The future of publishing

  • Opinion
  • February 24, 2014
  • Jenene Crossan
The future of publishing

Last Thursday, Jenene Crossan, the founder of nzgirl, flossie and BloggersClub, was invited to speak at the MPA Magazine Sales Conference for 2014. And of all the notable speakers on the list, Crossan’s speech was arguably the most divisive of the day.

Her insights on the role of content in the digital age raised quite a few eyebrows around the room and became a major talking point at the end of the day. And, in order to take this debate a little further, we have decided to publish a transcript of Crossan's speech.  

When I was first asked to be a speaker at today’s conference I somewhat rubbed my hands together with glee. Actually, I did that while face-palming myself – as you can imagine that’s quite an odd thing to try and achieve simultaneously.

I think I was asked to be here because they knew I wouldn’t sugar coat it. I was excited for that same reason. But face-palming because – hey – this should have been something we did together … 15 years ago. The first conference I spoke at about online and the future of publishing was at the PRINZ conference in March of 2000 – so this seems a little over due.

So let me cut straight to the chase. I’m not going to try and teach you how to suck eggs. You might not like half of what I’m going to say. You might not even agree with me. But let me be very clear that the suggestions I put to you today are not merely my opinion – they’re a reality of the industry on a global scale.

Let’s start with the hardest fact to swallow.

There, I said it. But bear with me; I’m going somewhere good with this. In the first-world country that we occupy, where sure we’d like to have faster broadband, we have all the resources for enjoying the many billions of benefits of the internet. We are fast adopters and our lives have changed.

Think back five years ago, how did you use the internet then? Or your mobile? Now go back ten years and bring yourself back into the present. What did you notice about your behaviour?

What was the first thing you reached for in the morning? How did you organise the start of your day? Ten years ago and likely even five years ago you certainly didn’t pick up your iPhone as the first thing you did. You didn’t check your emails, read the news, catch up on your Facebook family, see what the weather might do, etc. You certainly didn’t take your phone with you to sit on the loo for a few minutes' quiet time.

But today we do – we are connected in every way imaginable (so far) and how we operate our day and interact with other people has fundamentally changed. And with that the mediums we utilise to provide us with information, entertainment, recommendations and inspiration has changed. Our phones, our computers, our tablets are at arm's reach and have the depth and breadth of the world’s information ready and waiting for us whenever we want it.

So where does that leave our print friends? Where do magazines fit into this? Or newspapers? How are books affected?

The reality is that yo​ur hierarchy of needs has also changed. Where once you might have been the only access point for a particular stream of information, or the port of call for a subject – you are no longer. You have moved from being a need to a want.

That can be challenging to handle. Many haven’t. All around us we see businesses that have had to make enormous redundancies, turn massive ‘print’ businesses around and shift their thinking from being one medium to multiple platforms.

This has been by far from an easy job. Many of you have boards made up of people who remember how it used to be and they blame many factors that are no longer controllable. We’ve seen sales tactics and strategies to try and attract advertisers and they’ve been a short-term band-aid for many.

The industry has also been quick to utilise long-standing advertiser relationships to lock in exclusive partnerships and long-term deals based on aforementioned sales tactics. Midst GFC when multinationals were more led by the CFO than the CMO, this tactic worked.

Add to that the confusion and pressure marketers feel to understand online – a medium that runs at a speed that realistically scares the living daylights out of most people – and when you offer a nice comfy, reliable format that they can physically get their hands onto and sniff, and see their ad, they understand this and they sign that offer that was too good to be turned down.

I’ll tell you why. Those types of marketers are not going to survive. They are a short-term win. The marketers who are refusing to move with the future will, over the course of the next few years, be weeded out and replaced by young whippersnappers who understand the concept of true customer engagement and relationship building.

But, hold your tomatoes.

Let me put to you an idea that is rapidly being understood and is your future. In fact, I believe you sit in a stronger position than almost anyone else in the market. I think that if you’re smart about it and you truly embrace the opportunity you have in front of you to bring to life this single idea; you will make more money than ever before.

We might want it, but we don’t need more print. I love a good magazine in the bath – who doesn’t? But do I justify spending $10 on a title that I can get the content for online for free? No. And herein lies the conundrum for you. You’ve spent years “bolting on” the internet. Here, we’ll give you an online campaign as ‘added value’ as part of the print ad campaign.

Or, using a fundamentally flawed metric such as a “CPM” to value your content and then being subjected to an ‘industry standard pricing’ which has led you to discover that you’ll need to produce content for under $50 a piece in order for it to break even. The model isn’t right.

The concept of taking your magazine and shoving it online and sticking ads around it also isn’t right. So you can get what third of the $ for it?

I don’t believe in cannibalisation, but I do believe in the notion of why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free. Instead of selling milk in both places, each needs to be different and considered for the medium they are in and most importantly how the consumer wants and needs to engage with you.

I now encourage trying to cast your mind forward. I know it’s not easy to do, as it’s rather mind boggling to imagine what lies ahead from a technological capability point of view. The impossible is likely to become possible.

What I believe in the simplest sense is going to happen is that more of everything will be made possible. That content will continue to explode. User content creation and distribution will become more of the norm. What you might have noticed now is that you’re often clicking off social media links to content recommended by friends.

Have you noticed how often you actually don’t know (or remember later) what website you’re on? Often they’re international (and you most certainly did not click on any ads – hello, more chances of being killed in a plane crash).

In fact, coming in via the ‘front door’ of a website is no longer the norm. Have you noticed this in your Google Analytics maybe?  That your direct referral traffic has shifted. Our focus needs to move away from worrying about them remembering our URL, but figuring out how the content we curate is technically shareable and interesting enough that someone might actually want to do so. We have to bring content to life. That is your job.

Because put yourself on your couch in your lounge five, ten, 15 years from now. You’ll still be tired after a long day, probably more so now that you’re five to 15 years older! You’ll still be looking for a distraction from your every day stresses. You’ll likely still turn on some type of idiot box to aid with this.

But what will be different is that all of your devices have merged. All of the content is accessible. Sky TV has kicked the bucket or crazily morphed themselves into a much smarter search friendlier version of Netflix, and “terrestrial” TV is a thing of the last decade.

You’ve got a personal curator, in fact. You’re completely agnostic. You don’t give a flying rat's butt about what ‘channel’ you’re on. You care about the content. You care about what you want to watch right now.

You want to be informed, entertained, inspired, or whatever else you’re wanting. You want your device to be smart enough to know what mood you in, what you like to watch at this time and provide you with incredibly informative choices, wrapped up in exceptional usability.

You have the choice of about 300 billion pieces of content, so why wouldn’t you want this? More to the point, you’ll be totally and utterly overwhelmed if you don’t have it.

Which leads nicely to my next point …

Yes, that’s right. We need more of what you do, not less. It’s just you need to stop thinking of yourselves as magazines. That’s an outcome of where content could be housed.

You need to think of yourself as taste makers, curators, cultivators, community managers, the people in charge of knowing all there is to know about a subject and bringing that to life and to the people in whatever format they want it in.

It's time to move on from protecting your medium turf and time to move to where the pastures are greener of being completely platform agnostic. To understanding that what you are is the expert.

When I started my first business nzgirl.co.nz, I realised that what women wanted was to connect to the topic or experience that they’re searching for. They want to feel informed and engaged and be able to transfer that experience across wherever they might fancy.

And that was why being just a website wasn’t enough. I needed to create a brand that could go everywhere with them in all the interactions that asked of it. Beyond the thinking of content just multi platform – no far greater!

Stretch your minds further and consider how if a brand is a curator, what else they could do. Cuisine magazine could leverage its wine connoisseur equity to build a formidable purchasing scheme, they could provide you with a cataloguing app.

The opportunities are limitless, if you step outside of the platforms and shift to thinking about how your job is to edit. To make more useful, to make more interesting – to make life easier.

MY JOURNEY – flossie.com, nzgirl.co.nz, bloggersclub.com

So I’ve come out blazing, who the hell am I? Good point. Many of you may have no idea of anything I’ve been involved with.  My background is now – this year – 20 years in digital and I’m only 35.

I started my first business at 21 called nzgirl.co.nz – a female-centric online magazine. I’ve subsequently created and sold a female-focused research business and been involved in a number of other entities.

My main focus today is on flossie.com – a quiet time hair and beauty appointments engine. We are like wotif.com, but for salons and spas instead of hotels. It’s going very well and we’re backed by some very interesting and successful people – there is a collective appreciation that we can change the way the consumer interacts with an entire industry. And there is real pain that we are fixing and there is real money involved – it’s a one billion dollar industry in New Zealand alone.

My first born, however, nzgirl.co.nz (which I’m still a director of) has grown into a teenager and somewhat had its own babies. The nzgirl site morphed a few years ago to become a social magazine – where the content is created almost entirely by our network of bloggers and our job is to curate that.

This is morphing once again, as we launch bloggersclub.com and our 400+ bloggers have a platform to create content that can then be shared across any platform they like – their own site, an advertiser's blog, across any social media platform and, of course, nzgirl.

It’s totally at their control to send it wherever they like. We can add other distribution options to it and we’re working with a number of other sites with great communities looking to draw in content to their sites at a lower cost to them, but still at a high quality. That’s what we do.

Now, why they might want to create this content with us? A few key reasons – on the bloggers side, we identified a ‘pain’ for them – actually, several. We could see that a lot of them loved writing and though setting up blog sites on things like Wordpress, they weren’t adept at making it look professional enough.

We cut through this by creating a template system that is exceptionally easy to use and makes the creation of content very, very easy. They can then distribute it wherever they like. But most importantly, using our own distribution platforms – nzgirl has a huge following, 110,000 members – it’s been around a long time and it performs. Get something on nzgirl and you’ll get visibility.

Finally, we bring them paid work. They all dream of being full-time writers or magazine editors, but those jobs are scarce nowdays – we exclusively sell content marketing services and we use our bloggers to fulfill those briefs.

We feel very strongly about the opportunity in content marketing – think back to my earlier points about the organisation of content. It’s not about ads. Ads as we know them today will change. Unless they are content – which may well be video, or music, or a whole raft of different things that a company can produce.

But it’s not a blast, it’s got to be useful, informative, interesting and relevant. The emphasis on native – meaning to have ads that are well placed around content that matches it (or more to the point, vice versa). And even better, content that is useful, informative, interesting and relevant, which may well have been sponsored, created or inspired by a brand.

I feel you getting your tomatoes back out. Especially the journos in the room who are most flabbergasted that I devalue content so much and remove all integrity from it. Simon Wilson and I enjoyed a lengthy debate on this a few months back. And I concede to his point in many ways there is a risk with this type of revenue model, that there will be those who quite frankly – take the piss.

There will be advertisers who will happily not care about the outcome of what someone is reading and how worthy that piece of content might be, that the value for them is sticking a very blatant great big ad, logo or product placement overtly in the middle.  Subtlety is lost on many a marketer.

However, the same argument can be said to the advertising sales manager, who will quite happily include their grandmother wrapped up in the package deal if it means hitting the target, doing the deal and getting their commission. So how do we get around this?

Well, for a start, we shift our thinking. We don’t sell ads. We have to stop thinking like that. Our job is to connect a brand and a person together. We do this by a) understanding the person’s needs, wants and psychology and b) understanding the USPs of the brand and c) working out what A needs and introduce B to A in an interesting, relevant, informative and useful manner.

And of course, there are some publications that lend themselves more easily to this type of thing than others. Though I would argue that every publication has a reader who consumes things, and therefore there are many ways in which you can approach this. I wouldn’t dare suggest that all of your content is produced this way – our blogger community have many things they create and share that are not content marketing for brands. It's a balance.

But it's a genuine and real revenue stream and one that will outstrip traditional advertising placements sooner rather than later.  It’s time to think about how you can step away from an ‘ad mentality’ and move to a ‘creating consumer experiences’ one.

So why is the client so keen on content? Well aside from the obvious advantages of customer conversion or ability to move them to a state of ‘purchase intent’ by having a more meaningful interaction (and not just an ad) by being more useful, relevant and interesting, there’s the other ‘thing’ right now. We all know what our customers have been doing the last few years.  Investing in social media platforms. Buying themselves a bunch of vanity metrics – like how many people ‘like’ them. Now that they’ve spent all this money, they now have to feed the beast.

And boy does it need feeding. It’s relentless and it’s not going to go away. It’s worse than that – it’s like the gizmos when you throw water on them – it’s multiplying and becoming faster, bigger, stronger and more abundant. Google+ is where it’s at now.  You must Instagram. Why haven’t you got Pinboards? Come on, you can’t just tweet and not interact; it’s a participation sport!

None of this is lost on me and I understand your pain – I have to have the same resource to ROI conversation/evaluation as anyone else does. The most common question asked by a recently polled 400 group of marketers was ‘what the hell am I going to post on Facebook?’

And this, my friends, is where your opportunity lies. You have so much content. It’s time to harness it. Think about how you can allow it to live outside of your ‘pages’. There are some great examples of publications experimenting with this where the content can live in other environments in a template like form, that enables it to go anywhere (but the mag brand to still get the credit for it).

But your greatest opportunity is to start thinking of yourselves as brand managers. When our content choices become so wide (as they are currently doing) and we have no idea where or what to choose from, we go to what we know. That includes and is led by our friend recommendations.

But our concept and definition of what a “friend” is has changed. We invite people into our inner circles via social media who we’ve never met. We trust what they tell us; we take those recommendations. And quite often those things are brands.

Brands are cottoning onto the need to be human. That’s why you see me plastered all over Flossie.com. Not because I have an ego the size of New Zealand, but because I know that my customers will buy from someone they can see. It builds trust. It means we can recommend, interact, engage and convert in ways that brands keeping people at an arm's length can’t.

Brands that appreciate how you humanise and bring to life their essence, will be able to create a layer of trust that can be taken into so many areas. Look at how Apple managed to move into mobile phones and music – what other computer company was able to do that in the way they did?

We knew that at the heart of it Steve Jobs was driving a team to come up with the best possible solution and that at the heart they were passionate about change and making life easier for people.

Now, think about what that means from here – the opportunity for this to happen in reverse is just as real. A brand can be created out of a person – and we’ve seen many examples of this over the last few years. People who have been exceptional at creating communities and followings.

Imagine how many people would watch the Dr Libby channel right now? It would be incredibly powerful. Anything she sends out, women scramble for. The same could be said for Jamie’s World.

There’s one to watch unfold. I’m sure she’s got every movie producer in the world trying to sign her (and her 8 million Facebook base following) to a multi-movie kids' channel deal with traditional advertising!

But her better bet is to become a curator of a channel. Have her own bit as she currently does, but then bring you her favourite things. Anyone who loves Jamie and follows her will happily follow her recommendations.

So Jamie might get a huge following, like now, and build it up into something else even more tangible. And she might add a real value to the consumer. They might find they get more entertainment from her channel than anyone else’s. Once that position is in place, then the opportunity to convert that person to pay for the service is real. What if it were only $1 a month? Sounds paltry – but not when you’re talking 8 million subscribers.

I will pay for content. Good content. In fact, no I will only pay for great content. And let’s be clear about what content is. Content is anything that I consume across any of my devices – listen, watch, read. I will weigh up the cost of receiving that content and whether the value I’ll receive is worth the value I’ll have to pay.

Things that I currently happily pay for:

  • Spotify. Like iTunes, but I don’t pay per song – you can either pay by advertising stream or premium subscription. I pay $12 a month to not hear ads and get to listen to the library of 88 million plus songs. That’s good value.
  • Pandora. Also music, but instead of having to make my own playlists, it does it for me.  I can tell it an artist or a song that I like and it will build me my own radio station.  I pay about $8 a month for this service.  So I get all that I get with Spotify AND it does all the hard work for me.  That’s worth $8 per month to me.
  • Netflicks – I pay $8 per month and can watch almost any TV show and movie ever made.  There are some parameters – some take a while to come over, so may be a season behind – but when you’re dealing with US release dates, it is still ahead of NZ.  WINNING.
  • iTunes – I’ll pay for movies and download them completely legally (would never do other than that).  $4 to rent and $11ish dollars to buy – bargain.

Things I will not pay for:

  • Newspaper content:
    Now this is interesting, because I read the NZ Herald app every day. But if they charged me for it, I would not pay for it. That’s because they’ve lost all credibility in their bid to retain readership. They have gone ‘tabloid’ and lost touch with their journalistic roots and made themselves untrustworthy in the process. Also, what unique content do they bring to the table that I can’t just get elsewhere? What pain do they fix for me?
  • Magazines:
    With the exception of a couple of exceptional titles that I will occasionally justify into the supermarket trolley (usually around holiday time or on a fine day when I think it’s possible to get five minutes' peace poolside), I don’t buy mags. The cost is too high for what I get out of it. I’m not interested in celebrity gossip (and by the time it hits the newsstands it’s old and I’ve heard about it on Twitter or Facebook). Or they either have regurgitated same themes as every month. It’s a quick flick through a couple of things I might enjoy – but not enough to justify spending the same amount of money I could get the world’s entire movie collection or music library for. Hey and let’s not even get started on women’s magazines cover titles and the untrustworthy reputation they’ve garnered to pull people into them. And for the record, I am not weighing up between buying wine or magazines. I’m weighing up what you give me versus what others give me for the same amount.
  • Lastly, Sky TV:  
    Now that I have a solution, they are gone from my providers. I cannot justify the $160 per month they charge me for a substandard service and platform. SkyTV, the 1990s called and they want their decoder back. 

I’m not trying to be negative. What I’m trying to illustrate is that people will pay for what they see adds value, what weighs up in their decision making process. The NZ Herald flirting with going to a paywall is dangerous – I genuinely think that unless they can build reputation first in delivering unique, interesting, relevant and trusted content, they will be annihilating their business.

It’s time to lead, guys. Enough trying to justify the numbers and spinning them to make it work to get through today. Enoughd igging holes for yourselves. It's time to learn from the music industry, which completely annihilated themselves as they refused to believe, appreciate or embrace the impact the digital world was going to have on them. 15 years ago, the CEO of Sony Music told me that CDs would never be replaced by digital music. In the same sentence, he told me that magazines would never get replaced by online.

Now is the time to think strategically, understand what you have and drive forward harder and faster. Invest in strategic thinking. Build smart technology – not catch up technology. Build things better than anyone else – not the same as everyone else.

It’s a narrow window you have to make this happen. Remember that if you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.

My one out-take for you: the world needs more editors; embrace that thought. You can own this market better than anyone else there, just with a few shifts in strategic thinking.

Note from Jenene Crossan: "Looking forward to your commentary and a most excellent debate. All commentary appreciated, but only if isn’t anonymous – have the courage to speak your mind. If I can, you can too."

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