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Get Serious About Your Digital Publication

Posted on Wednesday, June 27, 2012 at 11:20 AM

When it comes to digital strategy, don't forget the the importance of reader surveys.

By William Dunkerley

Results from an ongoing survey lead me to question how serious publishers are about achieving success with their digital publications. The survey data that struck me is this: many editors are reporting that they don't survey their online readers. And those who do survey them tend to lump online readers together with print readers. These may not instantly seem like pivotal issues from a publishing standpoint. But they actually are very central to success.

The Function of Advertising

To appreciate that point, consider what we fundamentally are doing when we sell advertising: We're giving the advertisers exposure to an audience, our readers, whom the advertisers believe are good prospective customers.

Implicit in that equation is our responsibility to attract readers who will be good buyers, and to entice them to actually read our publications. If a publication fails to do those things, sooner or later the advertisers will wake up and pull their advertising. Some of the publishers hardest hit by the recession are ones that had been ignoring this fundamental principle. When economic times were good, advertisers were less discerning about where they spent their ad dollars. But when it became important to make each ad dollar count, they bailed out of the publications that weren't producing clear results.

Why You Need Survey Data

That brings us to the widespread failure to survey online readers. If you're not surveying readers, how can you tell whether your content is enticing them? Click-throughs don't tell the whole story. How will you know what kind of content will attract the readers that advertisers are looking for? Online metrics give insufficient insight. Without survey feedback from your readers, you are flying blind. That doesn't sound like a serious approach to digital publishing to me.

With good survey data, you can benchmark where you are now and then experiment and measure results in subsequent surveys. You can begin to refine what you are doing. Explore how different content or editorial treatment impacts readership. Test how changes in content affect the quality of your audience -- from the perspective of an advertiser.

Digital Publishing Challenges

Achieving success and profitability with an online publication has been a real challenge for most publishers. Many are finding it was far easier to break into digital publishing than it has been to break even in a business sense.

It's not just individual publishers facing challenges. The entire field of digital publishing is up against some serious problems.

Many publishers and advertisers alike have made decisions based on hype put out by hardware manufacturers and the commentators that support them. For most publishers and advertisers, things have not turned out to be as rosy as the hype led them to believe. Reader acceptance of digital is not as high and sustainable as the predictions. Advertising effectiveness has fallen short.

--Recently General Motors pulled $10 million from Facebook advertising for lack of results.

--Many publishers have stuck with the banner-ad format, despite long-standing evidence that it is a relatively ineffective mode of advertising.

--Popular Web metrics are of limited help in identifying enduring business solutions. In response, metric-gatherers are resorting to increasingly invasive tracking techniques as they grasp for ways to show effectiveness of online advertising. That activity is raising privacy concerns. Europe is ahead of America on consumer privacy. But Microsoft has recently started delivering Internet Explorer with default do-not-track settings. If intrusiveness continues, regulation may not be far off.

--Digital edition proliferation is diminishing the perceived value of a digital publication. Digital publications are increasingly being launched not only by legitimate content providers, but also by marketers who use them as sales devices. These publications are not dedicated to serving the needs and interests of the readers, but rather to advancing the sales goals of the marketers. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with that. But the proliferation of this kind of publication is creating a clutter in consumers' inboxes. That's sure to have a negative effect on consumer perception of digital publications.

There isn't a lot that that you as an individual publisher can do to fight some of these unfavorable trends. But you can give more focus to your digital business model. And an important step in that direction is to survey your online readers!

William Dunkerley is principal of William Dunkerley Publishing Consultants, www.publishinghelp.com.

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