Intelligent publishing: How to use data to accelerate your media business in 2021

Feeling overwhelmed by data? 

You’re not alone.

There’s no doubt that the data revolution has unlocked immense opportunities for publishers. Yet for some, it’s all happened too fast, too soon.

First party data, second party data, third party data, zero party data, big data, AI. The terminology in itself is mind boggling – and that’s before you even had a chance to think about execution.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Data dysfunction is so ubiquitous that WPP AUNZ  CEO Jens Monsees made it a theme of his Mumbrella 360 keynote, highlighting how ”Digital data is like high school sex. Everybody talks about it, few are doing it and nobody does it right”.

The good news is that it is possible to harness the power of data without it taking over your life. And the best news is that niche publishers are the ones that stand to gain the most from data transformation.

Data essentials for digital publishers:

Simon Ferguson is data and business intelligence consultant at Publisha
Simon Ferguson offers data and business intelligence expertise to Publisha subscribers

So who better to help you on your data quest than Publisha’s on-demand consultant, Simon Ferguson? 

Simon is currently President at Informa Group PLC, where he leads business intelligence, utilizing data science and machine learning to transform a traditional subscription business.

Simon brings over 30 years’ experience of leadership and management in B2B & B2C media organizations, and even taught Publisha co-founder, Martin Lane many of his tips and tricks for running a publishing business

In this interview, he answers the data-related questions that all digital publishers should be asking right now.

How has the data revolution impacted the publishing industry?

Enormously. Most brands and businesses are publishers now to some degree. You have to think about the channels available and how you communicate with customers more than ever before, unlike the pre-digital age when publishers were the gatekeepers into industries. 

The new gatekeepers (Amazon, Google, social platforms) have created the ability for this to happen at scale and have reduced the barriers to entry. I remember Carolyn McCall, the ex-CEO of European airline EasyJet telling, shortly after she started, that she saw the business as a digital platform that happened to fly airplanes. Carolyn came from a traditional publishing background (Guardian Media Group). 

Because any brand can be a publisher these days, traditional publishers are having to really focus on the value that they provide, and re-imagine how they interface with customers

Which publishing businesses are reaping rewards from their data?

Specialist publishers targeting niche sectors, and providing utilitarian data on a subscription basis are doing very well. They have proved relatively COVID-proof and are usually (but not always) B2B as opposed to B2C. The traditional consumer publishing model is more challenged.

What advice would you give to a small, emerging publisher who is feeling overwhelmed by the idea of collecting and using data?

There are channels and methods that make collecting and using data easier than ever before. Offshore data factories in emerging markets (particularly India and APAC) can create data at scale, and are getting really smart with predictive modeling and machine learning. Smaller publishers can focus on having a core, high-quality internal team, and use external resources smartly.  For example, the cost of cloud storage through Amazon Web Services has also come down hugely, so proprietary storage of data is ceasing to be the issue it has traditionally been.

What are the most common ‘data mistakes’ made by digital publishers?

Data is only powerful if it can be consumed. Thus the way data is structured, maintained and normalized is as important as the raw data itself. Many successful digital subscription models in specialist markets don’t provide any unique proprietary data, they collect and aggregate what is publicly out there. But the value is in bringing disparate sources into one place and normalizing it. 

Publishers often try to collect too much data, or complicate commercial offerings by introducing too many pricing structures. Simplicity and focusing on the core areas you can provide value are key.

Who should be ‘in charge’ of data within media organisations?

Inevitably this is a shared responsibility, but clarity of roles is vital.

Analysts/content/editorial teams may be in charge of collecting, analyzing, writing content around data, but this effort should be driven by an overall product vision, which in itself should be informed by rigorous persona-based research. 

Consumer & business audiences are changing their attitudes towards data. The % of people in research who are prepared to give personal data in return for convenience/value services is steadily increasing. Of course, privacy will always be important, but a range of convenience-driven services, from Amazon, to Uber, to the app economy has changed attitudes. If you understand your audience personas, and know how you can make their lives easier, they will hand over the data you need to build valuable and sustainable offerings

What experience do you have in using data to transform publishing organisations? 

During my 10 years at Reed Elsevier (in the travel & hospitality, technology and consumer care markets), I converted legacy print brands to digital data businesses and achieved Reed’s first ever complete transition from one format to the other. 

I also launched new products and services, such as Travolution, the first media brand for the digital travel sector, which I co-founded with Publisha’s Martin Lane.

At Travelport, a global e-commerce and data business serving the travel & hospitality sector I launched a range of data services and new mobile and digital offerings. I also oversaw the launch and growth of digital payment services.

How should publishers think about charging subscriptions for assets they’ve previously given away for free?

Ultimately, generating revenue comes down to knowing your audience, understanding the personas in your market and solving their pain points. If you can do this, you can charge for services – whether that be subscriptions, consulting, custom work or events. I think we will see more cross-channel subscription models emerging. So rather than charging me to go to an event, I have an annual subscription which gives me access to data, a number of events and some custom-work from a media provider. 

Freemium models can also work well: Offering data ‘snacks’ and then premium access for in-depth data provision. In addition, the ability for humans to analyze and interpret data to provide actionable insights should not be underestimated. People will still pay for quality, and although machine learning is becoming enormously powerful, the combination of AI with human insight will remain powerful going forward.

What advice would you give print publishers when transitioning their content and data assets to digital? How should they think about monetising those new digital assets?

Today, we operate in a truly omni-channel environment. Most publishers need a balance of channels: print, digital, events. Avoid the temptation to convert to digital simply because it is digital. The Week, a UK and US-based subscription publication for news and  current affairs markets is a great example. The Week aggregates the best articles from all of the major newspapers, magazines and outlets in the respective markets, and delivers it on a Friday morning. It still utilizes the same format as when it was launched in the mid-90s: print based, with its digital offering being a simple PDF of the print. Don’t change a winning formula. I would also organize teams by audience type rather than by channel. Content providers, product and marketing teams need to be able to work across the channels.

What is the biggest data or subscription challenge you have faced in your career and how did you tackle it?

At Reed Elsevier I took over a legacy print directories business in the travel sector. We were facing huge competition from the open web, and the growth of TripAdvisor in particular. The conventional view was that our digital offering would co-exist with our print ongoing, but this was sucking resources and cost into effectively a legacy delivery method. I made two key decisions: 1) We stopped print immediately. Sometimes you have to burn your boats to focus on the future. 2) I struck a deal with Trip Advisor to feature their content. Co-opetition. I figured that if we embraced competitive sources, and became the most holistic place for both consumer and professional travel content, we would have a unique position. Our revenue grew exponentially as a result.

What predictions do you have for the publishing industry? 

In the short term there will be challenges: events seemed a cast-iron revenue stream for publishers, and then COVID-19 struck, creating chaos. However, necessity is the mother of invention, and many publishers are adapting to and investing in digital delivery for events. The motto is thus continuous reinvention. Media businesses that focus on this have a bright future.

Overall, I think the long-term outlook for digital publishers is good. There will always be a place for high-value content/data that solves problems, drives convenience and enriches a customer’s job role or business growth.

Did you find this interview helpful? 

Simon Ferguson is speaking at the next Publisha LIVE ‘Turn Data into Revenue: Data Essentials for Growing Publishers’ on Friday April 30 2021. In this practical data deep-dive, he’ll show you how collect and interpret data to create new revenue-generating products.

If you’d like the opportunity to ask Simon Ferguson specific questions about your media business, then why not join Publisha? Simon is our resident data, business intelligence and subscriptions expert. He welcomes the opportunity to support you on your publishing journey.

As a Publisha member, you can benefit from a year-round calendar of publishing wisdom – and the option to access on-demand advice from media tech and business experts (including Simon) right when you need it.

Stacey Astley-Clark

Stacey manages all things content at Publisha. A former journalist and marketing manager, she is insight-obsessed and loves finding new ways to connect with audiences.

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