and cons that need to be carefully considered, but what should be emphasised is that this is a key trend that needs to be discussed, and shouldn’t be dismissed out-of-hand.

From all of this, there is a critical question publishers should be asking themselves: “Can we see a future where our content and brand exist outside of our platform?” Whether that platform is your magazine, your website or your newsletter, are you prepared to cut those ties and release your content through external channels?

The answer has the potential to define the next few years in digital publishing.

 

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