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"Time Tested" Is "Old Hat" in Digital

Posted on Thursday, January 30, 2014 at 12:55 PM

A reader's question: Can you give me some time-tested plans for achieving success with my digital edition?

By William Dunkerley

Q. Five years ago, I stuck my neck out and championed the idea of creating a digital replica edition. My business partner went along with this, but only reluctantly. I thought we could really extend our service to readers by going digital. It meant we could add audio and video content and that readers would be able to search back issues. The digital replica would be available in advance of delivery of the print copy. These sounded like real reader benefits to me. Our ad sales department could offer audio and video options to advertisers, as well. At first I thought we could charge print advertisers a premium for being in the digital edition, but that failed to pan out. The advertisers balked, and our production crew balked at the suggestion of removing the advertisers who wouldn't pony up to be there. Given all they'd have to do to remake the layout, it turned out not to be worth it. I also thought we could add several pages of digital-only ads at the end of the book. We could sell them at rates lower than the print edition and possibly bring some new advertisers into the fold.

Well, now it's five years later. We've used audio and video to enrich certain areas of content, but as best we can tell, only about 20 percent of readers use it. Very few advertisers have added audio or video to their ads. And the availability of digital-only ads in the back of the book drew more advertisers out of the print edition than it brought in new ones per my plan.

From a profitability standpoint, the introduction of the digital replica has been a losing game. It's subtracting from profits -- not a lot, but an adventure that was intended to improve profits has done just the opposite. My partner is pressing me to do something about this. I can't just pull the plug on it. Even if only 20 percent of the readers are making good use of it, I'd get howls if I took it away from them. I need a new plan, something that will work. My own experimenting with different ideas hasn't paid off. Can you give me some time-tested techniques for making the digital edition work for us?

A. I wish I could. But things are moving so fast in digital publishing that there really are no "time-tested techniques." Devices are changing. Software is changing. Reader behavior is evolving. What's new today is old tomorrow.

Have you been following the issue of net neutrality? Talk about change? The outcome of that could change things for us big time. At stake is whether the cable companies that deliver the digital content can exact a stake of the profits or revenues that the content providers are getting. The concept is that the content providers that don't pay up would be blocked. Right now the cable companies are thirsting over the major traffic users like Netflix, YouTube, and iTunes. But it's certainly possible that sometime in the future this could filter down to becoming an across-the-board fee for sending commercial content over their networks. With almost 80 percent of cable subscribers under the wings of just four cable companies, the cable guys have a commanding advantage here. We'll cover the net neutrality issue in more detail in the future.

For now, what I suggest you do is stop looking for a magical time-tested solution and start developing a methodology for analyzing new opportunities and taking an experimental approach. You said you had experimented with different ideas. But, and please don't take this the wrong way, what you've described seems more like floundering around than being experimental in a disciplined way.

One thing you might explore is giving readers a chance to opt out of the print edition and get only the digital replica. That would save you money on paper, printing, and postage. But there's also a potential risk: Digital readers may not read your publication as thoroughly as print readers do. In turn, that might make them less responsive to the ads. That means advertisers would see a drop in the effectiveness of their advertising, and that could net you a loss in advertising revenue.

Why not put it to a test? Create some kind of giveaway item for readers. It could even be a short anthology of past articles that would be of value. Place a house ad for the item. Ask readers to call a phone number to get a free copy. Put a different phone number in the print and digital editions. Compare the results. (Note: resist using an email address or anything that can be clicked on to respond. That would create a bias in favor of the digital edition.) This test would compare the relative efficacy of direct response ads.

Another test should involve how well an ad is noticed in print vs. digital. Again, you can use a house ad. Create two versions. They could be about your publication in general, some upcoming content, etc. Give them both strong headlines and succinct, easy-to-remember messages. Then draw a sample from your subscriber list and conduct a survey. Give them a list of ten headlines that include the two actual ones along with eight fictitious heads that have appeared nowhere else. Ask recipients to indicate which headlines they recall seeing. The results will give you a good comparison of how well ads are noticed in print vs. digital.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not suggesting that the above examples represent time-tested ideas that are useful for everyone. They're just to illustrate the kind of disciplined, experimental approach that will help you through the ever-evolving digital maze that we all face.

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

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