Still, if the way a brand gets noticed in social media increasingly depends on its checkbook, this seems to mark a new phase in the evolution of social media. Are we seeing the passing of the era of earned media so soon? Is Facebook now like television, putting challenger brands and small brands with limited budgets at a disadvantage against the brands that can invest liberally to get their messages distributed? And can we say that earned media is, in fact, earned if most people see it only because it is paid?
Pew Research Center together with The Economist Group has just released an interesting report on tablet usage in the US. The numbers are encouraging for the publishers. Some takeways:
As anticipated, news consumption on tablets is very strong:
Consuming news (everything from the latest headlines to in-depth articles and commentary) ranks as one of the most popular activities on the tablet, about as popular as sending and receiving email (54% email daily on their tablet), and more popular than social networking (39%), gaming (30%), reading books (17%) or watching movies and videos (13%). The only activity that people said they were more likely to do on their tablet computer daily is browse the web generally (67%).
Also interesting is that web browser is still some way ahead as the primary way of reading news. With rise of HTML5, the gap between browser usage and apps is only likely to increase.
That said, those getting their news through apps are the most intense tablet users. As the article notes:
Those tablet news users who primarily use apps for news are the most avid consumers of news on tablets. They consume news more heavily, and in more different ways. They also report higher levels of enjoyment and learning from their news experience.
On the monetization side, however, there is still a large dose of reluctance to pay directly for tablet-native content. So it might still be some time before tablet apps are considered to be a substantial revenue stream for publishers. Ad revenue growth can of course continue to benefit from the tablet platform.
At this point just 14% of tablet news users have paid directly to access news on their tablet. Another 23% get digital access of some kind through a print newspaper or magazine subscription. Still, cost is a factor, even among this heavy news consuming population. Of those who haven’t paid directly, just 21% say they would be willing to spend $5 per month if that were the only way to access their favorite source on the tablet. And of those who have news apps, fully 83% say that being free or low cost was a major factor in their decision about what to download.
The New York Times announced yesterday a serious upgrade for its online Opinion Pages. The overhaul will see a slew of substantial new additions that point to NYT’s vision of Opinion as one of its core content propositions:
* A new blog by Editorial Page Editor Andrew Rosenthal will scan and respond to the world of opinion at The Times and elsewhere.
* Border Lines, a weekly map series by Frank Jacobs that will examine the contemporary political world map through examples of quirks in national borders, which illuminate enclaves, exclaves, no-man’s-lands, undefined borders, etc.
* New Opinionator columnists, including: Ezekiel Emanuel, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, who will comment on health care policy; and Diane Ackerman, an author and naturalist, who will cover science and nature, among others.
* Frequent Op-Eds that will be exclusively available to online readers.
* Op-Docs, opinionated, short-video documentaries, with wide creative ranges, about current affairs and contemporary life from both renowned and emerging filmmakers.
* Campaign Stops, a political opinion blog that will chronicle the 2012 election cycle with regular contributions from Timothy Egan, Charles M. Blow, Ross Douthat and Thomas B. Edsall, among others.
* Additional enhancements to the Global Opinion section.
It’s worth mentioning the numerous products above in full - this Opinion Pages upgrade is perhaps the most substantial the NYT has ever seen. Then throw in the hefty-sounding launch events (three of them: in Washington, New York an Paris, streamed live on NYT.com) and you get a sense that it’s more than just a facelift. It’s not surprising to see the paper invest heavily in premium content, yet the large scope of these improvements is rather telling. Already publishers have been focusing more and more on opinion and commentary, both online and offline.
In Scandinavia, one of the premier financial titles is moving its opinion content to the front of the paper, where it will be featured as the main content strand. A big European publishing group is changing its format in the next year to accommodate more analysis and commentary. Reuters and Bloomberg, meanwhile, have recently launched proper online Opinion hubs of their own; Time.com is soon to follow suit by launching a dedicated vertical focusing on commentary and opinion.
These developments are as logical as they are necessary. Just how necessary they are, however, became strikingly clear to me only recently - I learned that up to 80% of an average publisher’s resources is spent on news coverage. This figure exemplifies the core issue with legacy publishers - they surely know what type of content to focus on, but clearly don’t have the nimbleness to shift priorities quickly enough. For newspapers online, the pure news coverage business has no doubt been rid of any semblance of a profit margin. Brand loyalty, and profit margins, cannot be built on homogeneous, time-sensitive content in this age of fragmentation and source abundance.
Beyond the ability to yield better ad revenues, the need for more commentary and opinion is also purely practical from an editorial standpoint - as content breaks down into even smaller units (consider Twitter and live blogging) of an increasingly greater number and variety, there is a clear need for deeper analysis and broader context. The way that publishers adapt to these new trajectories will be one of the most important factors in their survival - good to see that quite a few are already moving in the right direction.
Following on from an earlier post on the idea of print as the next industry innovation, HP has come up with an interesting sounding experiment looking to gauge consumer demand for the customized print medium. Interesting to note, as Jeff Bercovici writes, that quite a few major publishers are already on board with trying out the idea: Allure, Details, Epicurious, Glamour, Golf Digest, Self and Wired.
More details here.
Demand Media is a contentious topic. The company’s business model has so far rested on pumping out heaps of search engine friendly, ad driven content – with the sort of automation and commoditization that is inherent in the approach. Google then recently stepped in to tweak its search algorithm, starting to weed out Demand Media’s sites from its results.
The emergence of Demand Media is actually quite a natural phenomenon. Consider Felix Salmon’s astute proclamation in 2008 about the end of micropublishing. Says Salmon in that piece:
To be successful in publishing, you need economies of scale, and that means big websites with a mass audience rather than niche blogs which need to be sold separately by expensive sales teams.
The mass scale achieved by Demand Media through production of low cost, highly search relevant content is an evolution of that idea. Sure, rather than relying on bespoke ad sales approach, Demand Media’s sites are mostly monetized through ad networks. Where it lacks in premium inventory, it makes up in sheer scale. Whatever one thinks of Demand Media’s approach, it is but a reflection of the current fragmented digital landscape - mass audiences (DM’s sites like eHow) are easier to sell, especially when the Web is still regarded by advertisers as a direct response channel. Thus ad yields remain low and attracting big audiences is still the surest way of making anything close to meaningful ad revenue.
The core problem, of course, is the lack of inventory scarcity - when the marginal cost of producing another monetizable web page is zero, CPMs will inevitably tend downwards. In other words, inventory supply is infinitely flexible. Or is it?
Based on the above, Demand Media’s strategy could actually be a sound one. Cornering the searchable (non-social) Web when that piece of the pie is shrinking - hence producing some scarcity - seems like a shrewd approach. Sure, social is where most of the engagement, page view generation and ad revenue is (or soon will be!), but it seems strange to suppose that there is a strict dichotomy between the searchable and the social, as Seamus McCauley argues. It is already becoming clear that social is becoming a sort of an omnipresent thread running through the Web, not a separate silo from the searchable part.
The recent purchase of IndieClick, a blog network, will see Demand Media bring some premium content properties under its wing. The partnering with Google on ad sales will, meanwhile, look to ensure higher CPMs across the whole network.
The stock might be at its all-time low - the strong IPO period performance was hardly sustainable - but the second quarter saw only a 1 cent a share drop, in contrast to a 55 cent a share drop over the same period last year. The shrinking web, coupled with DM’s latest strategy moves might still leave critics surprised.
As previously noted, one of the biggest challenges - and opportunities - for publishers online is in smart adaption of the journalistic narrative for the digital medium. Most of the output has so far remained in the original print-centered form, while hardly exploring just how the narrative can evolve in the digital medium.
A recent piece by the New York Times’ is a step in the right direction. The article is transformed into a lively narrative journey by means of relevant, point-specific illustrations that change automatically as the reader ‘travels’ through the text. The additional context provided at each step of the way is real value added.
So we can expect to see many more of such approaches; the only surprise being in how long it has taken for publishers to get here.
A thought exercise. What if we were to reverse the trend, no longer seeing print as a soon-to-be-extinct species but, instead, as the next disruption, an evolution of digital? Yes, what if digital was the legacy medium, and print a newly emerging platform - how would the transition to print media from our screens, tablets and mobiles feel?
Well, it would feel like a peculiar novelty. Let’s consider/imagine some of the ensuing characteristics:
- Finite. I am with Nicholas Carr in his view of filters intensifying the information overload, not mitigating it. And that’s perhaps the biggest problem with digital content delivery - a sense of completion, and thus satisfaction, is elusive. Psychologically this is totally overwhelming. So one of print’s core advantages is in being able to offer a defined beginning and an end. This, I bet, will be the sort of peace of mind that we will be increasingly prepared to pay for.
- Educational. Eli Pariser’s great TED talk presented the concept of “filter bubbles” - the notion that news and search customization are dangerously lowering our scope for learning in areas that we are not interested in, but might otherwise be important. A fully curated newspaper with quality editorial input is a solution. Going one step further, publishers could also experiment with prioritising the sort of articles that are more conducive to reading in print - they would be longer, with emphasis on analysis and opinion.
- Intimate. Reading a newspaper on an airplane, or with coffee in the morning, has a different experience texture than catching up with news online. Whereas we are now speeding ahead to experience commoditization at every opportunity, a newspaper experience is a welcome respite. This might be exactly why vinyl sales - almost inexplicably - are on the rise.
- Premium. Perhaps most importantly, product is seen as aspirational, something close to the Veblen good effect kicks in - increased purchase preference in direct relationship to price. Juan Senor has, for some time, been suggesting to view print as a fully capable premium format in its own right, not some sort a stepping stone to a digital eventuality.
So what of this?
Simply that it might be useful for legacy publishers to consider what they are really good at, what the actual unique selling points of print are. Truth is, some content propositions and experiences are best served in print, so the challenge is to start seeing print in a new light - attempting to capture the real value of the format.
The announcement of the Guardian’s digital-first policy could not have failed in nudging publishers to check how their own strategy measures up. As inevitable and as forward-thinking a transition this is for the Guardian, regrettably it also conjured up a sort of a dichotomy: digital vs. non-digital (i.e. print). What resists persists, and for the legions of publishers that have not come close to figuring out how to unlock substantial digital revenues and for those that are less willing to experiment, the Guardian’s digital first approach is probably an annoyingly baffling one.
Most trouble seems to lie in the power of ideology itself, with gurus and digital evangelists proclaiming the potency of this or that approach. Very quickly the industry debate can become a thing in itself, with little focus on how an intelligent, refined strategy working across all platforms might be used for the benefit of the end user.
Talking to publishers in Europe, in markets where opposing approaches are most explicit, publishers are keen to justify their position - digital-first or print-first. Both approaches can, of course, make sense depending on the market position, resources, goals at hand, etc.
A strategy by Publisher A aimed at experimenting with paid content, and, by Publisher B, at providing exclusive content for the print edition, are readily labeled as ‘digitally’ or ‘print’ driven respectively. The truth, of course, is that both are reasonable and can happily co-exist. The synthesis of the two approaches would actually reflect a good understanding of both mediums without a strict need to chose between digital and print.
What then seems to be clear is that picking sides is unhelpful. We could have a less binary view of the platforms, with the understanding that digital is merely a precondition. We can then stop seeing print strictly as a vestige of meaningful ad revenues and instead refine the medium into its new role in the emerging ecosystem. (Alexis Madrigal’s interesting expose on the New York Public Library has more on this idea.)
The print vs. digital opposition can exist only if we believe them to be exact substitutes, which they are not. Beyond that, we can look at print, online, tablets and mobile systematically, and gauge the kind of content types and formats that are uniquely suited to each of them. Not an easy task, but one we should start engaging with.