The most rewarding part of running iZooto for the last 6 years has been meeting publishers across 8-9 different countries and discovering their businesses from up close. Over the years, we singularly focused on digital publishers instead of being a one-size-fits-all solution.
This transition came through some very insightful conversations I’ve been privileged to have with some of the most respected publishers - across the globe. Quite frankly, when we embarked on the iZooto journey at its conception, I hadn’t imagined the extent of impact we would create.
Last week, as I was checking my notes and my diary, I realized I had met over 300 publishers. It was a pleasant realization that I had my own weekend read. I began to highlight the key lessons from each of these meeting notes. Over the two days that I spent scouring my diaries, patterns began to emerge.
Being a publisher is no easy task. I learned this as I engaged with several of them over the years, many of who are now close friends of mine. There are challenges and environmental variables that they need to constantly adapt to. Here are the 10 lessons that I’ve learned from meeting publishers across the globe:
Recognition where it’s due
In a volatile environment, opinions and points of view can get bitterly vocal. The media and news publisher universe often comes in the line of fire for siding with a thought or idea and hence defying its core philosophy - of reporting facts in an unbiased manner. I’ve been guilty of this too. But as I was narrating this idea of the lessons I learned through my meetings, my team asked me to pen it down as a post.
The weight that I felt as I worked towards completing just one task reminded me of a quote from Bob Dylan’s song, The Times, They Are A-Changin’. He says, “Don’t criticize what you don’t understand.”
Here I was struggling to put one piece in order, and yet there are editors who read through hundreds of copies in a single work day. The lesson for all of us is this - Editors deserve better! They put in a lot of hard work, all to be at the mercy of an algorithm. At the end of the road, they don’t get the recognition they deserve. That some of their print counterparts are bestowed with.
Recently, during a Twitter Spaces session, we had a few editors talk about doing 300-350 stories on their news website - every single day.
The constantly changing rules of the game
The algorithm I spoke about in the previous point is a lesson in itself. Platforms such as Google and Facebook are all-pervasive. Since I’m deeply interested in history, I couldn’t help but compare it to colonial conflicts. The powers that be would appear as friends. People would see progress and feel happy. Only to realize later that they’re enslaved to someone who once helped them grow.
It’s not different for publishers. Some of who have witnessed exponential growth by depending on these platforms. And when they felt they were in charge, have seen the rug pulled from beneath their feet. Their waking energy is now spent optimizing for Google and Facebook. And yet, they’re never in control. Every update by these platforms is either a bad dream or a minor blip of relief.
Hisham Khalil, CEO, btolat.com says, "Digital media is at the bleeding edge of tech innovation. Aspects such as content and editorial are just the visible layer that draws user attention and engagement. Beneath that, there are several layers of data, analytics, measurement, advertising, and decision-making across multiple platforms rolled into one."
Khalil adds, "The integration between editorial, tech, product, sales, and marketing is necessary to make the publication a success. It is imperative that every stakeholder understands the end objective, the power of the reader, and the need to offer them information - wherever they are when they need it and in the form that they need it - all while the rules of the game keep changing."
Product is the publisher’s kryptonite
News and media publishers are editorial and content-driven businesses. That’s why editors have typically been the sought-after meetings. There’s no taking away from their impact on the success of the publication.
But in a world where every editor is looking at the exact same world, governed by the same set of rules, the clincher lies in another function. The unsuspecting product manager is at the fulcrum of everything that matters in the publisher business. It is the responsibility of product teams to ensure the best experience for all stakeholders - internal and external.
I’ve met publishers of all sizes, across markets. When I look at the most successful publications - whether enterprise or small - they all have exceptional product managers and product teams. Just the basic function of SEO done great makes editorial teams successful.
Sahil Sharma, Product Head at Network18 sums it up well, “The role of a product manager in an editorial business can be a constantly evolving one. At the core, product managers have to adapt to changing user preferences, platform updates, and even guidelines laid out by local authorities around the handling of user data. And of course, there is business and revenue growth that needs new features and efforts."
He adds, "It is the product manager's responsibility to ensure all these functions work seamlessly while also offering the best user experience. Ensuring everyone's success can only be possible by staying updated on the latest trends across users, platforms, local laws, and technologies that power them.”
It pays to invest in self rather than be a slave
I’ll resist the urge to bring in history once again. But it’s an established philosophy - to be successful, you need to be independent. For publishers, building a strong pool of direct and organic traffic requires continuous effort and investment of time and resources.
It’s a long journey. But at the end of the road, success is inevitable. Unfortunately, most publishers get so consumed in daily operations that they do not invest enough in the efforts to build direct traffic.
Case Study: How Sanook effectively engages with its audience
Successful publications have higher recall value. Their loyal audiences tend to go directly to their favorite publication rather than route themselves via Google or Facebook. The benefit this offers is that each platform update doesn’t cause grief as we discussed earlier.
Aggregators are friends who turn foes
Although this is historical, it also is political. Publishers always look at opportunities to increase their traffic. They have viewed aggregators as very similar to marketplaces. Being present on these aggregator platforms offers them a great source of incremental referral traffic.
However, these news aggregators are gaining access to valuable content without the hard work that goes into creating them.
Also Read: The Future of Digital Publishing
Given that news aggregators are able to present the news to a larger audience set, it eventually takes away from visitors who are now informed of the update but don’t necessarily click on publisher links to read the story. The journey of growth and convenience feels great, but the day the aggregator gets big, it feels like another platform that dictates terms to publishers.
Nash David has been an editor for several years and we often discuss the publisher landscape together. He adds, "Needless to say, growth is a necessity for publishers. To quite an extent, it ensures survival, if not growth itself. All digital publishers are dependent on platforms such as Google and social media to draw users. What publishers often neglect is building their own audience. Aggregators are no different. Since they offer an easy source of traffic, publishers love them when they draw traffic in. But as audiences eventually are happily discovering the headline instead of reading the story, the hard work put in by media publishers is reaped by aggregators with minimal effort. Eventually, it creates the same problem that Google posed, to begin with."
Audience first. Just don’t overdo it
The key difference between print and digital media is the reading experience. When a reader is reading a magazine or a newspaper, s/he offers your publication their undivided attention. That’s not true in the case of digital. First, the reader is distracted by the dozens of apps competing for their attention. Then there is social media, messaging services, email, and so on.
In their zeal to win their reader’s attention, publishers make every attempt to be visible on every platform - bombarding them with their content.
Creating more user points with more distribution channels has reduced reader stickiness. The shelf life of a reader is now short-lived and unsustainable. It’s imperative to maintain a balance. Overdoing outreach cannibalizes prospects for building a direct audience.
Your partner could catapult your growth
Good publishers have a sustainable strategy for their partners. Most successful publishers work with third-party partners. Each of these companies serves hundreds of publishers. However, they prioritize work for very few publishers who they work closely with.
Just like we saw how great product teams result in success for editorial teams. Here’s great publishing impact is possible when publishing teams work and truly partner with their vendors. The response from the teams in charge at the publisher’s office determines how close their partnership can go.
We’ve also had great working relationships with publishers resulting in higher growth. In our case, the best publisher generates up to 10X more PVs via iZooto as compared to a less involved similar size publisher.
Focus on publishing. Leave the tech to specialists
Although it looks very convincing in the beginning, the eventual realization is that publishers should just stick to publishing. That’s their specialty. And going beyond publishing into harnessing and investing in their tech stack eventually ends up being a distraction.
Building a tech stack in-house is not a strategy. It’s a disaster. The reason for this is the dependency on people and talent to run successful tech stacks. People eventually move on. But they leave behind tech legacy which could change, go obsolete or even have ridden problems that no one can fix.
Instead, having an external partner who is responsible for offering you the results you need takes off the burden of talent and migrations that can be a daunting task.
Paid subscription is great, but doesn’t replace existing avenues
A couple of points above resonate with the underlying trend here. Any new opportunity, platform, or channel must work alongside the rest of the system to ensure success. Just like Google, Facebook, or even aggregators, the moment a publisher is solely dependent on a source for revenue or traffic, it increases the risk significantly.
Paid subscriptions are no different. It’s a growing trend, but publications have also seen a fall where subscriber sign-ups and retention haven’t been as stable as desired. And given that content goes behind paywalls, even referral, and organic traffic dips.
The switch to paid subscriptions needs to be a calculated decision. Most publishers I spoke to believe it works well for the really established brands with legacy and a loyal following. That’s probably the top 1% of all publishers. It may last for a long time, but can't replace existing ad revenues.
Encourage a reader-lifetime mindset
The publishing business is a commodity business. This includes most of the content that is present across competing publications as well. This situation would not change. There is no escape from this reality.
However, building the capability to maximize the lifetime value of the reader/user will eventually determine who the winner is. Vivek penned a similar thought on the quest for publishers to crack marketing.
Publishers need to be obsessed with what their readers do. More importantly, look at their readers for what they are - users. And then look even more closely and build their product to serve them over their entire lifetime - better than the competition.