Why content isn’t quite king

After years of giving away content for free and selling online display against page views, the introduction of the Times paywall and the launch of Apple Newsstand has made the magazine industry feel something akin to hope – there may be a future beyond print that actually makes money. The extension of porous paywalls allows ad revenue to be generated from browsers and subscription revenue from readers, apps let us sell an entire product, not just individual bites, and we can repackage our content in a multitude of digital versions.

Because it’s all about content isn’t it? We publishers have the content that people want, and we know how to sell it to them, and one way or another, that’s the thing that will save publishing. It’s easy – content gets people to come to websites, which allows us to sell ads against eyeballs; people will pay for content, so we can construct paywalls and build apps, and make revenue that way. We can remake the Internet and Apple Newsstand like a WHSmith of the past – ranks of browsers skimming pages and soaking up those lovely, lucrative, adverts; large numbers of buyers handing over money to get access to the whole package. It all comes down to content – we produce it, they want it, they will give us money for it. After all, we publishers are in the ’content business’ aren’t we?

Well, up to a point. As Drew Breunig argues, ’content’ is such a broadly defined term as to be almost meaningless and anyone can produce it. And, if we’re being honest, a lot of publishers aren’t that good at good content – there’s too much ’me too’ material out there, magazines and websites aping market leaders rather than developing their own identity; too many rewarmed press releases masquerading as news; too much advertorial pretending to be features. Content for content’s sake.

Publishers do have lots of content, but a) there are lots of publishers (including online-only ones who have never put ink on paper in their lives) and b) there are lots of websites built purely to be packed with content to attract searching readers. (hint, they’re not called ’content farms’ for nothing). You’re competing against the other publishers for subscription and product revenues, and competing against the whole internet for advertising money (oh, and as Paul Conley explains, a lot of your advertisers are now using ‘content’ to go direct to consumers themselves). Someone will always be able to produce ‘content’ cheaper than you and get the eyeballs on it more cheaply than you can, and these ‘someones’ will be – and are – driving down the CPMs that volume advertisers will pay. (Chasing this revenue leads to what Breunig calls the ‘content crunch’, a downward spiral of cheaper content and lower revenues.)

Ask yourself, seriously, why anyone would want the ‘content’ you produce: what does it do for them, what benefits does it bring, why is it unique, or uniquely curated? Does it have value for the consumer, because without value, why should they pay? And if you can’t attract valuable consumers, why should your advertisers pay?

Many of the B2B publishers have done a great job in ‘monetizing content’, moving away from being publishers of print magazines to being information providers; BBC Good Food seems to be making money with its recipe apps; the FT has a strong paywall and hundreds of thousands of paying subscribers – there are a significant number of successful examples of publishers extracting value from the content they generate and from the people who consume that content.

But dozens of popular magazines could erect paywalls and they would see their online readers plummet (in what way is the Auto Express review of the Ford Fiesta ‘better’ than What Car‘s? What is the substantive difference between Heat‘s celebrity pictures and the Daily Mail‘s?)

It’s why I think that the Times paywall will never be a profit centre (although there are lots of other reasons for doing it) – news has become a free commodity online and the numbers of people who are prepared to pay for the Times‘s version of it are relatively small. (When the Times published a leader that they wanted more people to read, they put it outside the wall.)

That’s not to negate the value of content, but it is a ’necessary’ condition for success, not a ’sufficient’ one. Without content you’re not going to have a site that people visit, an app that people download, a reason to attract commercial partners, a platform to build consumer interaction. But just because you’ve got a lot of the stuff, doesn’t mean a) that anyone wants to read it or b) you can persuade anyone to buy it and c) that you can make enough money out of it.

It’s a content plus model that we need to look at, the plus being the brand and the marketing of that brand. If readers trust you, they might pay you for what you’ve produced, because it is has value to them. If they don’t trust you, they won’t pay you. (But, as mentioned in an earlier post, the danger for most publishers now is that there aren’t sufficient people who know the range and depth of the brands’ content. This is a failure of marketing.)

If you have invested in your brand, invested in building loyalty and trust from your readers, your chances of survival as a business are markedly higher. The platform(s) on which your brand exists might change, but you can still thrive (for example Media Guardian continues as a brand even though the standalone printed supplement does not; New Media Age currently still exists despite Centaur axing the print magazine).

If you haven’t read John Paton’s ‘digital first’ presentation, you should (linked to here) it’s quite long, but repays close attention, or you can read Peter Kirwan’s excellent summary of it here. It goes beyond content and brands (and I’m going to return to more of it in a later post), but he references these points:

Professor Celia Lury argues in her essay “The Brand as New Media Object” that brands themselves are platforms for content.

Professors Melissa Aronczyk and Devon Powers in … “Blowing Up The Brand” argue further “the relationship between consumers and brands become less about the consumption of the product than about social relations, experiences and lifestyles such consumption enables.”

Strong brands have loyal consumers, people who identify with the brand and trust its selections and recommendations, people who are prepared to interact with that brand, people who feel that they own a piece of it. The strongest brands are aware that they carry a responsibility to these consumers and try to ensure that they interact with them.

Are your titles strong brands? Do your readers trust you? Honestly, if you stopped publishing tomorrow, how much would your readers actually miss you? Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you are irreplaceable.

A lot of ‘me too’ titles will go to the wall, squeezed between the rock of the brands that consumers trust and the hard places of producers of low-cost junk content. (I would list some of the titles that I think are likely to go under, but as I’m currently looking for work that might restrict my employment prospects.)

If you’re not investing to build your brand equity, investing in reaching and developing new markets and, yes, investing in quality content that truly serves those markets, it’s time to start planning your exit.

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