Lessons from Week Two of the FIPP World Media Congress
by Pierre de Villiers
The second week of FIPP’s World Media Congress 2020 featured a jam-packed schedule covering everything from ecommerce, membership models and branded content to talent management, remote working and podcasts. Here are the key lessons from Week Two.
1. Integrity is making a comeback
One of the silver linings of the Covid-19 outbreak is the way the pandemic has made the public appreciate quality, well-researched journalism, while trust has eroded in social media platforms that carry unverified stories.
“Publishers offer trust and brand safety, which – dare I say it – has slightly gone out of fashion in recent years,” said James Wildman, CEO of Hearst UK. “But the pendulum seems to be swinging back in our direction; integrity matters again.”
This was backed up by Srini Srinivasan, managing director of the Vikatan Group who reported that, in India, troubled times have driven people back to trusted printed publications and away from social media platforms.
The growing distrust in social media should be seen as a golden opportunity by the ad sales teams of publishers, according to Juan Señor, president of Innovation Media Consulting and co-author of FIPP’s annual Innovation in Media World Report. “A vertiginous collapse of trust in social media platforms has led to some brands rethinking whether they should spend their few remaining ad dollars on influencers,” he noted. “It’s a gain for us because our journalism has been very responsible and accurate. This is something you must articulate when selling.”
When it comes to branded content, advertisers are also veering more towards brand-safe environments. “It’s not new, but perhaps amplified that advertisers are not looking for combative voices,” said Will Roth, VP, Head of Content and Strategy and Meredith Foundry. “They are feeling the pressure to represent the values of the people they are trying to reach.“
2. Knowing your audience is key to subscription success
As the industry increasingly moves to digital subscriptions and membership models it has brought about a reckoning that publishers need know their audience better. “We realised we needed to understand the niche of our community to serve them in the way they wanted to be served,” said Anita Zielina, Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism. “It’s fair to say that 20 years ago we, as a media industry, did not engage that well with our audience and didn’t ask why do they subscribe to us. We weren’t very data orientated.”
Just how times have changed was illustrated by the success stories of TU Media in Norway and Die Zeit in Germany who, over the last three years, have launched a successful subscription model and membership programme by figuring out exactly what their readers want.
“We developed a membership programme that combines the benefits of being a subscriber, like free content, with the sense of being part of a community that comes with being a supporter of a publication,” said Friends of Die Zeit Project Manager Lennart Schneider. “We didn’t want to treat subscribers as mere customers, but as friends.”
According to Strategy Consultant at Peninsula Strategies and bestselling author, Robbie Kellman Baxter, a successful membership model is not about going high-tech, but rather knowing your customer and providing ongoing value to them. “Don’t fall too much in love with the way you’ve done things in the past,” she said. “Remain focused on the mission: it’s not about any one thing, but about helping customers solve a problem and delivering on the promise you’ve made to them.”
3. Monetising podcasts remains tricky
While media companies like Hearst are investing a lot in video – having identified its popularity among consumers and advertisers – podcasts are a tougher nut to crack.
“When it comes to podcasts, commercially it’s a long walk for a small drink,” said Hearst UK CEO James Wildman. “The monetising is challenging. There’s a lot of excitement around podcasts – and a lot of podcasts – but probably, like social and other developments, it’s going to benefit the platforms more than the publishers. It’s a really important way for brands to stay relevant but the commercial model is unproven.”
Counting against podcast is the fact that fewer people are commuting because of Covid. “While the number of podcasts have gone up, the habit has been broken for many publishers and they are seeing the data very clearly,” said Juan Señor of Innovation Media Consulting. “Podcasts were booming with long commutes, but when people were not commuting it dropped dramatically. If you really want to make money out of podcasts you have to elevate your production cost and find a good story to tell.
Despite the challenges, John Wilpers, Senor Director at Innovation Media Consulting and co-author of FIPP’s Innovation in Media World Report pointed out the huge potential of podcasts. “There’s still plenty of scope for podcasts that address niche topics that are of passionate interest to small communities. People are taking the time to listen. Whenever you have a community of shared passions you can monetise it. We just need to figure out how.”
4. The media is sitting on an ecommerce goldmine
Publishers will become strong e-commerce players in the future because of their ability to inspire people, Jonas Sjostedt, CTO and co-founder at Tipser, told the Congress during a talk on how digital companies can adopt reliable new revenue models in a post-Covid world.
“Publishers have a great edge (over Amazon) because visitors are coming there to be inspired, spending their leisure time on the sites,” he pointed out. “They are coming there freely and returning. They can leverage that to introduce relevant commerce. Amazon is a destination where you know what you want, but for things you didn’t know you needed – that’s where publishers have a fantastic edge. They are just sitting on this goldmine they can start capitalising on if they do it really well.”
5. Publishers need to sell their journalism
The biggest innovation to come out of this year is media companies selling journalism to make up for lost ad revenue, according to Juan Señor.
“We’ve been selling the wrong thing,” he pointed out. “It’s going to be increasingly difficult for you to make a living out of just an ad-dependent magazine media experience on digital. The fastest way to sustainability is to find a way to charge for your journalism. If you’re journalism is not worth selling, you shouldn’t be in this business. Unless you get people to pay for your information, it’s game over. People have rediscovered the value of consuming quality journalism during the crisis and we have to capitalise on this moment in history. You must develop the self-conviction in your brand to tell readers they have to pay.”
An increasing number of publishers are realising the importance of putting their content behind a paywall, revealed Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Director at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University.
“More and more publishers, as they see advertising revenues dwindle, are moving to different forms of paymodels and reader revenue,” he said. “And in a number of countries there is a small incremental but significant growth in the number of people saying that they are paying for online news.“
6. Remote working is dulling our creative edge
While media companies have embraced remote working, there’s a growing desire among publishers and employees for face-to-face brainstorming.
“We are allowing teams to come and work as groups because that is something our people are saying they are really missing,” said James Wildman, CEO of Hearst UK. “While people are working effectively remotely we definitely miss something from not having these face-to-face interactions – the spontaneity, creativity that comes from bouncing ideas off each other. This Teams and Zoom life we’ve all embraced – the back-to-back video conferencing – is great to an extent but it definitely feels quite linear and a bit functional. We are missing something in terms of culture and our younger staff being able develop.”
Juan Señor agreed that companies need to get their workers back to the office as soon as possible. “To make great content is a collaborative effort,” he said. “I believe humans aren’t programmed to work from home. It’s exactly the opposite. People are now associating staying at home with the punitive aspect of this experience like being in quarantine and not being able to go out for fresh air. If, on top of that, you are expecting them to be productive, you are in for a big surprise.”
7. Old is gold
Reheating old copy can pay off handsomely. Srini Srinivasan, managing director of the Vikatan Group revealed how they successfully dived back into their archives when original content ran out.
“There has been no entertainment news for six months, so we have used the stuff from the past,” he said. “And we believe this is poising us for even better growth, actually. Old is gold.”
German weekly newspaper Die Zeit also used repurposed copy extremely well when putting together a pop-up newsletter for kids during the lockdown as part of its popular membership programme, Friends of Die Zeit.
“We sent out a comic strip from an old magazine as a daily newsletter,” explained Project Manager Lennart Schneider. “It’s snackable content you can consume in a few minutes and people seem to really enjoy it.”
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