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  2. Digital Journalism
January 19, 2022updated 30 Sep 2022 10:50am

Shifting to a digital-first strategy and the steps to making it pay for publishers

By Freddy Mayhew

Partner Content*: ‘Digital first’ has been a buzzword for years in news publishing, but as the pandemic has accelerated print decline, making the shift from print to digital has become a necessity for most publishers.

While print news has a relatively simple business model: sell or distribute as many copies as possible each day/week and get the best price for adverts in the paper, digital brings new challenges.

Set out digital content and revenue strategy first

To help make a success of digital, publishers should set out their content strategy first and then look at how to monetise that strategy, says Gabe Karp – managing director EMEA of digital consultants 10up. His company has helped the likes of Politico, PA Media, TechCrunch, Global News and even the White House’s official website.

He says publishers are often going wrong in the digital space by not taking these first crucial steps, establishing their “true strategy”.

Rather than editorial and commercial teams working in siloes with someone “in the middle trying to figure out how to bring those two together”, Karp proposes that publishers say: ‘Here is our content and it is our core product.’”

What follows next is how to monetise that content “and turn it into a proper digital product”, he says. “That requires you to set clear goals and KPIs from a business standpoint,” including revenue targets, audience targets and cost of ownership targets.

Karp says 10up will approach a project, such as redesigning a news website, with a series of workshops. “That first workshop, before we make any other decisions, has to be making sure that the entire leadership team is on the same page for what their goals and objectives are.

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“Once you have that, then you can use it as a framework for decision making, both for a redesign project but also beyond that. And it should grow and evolve as you evolve as a publisher, but it needs to start from that and grow as a set of decision-making tools.”

In the ever-advancing world of tech platforms, Karp says publishers should be wary of having their eye caught by flashy new tech being pushed by salespeople promising easy fixes – “if you install just this one script, you’re going to get ‘x’ more dollars”.

He says publishers should proactively approach technology and vendor solutions once they’re clear on their content, revenue and audience strategies. “It always comes back to eyeballs and money,” he says.

Monetisation – ads and paywalls

When it comes to monetisation,  Karp says publishers should make sure they are getting value from their advertising whether pursuing a subscription model or not. “The idea that you don’t need to focus on that is just a myth,” he says.

“You look at the New York Times or the FT, who are some of the best when it comes to subscriptions, and they’re still doing advertising. They’re still doing sponsored content and all of these things that are part of a healthy revenue mix.”

He adds: “When I say focus on your advertising, it’s not just throw everything in there to make as much money as possible. It’s understand what are the right advertising platforms to be leveraging based on things like performance, based on your audience, based on your content, to make the most money out of the eyeballs that are there and to optimise getting more eyeballs.

“I think from there, outside of getting the basics right, it’s about experimentation and testing what works and what doesn’t.”

Karp says getting “core web vitals and SEO in a place where you can drive the type of traffic that you want to drive” is part of the monetisation strategy – “because if you don’t have the right eyeballs there, that becomes a huge challenge. We see a lot of publishers really struggling to focus on that.”

When it comes to paywalls, Karp says there is no one size fits all solution and that testing with an audience is key, but it is important to ensure a smooth conversion roadmap for the user when it comes to paid subscriptions. “If you’ve got the metering right, but then it takes five steps to make a [subscription] payment and you’ve lost somebody on step two, then it hasn’t done much good.”

He says it is important to monetise the people who are coming to your website, “whether they subscribe or not”, by giving them opportunities to share data, such as an email address, enabling publishers to build their data profile and ultimately be more effective in selling to them.

Future of web publishing

Currently the digital space is fragmented, with online platforms such as WordPress and Drupal in one corner and custom-built content management systems in the other.

Karp says that the future of web publishing “doesn’t look that different from where we’re at now”, with smaller publishers sticking with customisable platform solutions such as WordPress.

He says of culture website Den of Geek, with whom 10up has been working, “for them to move to something that is more complex would be out of line from their business objectives because we have been able to build a fit-for-purpose platform with today’s technology and we will keep evolving and growing that.”

At larger publishers, content management systems are often “headless” – a detached back-end – or “decoupled” – where the front end and back-end are distinct.

Here Karp says the focus is often on data points – “what data do I need to collect from the front end? Where am I sending that so that I can make the right decisions as a publisher? What data do I need to send to the front end to influence what people are seeing?”

When it comes to tailoring a website experience to particular readers, Karp says: “It will never make sense to invest in personalisation because they don’t have enough content, because the audience isn’t diverse enough, then you’ve got other publishers where it really becomes a powerful thing”.

Karp says the future of monetisation is where there are “the most unknowns”.

“Everyone is struggling to figure out what the right business model is. I think right now, if you’re not experimenting with three, four or five different revenue streams as a publisher, you’re behind the curve and you really should be looking at what works for what audience and in what type of content.

“So subscriptions, data walls, paywalls, affiliate, ecommerce – all of these things that I think publishers are aware of, and trying in some instances, I think you’ve got to have that diverse mix of revenue to make this work. And I think we’re going to see new revenue models come up over time.”

*This article was produced in association with Press Gazette commercial partner 10up whose slogan is: “We make the web better by finely crafting websites & tools for content creators.”

Image by Shutterstock

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