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Global-Media, Tech Trends — December 22, 2011 at 17:51
Email: Rob O’Regan
Aside from the obvious headline-grabbing events that influenced journalism and digital media in 2011 – the death of Steve Jobs, News Corp.’s phone-hacking scandal, and a steady stream of executive changes across major media and tech brands – there were several other important trends that gained steam throughout the year. Here are five that had a tangible impact on magazine and news publishers’ fortunes and promise to be even more disruptive to existing business models in the year ahead.
The year was bookended by a series of lower-cost tablet rollouts designed to eat into Apple’s dominant iPad share. The first wave came at the Consumer Electronics Show in January, when more than 80 tablets were shown by the likes of Motorola, Samsung, ViewSonic, NEC, Research In Motion, Lenovo and Cisco. Several were running Android, and a few ran Windows 7. Most have yet to make it out of the lab. The deluge gave pause to some publishers already concerned about stretching already thin resources across multiple devices with different screen sizes and operating system flavors.
“I have a staff of less than 30 people. How do you keep up with the constant updates across multiple platforms?” Lisa Hsia, senior vice president of digital media for NBC Universal’s Bravo unit, asked during a CES panel discussion. “We have not figured out the best way to serve the needs of all devices. And the return has yet to catch up with the investment.”
By year-end, those returns were looking a bit better, thanks to three key events:
Concerns remained about market fragmentation and the need to support multiple tablet devices, and some publishers were still waiting for the return to kick in on their investments, but for the most part publishers were bullish about the tablet market’s potential as a rich new playground for their digital content.
With early user studies showing that the iPad and other tablets were more conducive to leisurely, “lean-back” reading vs. rapid-fire web browsing, it became evident in 2011 that designing tablet editions would be a far different experience than designing dreary, search-optimized websites.
“We’re learning that design is incredibly important on the tablet,” Joe McCambley, co-founder and creative director at interactive agency The WonderFactory, said in January. “There’s some urgency to get on those devices now, but you really have to think through your content strategy and your interaction with consumers, and optimize around the tablet.”
For designers, the tablet presented two distinct challenges. The first involved finding the right balance of rich media (video, audio, animation) to use in each issue. Many early digital editions fell into one of two extremes: full of interactive bells and whistles that created extremely bloated apps (such as Conde Nast Traveler, which debuted in October at a robust 784M bytes), or PDF replicas that added little to the tablet reading experience.
Gradually, some publishers began to pull back on rich media features. In November, Time Inc.’s Steve Sachs told Adweek, “Interactive elements are valuable to [readers], but they’re a secondary benefit,”citing a “great reading experience” as the top priority.
The second challenge involved the best way to support device-specific touch and swipe features. Tablet touchscreens kicked off new debates over the benefits of swiping vs. scrolling – or when to use both navigation techniques. A Nielsen Norman Group iPad usability study in May found that iPad apps were afflicted with common problems such as “swipe ambiguity” – in which the presence of too many swipable items on a page confuses users into concluding that an app is broken.
Tablets created a heightened sense of design not just for apps, but also for mobile versions of websites. Publishers began devoting more attention to optimizing their websites for tablet-based browsing, which in and of itself was a much richer experience than the stripped-down mobile sites delivered to smartphones.
Emerging tools such as HTML5 led to more experimentation with techniques such as responsive design, which enables layouts and other web elements to adapt automatically to different screen sizes. The Boston Globe was perhaps the most prominent media brand to adopt responsive design this year, using it on the new BostonGlobe.com premium site it launched in September. ProPublica joined the party in December with its own adaptation of responsive design. Advances in these techniques added new fuel to the debate over whether publishers would be better served by focusing their resources on HTML5-based website development instead of tablet-specific apps.
The ‘information wants to be free’ mantra was put to a serious test in 2011, as more media sites erected subscription paywalls around their Web content. The New York Times led the pack, announcing in March a digital subscription plan starting at $15 a month. The pay meter provided online readers with access to 20 articles a month before facing a subscription roadblock. By July, some pundits were declaring the NYT paywall a success.
The metered approach quickly gained favor among other publishers, some of which claimed more success than others. The Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, Concord (NH) Monitor and TulsaWorld.com actually saw page views increase after erecting paywalls. The Financial Times, which has long charged for online content, disclosed in November that it expects subscription and single-issue revenues to overtake ad revenues this year, a milestone in its history.
In December, Sun-Times Media launched a metered paywall for the Chicago Sun-Times and its sister publications. “The time is long overdue for us to begin charging for our content,” Sun-Times Media Chairman Jeremy Halbreich told the Sun-Times.
Increasingly sophisticated paywall platforms made it easier for publishers to experiment with different paid content options. In February, Google announced One Pass, a paid content platform that throughout the year worked its way onto a handful of publisher websites, including Rust Communications’ Southeast Missourian and Media General’s Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch. Journalism Online’s Press+ platform also made inroads, including metered subscription models at 23 community sites owned by MediaNews Group. In June, Press+ was purchased by RR Donnelly.
Critics see paywalls as a short-term (and shortsighted) play that will chase away much-needed visitors who can find similar content elsewhere. But it’s likely that all publishers will need some type of reader revenue strategy to compensate for declining print subscriptions and advertising revenues. If nothing else, paywalls represent an important evolutionary step in publishers’ attempts to change the nature of their relationship with an audience that’s used to getting digital content for free.
The challenge is striking the right balance of free and paid content on your site. A few best practices are emerging. While premium publishing brands are losing the battle for mass-produced, inexpensive content, they seem to be making progress in convincing at least some portion of their audience that quality content is worth paying for.
Social media is taking up an increasing amount of an online visitor’s time. In June, Facebook passed 1 trillion monthly page views, making it the most visited site on the Web. And that’ s just Facebook. With all the activity around Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, Tumblr and a host of other social media sites, it became increasingly difficult in 2011 for publishers to keep up – or know where to fit in. One thing’s for sure: Publishers can’t just post links anymore; they need to engage with their audience.
Is Facebook friend or foe to publishers? Mostly friend at this point. More than half of all online story sharing is done on Facebook, AddThis reported in December. Facebook’s Open Graph feature, unveiled in September, opens up the potential of increased access to older content – a social long tail, if you will. In April, Facebook hired Vadim Lavrusik, a former community manager at Mashable, to promote Facebook features – including Facebook Pages – as valuable tools for journalists. It also created a resource page to help journalists incorporate social media into their reporting.
Facebook analytics evolved as well this year. A new “talking about this” metric offered content creators and advertising executives their first opportunity to analyze the true business potential of Facebook – beyond simply compiling the number of Facebook fans you have compared to your competitors.
All this adds up to a great opportunity for publishers to follow – and engage – their audience on Facebook. But most media companies continue to under-invest in the platforms. At least that’s the belief of marketing professor Scott Galloway (pictured), who at the American Magazine Conference in October called out publishers for their “uninspired” approach to Facebook.
That may be changing. Social media has turned into a “profit center” for the BBC’s commercial websites, a BBC Worldwide executive said in May, adding that ROI on Facebook initiatives at some BBC sites was “staggering.” In April, the New Yorker offered one of its premium essays for free – if a user “liked” its Facebook page. The promotion attracted 16,000 new fans.
Some publishers have gone so far as to launch Facebook-specific editions. These social reader pages from the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post and others could signal the end of the online news site.
Publishers can’t afford to invest resources exclusively in Facebook, however. Twitter went positively mainstream this year, serving as a scoop-breaking, 21st century newswire for global events such as Bin Laden’s death, the Arab uprising, the Japanese tsunami and the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Twitter is also aggressively building out its social sharing features, many of which benefit media companies. Additions this year included the “Follow” button, which, like Facebook’s “Like” button, gave publishers an easy way to gain followers directly from their websites. In November, Twitter announced Twitter Stories, an online portfolio that Twitter will use to display stories about how single tweets have affected its users. A new Discover section launched in December is Twitter’s first big step into content curation.
And then there’s Google+. Announced in June, Google+ immediately caught publishers’ attention as another important platform for content distribution and promotion. In November, Google introduced Google+Pages, opening up the platform to brands. Publishers quickly began experimenting with branded pages – with early returns indicating high levels of engagement.
By year’s end, some pundits were calling Google+ a social media game-changer. Just one more thing for publishers to add to the mix.
Publishers have been talking about “digital first” strategies for years. In 2011, we began to see some tangible evidence that a digital-first mindset was taking hold across the industry.
The leader of this movement is John Paton, whom the New York Times in November dubbed “newspapers’ digital apostle.” Paton began the year as head of the Journal Register Co. and ended it as CEO of Digital First, a management company overseeing the Journal Register and MediaNews Group. So how does Paton define “digital first”?
“We say digital first and print last not because we’re dismissing print, but because it actually comes last in the cycle,” Paton said in February. “Long before that we are using social media, we’re using video, we’re using mobile and we’re using web and widgets to get that news out there before we do the actual print product.”
Others have picked up the phrase and run with it. In June, the UK’s Guardian News & Media announced it would become a “digital-first organization,” which it defined in part as “placing open journalism at the heart of its strategy.”
Prioritizing digital business at The Atlantic led to the magazine’s first profit in decades. In October, the company announced another milestone in its efforts: digital advertising revenue exceeded print ad sales for the first time.
Some publishers have gone one step further by going “digital only” – abandoning print altogether. In October, Ziff-Davis Enterprise announced that its technology trade titles would go paperless in January as the company focuses on an “omnidigital” strategy built around its websites and mobile products.
Challenges remain. Affinity’s American Magazine Study, released in December, found that more than half of the total audience of 12 large consumer publishers consists of print-only readers – meaning that the majority of the audience says they don’t access any content on the magazines’ websites, social media pages or mobile apps.
In practice, a digital-first strategy requires significant changes to three core elements of a publisher’s business: operations, products and culture. Revenue models under this approach won’t come from one digital source, but from several. “The Internet is about stacking dimes,” a publishing executive told eMediaVitals in August. “You need 20 to 30 revenue streams, and you have to adjust quickly based on what’s working and what’s not.”
Publishers experimented with many such streams this year – some of which turned into viable businesses. E-singles became popular among publishers ranging from ProPublica to Rodale to String Letter Publishing.
E-commerce (and its younger sibling, social commerce) initiatives, including daily deal services, began to blur the lines between publishers and online retailers.
Other lines were blurring between publishers and agencies, as media companies launched a variety of marketing services. In May, Conde Nast launched a marketing services division to focus on app development, video, web design and social media.
Marketing services make up an increasingly larger share of ad-driven revenues at UBM TechWeb. In September, IDG extended its budding marketing services business into mobile with a new program designed to help tech marketers reach audiences on smartphones and tablets.
Some publishers, however, remain cautious about the perils of competing with agencies and reducing their margins. Some prefer more traditional methods for diversifying their revenue streams. Vogue and the New Yorker, for example, are selling access to their extensive content archives. Content licensing across mobile devices is another option.
Expect more of these initiatives as the “digital first” buzz grows louder.
Tags: 2011, 2011 trends, Boston Globe, Digital, digital first, digital media, facebook, free and paid content, game rends, Google, John Paton, journalism, LinkedIn, New York Times, pay meter, PayWall, paywalls, premium site, Press+, Social Media, tablet, Tumblr, Twitter
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