It will come as no surprise to anyone reading to be told that we are living through a period of intense change transforming the media landscape. My two decades in journalism have witnessed the industry turned inside out and upside down, cajoled this way and that by external forces well beyond the control of any publishing executives in Fleet Street, Wapping or Peterborough.
When I joined Cardiff Journalism School in the newspaper course intake of 1996, we were launching our media careers in the calm before the storm. The Daily Telegraph’s first website, the Electronic Telegraph, had launched quietly in November 1994. We still used manual typewriters and a waxing machine took pride of place in course tutor John Foscolo’s production cupboard. But there were ranks of beige Apple Macs too, sporting early desktop publishing software such as the bafflingly basic Talbot Newswrite. Though we didn’t know it, we were about to witness the changing of the media guard.
Come graduation day, every one of us landed a job in real journalism; the majority on local or regional newspapers, a couple joined national magazines and the lucky few waltzed straight onto Fleet Street. Nineteen years later and at least a fifth are no longer employed in journalism, the lure of PR dollar, less stressful, more dependable careers outside the media or family duties bringing journalistic roles to an end. Many blame the uncertainty of the media revolution for their exit. We have truly lived through – and continue to experience – significant structural change.
But one hack’s change is another’s opportunity. There is reason to be optimistic: successful journalists with chameleon-like tendencies have a knack of reinventing themselves. I heartily believe there is space in the new media landscape for old-fashioned journalistic graft and editorial nous; for scintillating subbing and headline writing skills to lure in casual browsers; and for publishers adept at building communities of readers and communicating with them regularly – just online, rather on paper. Where there’s audience, there’s commercial opportunity.
That’s my experience working at Bauer Media for the past decade. Allow me to explain why we believe we are building successful digital publishing businesses around highly targeted, niche audiences, designed with longevity to weather the storms gripping our industry. Here’s what I’ve learned.
1. Know your mission statement
It sounds obvious, but so many publishing enterprises either lose sight of their original mission statement or never had one in the first place. Any successful web publishing business should be able to write on a beer mat their raison d’être. Ours at Parkers.co.uk is dead simple. We want to help Britain’s car buyers find the best possible vehicle for their needs and budgets. It really is that simple.
This focus is instilled across the team and underpins everything we do. We even plastered the mantra across a giant 65in screen above the editorial desks. A motivated, focused team is a much easier one to pull in the right direction, after all.
At Parkers that mission statement is used to sense-check everything we do: from daily editorial conferences, where every story is cross-checked for user-usefulness, to commercial brainstorms and development road maps. If any plan doesn’t feel like it is helping the great British public buy their next car, the chances are it’s not going to improve our business.
2. Understand your digital audience
This is as fundamental as understanding your mission statement. Knowing your reader has long been a staple of print publishing – and it’s even more important in digital publishing. But there’s one crucial difference: we have all the data in the world to deepen our understanding of how real people actually behave.
Anyone who has worked in print publishing will be familiar with the beard-stroking and black art of interpreting magazine or newspaper ABC sales data. Guesswork is another way of describing some of what I have witnessed in print. Why did one issue sell, when another flopped? The honest answer is, you often have no idea. Yet senior publishers concoct elaborate theories, blaming rival cover stories or promotions, unseasonal heatwaves or the competitive landscape to support gut instinct and/or political back stories. There’s nowhere to hide in digital publishing, where the raw stats are available for all to see.
At Bauer Media we open up analytics to the entire team – everyone from junior staff writers to the board has access to data. It’s unforgivingly transparent. We all see which stories sizzle, and which sink. The popular content with huge dwell times and long scroll depths, as well as the pages which disappear without trace, sparking a woefully high bounce rate. Knowing your readers inside out is much easier when you can see what floats their boat.
One of the most valuable lessons I have learned is this: digital publishing is devilishly simple: see what works – and then do more of it. Ditch what isn’t popular and learn from your mistakes. Research every decision with analytics, train your team in data interpretation and surround yourself with team members who see data as their friend, not their enemy. Too many journalists are suspicious of analytics, although that is slowly changing.
3. Hire creative advertising geniuses
So you have found yourself a genuine user need that you are uniquely placed to answer. You are convinced you stand a good chance of building a strong community whose needs you can service brilliantly, repeatedly and – hopefully – uniquely. Now the hard part. How on earth do you monetise this audience? Especially in an age when ad rates are collapsing through the floor, as agencies become more sophisticated with micro-targeting, programmatic ad networks depress the prices commanded by once-valued audiences and technology such as ad-blocking creates new headaches with every passing month.
Who would want to be in digital sales with that cursed backdrop? Fortunately for us, Bauer Media – and other publishers – are slowly building an army of salespeople who have taken the leap alongside their editorial counterparts into this new data-driven world. The risks are huge online, but rewards can be significant too, especially if you come up with a compelling content proposition that rivals cannot match.
It’s true to say that the rules of online advertising are even more fluid than in print. The days of the humble leaderboard, MPU and skyscraper ads are well and truly past, complicated by the addition of multiple ad placements, sticky display units, Google ads, third-party sponsored content networks, takeovers, MPU2s, retargeting on- and off-site plus all manner of disruptive methods designed to give advertisers stand-out in a crowded marketplace.
It takes skilful teams to tiptoe the line between helping users with useful, carefully targeted advertising and the aesthetic mess that’ll result if you overload the page with too many commercial interruptions. The best digital ad sales people understand this tension and can think laterally around the problem – using data at the heart of their arguments. Unlike in print, you really can micro-target exactly the audience a client wants online and we are getting better and better at doing that.
Bauer has invested heavily in new ad platforms on both Parkers.co.uk and Carmagazine.co.uk, where we can serve adverts not just against a given manufacturer’s models, but also against its rivals’. Right down to the level of detail where it can promote against competition’s hybrid petrol-electric estate cars but not the diesel ones. Plus we have added new services so we are less dependent on advertising money: vehicle valuations, used-car classified adverts, leasing deals and insurance quotes all help diversify our revenue streams.
4. Go social: Thinking outside your own walled garden
Gone are the days of relying solely on people coming to our websites to consume content. We have to market the hell out of it – and the journalists themselves are the brand’s marketers-in-chief and social media warriors. Understanding your user and how to talk to them on social media is a crucial skill nowadays, and we are constantly striving to spark the conversation online across social platforms to drown out our competition’s buzz and get our own stories noticed.
We have had great success in this area, growing CAR’s Facebook audience from 350,000 in 2014 to 1.2m in 2016. And that’s 100 per cent organically, with no paid-for followers, just from publishing compelling picture galleries, posting irresistible links and engaging heavily with our users (not something many traditional print journalists enjoy doing). Combined with a growth spurt on Twitter (we have doubled in the same period to 122,000 followers), it means we are speaking to more people than ever before. At its peak, we were driving nearly 10 per cent of the website’s entire traffic from social media.
But it’s not just about on-trend social platforms. We have also engaged with our own in-house audiences, accessed from across the Bauer Media portfolio. Parkers’ audience development strategy saw it partner with our female-focused sister titles, producing motoring content in association with Grazia, Closer, the Debrief and Mother & Baby. It’s a move that other publishers will struggle to replicate and taps into a female audience that car makers are eager to speak to. Publishers who can drive audience around their own portfolio successfully will stand a better chance of winning.
5. Scale is important
Big is beautiful in the web world. The biggest advertising wins are reserved for the select few at the top of the ratings lists, with slim pickings for smaller fry. And with the likes of Google and Facebook hoovering up ever more ad money, it’s hard work keeping the revenues rolling in.
Parkers.co.uk is consistently one of the UK’s biggest motoring editorial websites, drawing 2.5m users a month, consuming some 20m page views (August 2016). At that scale, we are generating revenues well into seven figures annually, making this Bauer’s biggest and most profitable website in the UK.
This is the classic business conundrum: the larger, most successful websites attract the lion’s share of investment. But there’s a need to invest equally in the smaller, more niche brands we publish too. You can’t have all your eggs in one basket. The internet has a habit of building up successful brands only to knock ’em down again in remarkably short order. Anyone remember Friends Reunited?
6. Know that the only certainty is uncertainty
The pace of change in digital publishing is mind-boggling. Online specialists have to adapt continuously to new working practices, ensuring we meet new demands from search engines such as Google and quickly assimilating new technologies such as Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) and the rise of ad blockers. By the time you read this, there will doubtless be even more developments rewriting the rulebook all over again.
Let’s drill into one example in more detail. The battle to be at the top of search engine results pages means that digital publishers worship at the altar of Google more than any other service. Around 80 per cent of our traffic arrives at our sites from the search giant and we spend an inordinate amount of time to ensure our stories rank higher on Google than rivals’ pages.
But search engine optimisation (SEO) moves at a frightening pace. Best practice evolves weekly and our editorial teams have to adapt constantly to remain relevant. Back in 2014, we realised that we could play Google’s results by ensuring writers built Google+ profiles with a picture byline. Result? Any search results page plugged our story with a photograph of the journalist, lending extra authority, stand-out attention and – ultimately – a higher click-through rate to boost our traffic.
Once everyone cottoned on to this, Google unsurprisingly stopped placing author bylines on its results pages. A cynic might suggest it had encouraged hordes of reporters to sign up for profiles on its struggling social network, Google+. But it was certainly another example of how the competitive landscape is forever changing. There are myriad other tricks we now pursue instead, such as researching keywords with sophisticated tools, improving our domain authority and honing every article’s metadescriptions to ensure our content wins the all-important click from Google.
7. Be prepared to fail
You have to be prepared to push the boundaries in this brave new world of digital publishing – and that can mean occasionally getting things wrong. Contrary to recognised publishing best practice, we are trying to accept that this is fine. The digital mindset should embrace failure as a route to improvement.
It’s all to do with risk and reward, and making the most of our agility as digital-first operators. We can conceive ideas, implement, publish and test in less than 24 hours – with reams of data points to guide us whether the development has worked or not. We A/B test often, by concurrently publishing two variants of the same feature to see which one responds best, meaning we can test in real-time different headlines, or colours of tint boxes or navigational signposting around the website. Beta testing is a great way of making informed business decisions.
The important thing is to recognise when failure has occurred, learn from it and remember this when you are planning your next development. In the fast-moving world of web publishing it’s all about new ideas. Come up with 20, launch the best 10 and maybe half will work. One might even be a game-changer. But unless you try all of them, and see some flop, you’ll never know.
So be prepared to fail. Just make sure you do it quickly, and smartly, using all the tools at your disposal. You’ll emerge stronger, and wiser, if you do.
8. Focus. Focus. Focus.
How on earth do you retain focus in a world in which you are continually expected to launch new ideas, develop your website and publish a steady flow of compelling written, video and audio content – as well as produce a printed magazine or newspaper, curate all your brand’s social media channels and maybe even build a few apps and iPad tablet editions for good measure? No wonder journalists have little time to frequent the pub nowadays.
It’s hard to keep all those plates spinning at the desired quality levels in a typically busy modern newsroom. But having the team resolutely focused on the overarching mission statement – it’s back to point one above again – is crucial for the best chance of success.
Bauer Media came up with a simple way of ensuring there is 100 per cent focus on its digital objectives: it hived off the web publishing team into a new division, named Bauer Xcel. This means that the editorial staff running the websites do not report into the magazine editors, but into a new digital operation. It has increased focus on digital. It has accelerated the pace of change in our websites. And it means that online is not held back by any lingering print-first mentality.
9. Employ the smartest journalists
For all the strategic thinking and digital black arts we have discussed, there is one exciting truth at the heart of modern web publishing: brilliant journalism still sells.
The best stories and scoops will generate more clicks than any Facebook quiz or Google page-rank. I am always heartened to see a genuine scoop fly to the top of the analytics feed, proof that good, old-fashioned journalistic graft and storytelling is at the heart of what we do.
So invest in your journalism. Online publishing should not be about churnalism – unique content, brilliantly researched and written is the best single marketing tool any website can have. I firmly believe there will continue to be a demand for fabulous editorial that speaks to real readers’ needs, whether it’s in print, on a laptop screen or a smartphone. It’s what separates us from the mere bloggers.
Digital publishing is at its most exciting when it mixes old-school journalistic insight with the new-tech tools which tell us how people research their next car purchase, what they are searching for and the exact phrase they put into Google. Marrying up the two skillsets, ancient and modern, that’s where the magic lies.
Tim Pollard is the digital editor-in-chief of Bauer Media’s motoring titles, leading the 14-strong web team on Carmagazine.co.uk and Parkers.co.uk, the publisher’s flagship automotive titles. A print veteran turned digital warrior, he studied newspaper journalism at Cardiff Journalism School and started out on the Cambridge Evening News and the News in Portsmouth before switching to magazines and finally digital, via stints on What Car?, Autocar and Microsoft, where he ran four of MSN UK’s web channels.
This piece is an extract from Last Words? How can journalism survive the decline of print?, to be published by Arima on 23 January at £19.95. Readers of Journalism.co.uk can pre-order at a special discount price of £15 by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
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