Credit: Alain Pham on Unsplash

David Lockie is the founder and director of digital agency Pragmatic, web developer and a WordPress expert.

The publishing industry has changed profoundly over the last 20 years, leaving some businesses struggling and others thriving. Those who are doing well have one thing in common - revenue diversification.

But achieving this is not easy and relies in particular on two technical capabilities: agility of the owned content platform and the ability to personalise experiences for visitors.

Many traditional publishers, for example, regional newspapers, have struggled with digital transformation and some have even stopped trading. But others - digitally-native publishers and successfully transformed legacy businesses - have thrived. US e-publishing revenues, for instance, forecast to grow from $7.19 billion in 2016 to $8.88 billion in 2022.

Revenue diversification is key to user-centric experiences. Publishers have traffic that many businesses only dream of, but for a long time, the digital publishing model was essentially just getting traffic and monetising it through ad revenue.

This model is now obsolete for a number of reasons. Firstly, Google and Facebook are the real winners in the ad revenue model both in terms of percentage retained of each advertising dollar, and more valuably, ownership of data about visitors and their behaviour. Then, the rise of e-commerce means that consumers are now entirely comfortable spending money on websites - whether for physical or digital goods and services, even on high-value items like cars.

There is also an increased consumer acceptance of paywalls as many publishers have demonstrated significant enough value and the technology has become mature enough to enable a good experience. Measurable success of content marketing for brands has provided a clear roadmap to publishers - the more like a publisher a brand behaves, the better its revenue. And as product businesses saw success by investing in publishing, there was room for publishers to add products to monetise their audience.

"We have 10 million-plus people engaged with our platforms," said Brandon Berger, chief business officer for theSkimm. "If we can convert 1 million, 2 million, 3 million people, that's a pretty strong business, and that's what we are focusing on." Brand marketers acknowledge that producing quality content that makes you stand out from the crowd is hard but it also creates collaboration and cooperation opportunities way beyond placing ads.

Finally, the ways publishers can acquire new customers became increasingly complex. The dominance of XaaS ([X = anything] as a Service) business models has demonstrated that it is possible - and desirable - to acquire customers with zero direct contact - what we call 'self-onboarding'. As these techniques have become successful, busines-to-business buyers have changed their buying behaviours.

Revenue diversification opportunities for publishers

These factors have created opportunities for publishers to diversify their revenue streams, for example, advertising revenue; house advertising, including online and offline bundles; in-house and affiliate e-commerce; paywalls, subscriptions and memberships; branded content; campaigns, consultancy and promotion services; brand extensions (books, events, online communities, courses); web monetisation; micropayments and audience building for secondary monetisation, such as social and newsletters.

These opportunities are often complementary (membership bundles in premium content subscriptions, brand extensions and online community participation), further complicating the picture.

Even if you could sensibly ask every user to take all these actions at every visit, you would not want to. Some user journeys will be more valuable to you, some far more likely for a particular user to complete.

More importantly, many of these user journeys conflict. For example, if a user is looking to buy a product or membership, distracting them with an advert or other lower-value call to action can actively undermine your revenue maximisation work.

Best possible experience

But how do you give all your current and potential stakeholders the best possible experience on your content platform?

Start by defining the 'best possible experience': the experience which makes it as easy and engaging as possible for the visitor to discover you, visit and then complete the user journey which gives the best possible combination of value creation for all website stakeholders: you - the publisher, them - the visitor and any other third parties.

The solution lies in an agile, owned content platform and the ability to personalise experiences for visitors.

Agile, owned content platforms

Content management might not be the sexiest tech trend out there, but your CMS is still an essential tool - we see time and again that even minor annoyances with the experience for internal teams can rapidly lead to disengagement and neglect of your website.

WordPress, for example, is a great fit for a vast number of requirements and organisations - hence its prevalence in the CMS and website spaces. Even when it is not a complete fit, as is often the case for larger publishers or enterprise users, the trend is for multi-CMS solutions that prototypically include WordPress.

What matters is that you have a content platform that you can own, and one that you can iterate quickly and cost-effectively. Doing this gives you and your teams the best chance to reach every existing and potential stakeholder by underpinning all your marketing channels, like search, social and email.

Personalisation powers

Personalisation is hard. It often feels like playing multi-dimensional chess where both the board and pieces change constantly. Any article you have ever read on the subject will tell you that it is a practice and a journey, not a technical implementation. That is true, but without the right tools in place, your personalisation journey will be longer and harder than it needs to be.

In most cases, it is better to use third-party tools or services to augment WordPress (and the rest of your visitor-facing digital estate) to achieve personalisation. WordPress just is not good at personalisation at scale without extensive development and infrastructure resources.

Certainly, it is possible to have visitors register with WordPress and then build out identity and profiling data from there, but in our experience, it does not scale well, relies on your entire web estate being on the same WordPress instance and becomes awkward for some integrations, for example, CRM or marketing automation.

Standalone tools allow you to set up logic that will create specific nudges, calls to action and user journeys for each visitor to the site, allowing you to solve the problem of keeping user experience simple and clear, whilst also catering for multiple possible beneficial outcomes for both parties.

You can standardise the tools but not the practice

Once you have got the right tech in place, you are left with the significant job of actually implementing a revenue maximisation practice within your organisation. There is no one-size-fits-all set of rules - you have to create your own rules for your own digital experiences and stakeholders. Also, building out this capability will generate tremendous value for you through the insights and business intelligence you gain as a result of learning how to maximise the value of each visit. What you will learn about your stakeholders can be profound.

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