The digital tsunami that has engulfed publishing could be deemed a threat – a threat to print, quality and consumer trust – but, with the right approach, there are very real opportunities for evolution and reinvention.

In the first part of this series, The Economist’s chief data officer Stephane Pere examined the changes that have taken place in publishing over the last decade. This time, he looks at some common pieces of received wisdom about digital publishing, to ask whether we should challenge any of those assumptions.

“News publishing is dead”

But is it? Of course, newspapers are suffering; most from an unprofitable circulation and a shrinking advertising revenue. More than 100 daily newspapers have closed in the US since 2004 and the famed UK Independent newspaper went online-only in 2016. 

The reality is, the concept of news has evolved over the last few decades. A medium that was about hard facts changed to ‘analysis’ (why it matters, what it means, what the impact is), and later to ‘opinion’ and finally to ‘feelings’. News, in its different forms (including fake news) is everywhere, so no wonder people don’t want to pay for it. Such is the proliferation, it’s often hard just to cope with it.

Yes, the concept of news has changed and evolved, and yes news publishing model has been challenged on both front of advertising and subscription, but maybe there is still room for highly distinctive news publications. Investigative and satirical journalism is a great example, embodied by the success of Le Canard Enchaine in France. This century-old publication is still profitable thanks to its 400,000 weekly circulation, despite not carrying any advertising. 

At The Economist, circulation profitability has doubled in the last four years and is planned to double again in the next five. Since 1843, this newspaper has been publishing high quality global news. It acts as a smart guide to the forces that shape the future, as a trusted filter on world affairs. It offers serendipity as well as finishability, and aims to be an antidote to information overload.

If you have very clear positioning, you mustn’t compromise it in search of advertising revenue, but focus on your USP and maximize the value you can extract from it. That asset is also great to help brands become publishers. Brands do not want to sell product anymore, they want to tell stories. Who better than legacy news publications to help brands do so? Being a credible source and storyteller is a great asset for content solutions. Storytelling capabilities can help publishers re-invent their marketing solutions, demonstrated successfully by The New York Times’ T Brand Studio and the Guardian’s Lab. In hard times, make sure you understand what your strength is and what makes you different. Focus on it, and leverage it in new ways.

“It’s too hard for publishers to cope with the device and platform explosion” 

There is always a new phone, tablet, or IOS version to contend with, and publishers must adapt with new versions of their digital products. Yet for publishers, tech and editorial costs can go through the roof.

On top of this, there is always a new platform to consider when distributing content and companies like Facebook, Apple and Google are so big now that they can look like enemies. Legacy publishers are still too bitter about having let these pure players collect consumer data at scale to finally launch broad competing advertising marketplaces. But maybe devices and platforms are rather a source of opportunities for publishers to embrace.

How can a platform gathering more audience than you be perceived as the enemy?

What these platforms provide is an opportunity for publishers to test; to find new eyeballs, prospects, audiences, customers, but also to redefine who they are and what they produce.

Until recently The Economist was mostly about words, published on a weekly basis and in English. I remember an internal memo from John Micklethwait, our former Editor-in-Chief, about the power and importance of words versus the bells and whistles of image and video.

Today, as we look at growing our subscriber base, we consider new usages as opportunities for our brand. We have an Economist Films arm that makes 15-minute documentaries which are also shared on Amazon Fire and Apple TV to give our brand further reach. We have a daily app, publish in Mandarin, and are available on platforms that include Snapchat and Oculus . 

But, you must be ready for change. You have to identify clear KPI’s for each initiative, and test and learn through continuous measurement. You need to balance how you allocate your editorial efforts and accept failure. You need to have a proper back-end tech that will allow you to scale your efforts, not a classical ‘one product, one CMS’ approach. You need to treat your content pieces as assets and find ways to push them  onto current, and new, platforms, easily and effectively. 

“Privacy concerns are growing” 

Not a single day goes by without breaking news about government surveillance and massive consumer data leakage. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), we are now surrounded by sensors. Some start to wonder whether Amazon Alexa is listening if we talk over our music playlist.

There are also growing concerns about marketing practices. Some consumers feel manipulated by brands collecting data from them to sell them stuff they don’t want, or can’t afford. Of course, regulations and self-regulations should be welcomed, and some consider that consumers should be compensated for data collection. 

But we are facing a paradox. On the one hand, consumers believe that they should own their own data and feel spooked by targeted advertising. On the other hand, they want to have seamless digital product experiences that happen like magic. As consumers, we want to be treated with attention by brands and made to feel special. We are looking for ‘1-2-1’ conversations, in the way that social platforms are so expertly leveraged for customer service.

As marketers, we have to be polite and elegant. Explain what you do with the data that you collect. Ask permission – ideally in exchange for a benefit (such as personalised recommendations). Make sure that consumers can manage their preferences and  easily opt out. Do away with the pages-long consent forms that consumers are supposed to review before getting access to a product or service.

Be elegant in the way you leverage the data in the marketing activation. Avoid the freak factor; the, ‘hey you just looked at that product, let me stalk you wherever you browse’, approach. Let’s therefore be careful with the call-to-action as well as the frequency capping.

Again, everything must happen like by magic. Find the right balance between privacy compliance, brand equity and business need. If you are hesitating too much before implementing new data collection or activation… don’t do it!

“It is harder and harder to engage consumers”

Due to the proliferation of touch points and multi-tasking, ad slots and push notifications, it is harder for marketers to stand out and have an impact. Ad blockers make it even harder, plus marketers are competing in an attention span economy. More than ever, it is important to create moments of truth.

Yes, our circulation marketing team has received numerous awards for best use of data in its subscription digital acquisition campaigns. Yes, technology and data helped identify and target prospects as well as optimise creative messaging based on contextual relevance and conversion. Yet what was paramount, was to get the creative strategy right and match the wit of our editorial voice with our ad copy.

Each week we lined up provocative creative headlines to breaking news. For instance, when officers were released from hospital following an ambush on Ferguson police headquarters, readers interested in the topic were served a bullet-pierced ad asking, ‘Have American cops gone ballistic?’.

Think about how to surprise and connect with your customers – tech and data should only then help serve that purpose. 

“Advertising is becoming Wall Street”

Not only is the print advertising market in structural decline but it is also hard for publishers to compete in the digital ad market. This market has become automated, data-driven and real-time and budget allocations are made on performance.

The market is dominated by a few happy players and the inventory margin split across numerous tech intermediaries, leaving just pennies to legacy publishers.

However, there is opportunity to leverage untapped audience monetisation. 

As a matter of fact, supply and demand of data and inventory from most marketplaces is now interconnected. Identifiers of all sorts are matched in real-time  – cookie ID, device ID, email ID etc. Therefore, publishers with a distinctive audience can offer agencies and clients not only access to the target audience for their digital publication, but also retarget them on search, mobile, video and other display marketplaces. Instead of pitching for the mere display or mobile portion of a brand budget, publishers can now aim for a broader digital plan. They can help brands build, promote, and scale content and campaigns across numerous touch points and tactics.

Our job in the media is to lead transformation, and transformation is often painful. What matters is to always look for the next wave to stay ahead of trends, whether that’s a move towards Artificial Intelligence, or an age in which our bodies are going to be physically connected to our tech. After the IoT, we will soon be talking about the IoP (Internet of People) and FMCG buying decisions will be done programmatically by AI agents in our connected homes, via home appliances, based on our behaviours. That means that marketers might have to become hackers. Yes, there has never been a more exciting time to be in media.