Riding the digital wave: Thoughts on surviving the digital transformation

By Whitney Blair Wyckoff, Vice President, Washington DC ASBPE Chapter

While catching waves at a competition in South Africa last year, pro surfer Mick Fanning suddenly found himself vying against an unexpected adversary: a great white shark.

Fortunately, Fanning was able to fend off the fish, media industry researcher Rick Edmonds assured attendees of the American Society of Business Publication Editors’ national conference in July, who gasped when he showed video of the incident.

“But … he was asked afterwards, ‘Did you see that the shark was about to bite you?’” said Edmonds, media business analyst and leader of news transformation at the Poynter Institute. “His reply was, ‘No, but I had an eerie sense that something big was behind me.”

The anecdote, which Edmonds said comes from a McKinsey Quarterly report, illustrates the fears some publications face as they tread new waters in the digital space. But it’s not all bad, he said. They could find themselves riding a digital wave to new heights.

“We’re in sort of an era of obvious and big threats — but also opportunities,” said Edmonds.

He laid out 12 topics for media organizations to consider amid the changing media landscape — and how they apply to B2B publications. Here are some top takeaways from his talk.

Everybody wants to be vertical.

Being vertical helps an outlet find an audience and cleanly service their interests, Edmonds said. These types of publications need to understand their audience from the get-go, so they’re less likely to play the page view rat race.

It’s one area where trade publications have an advantage.

“Everybody wants to get there, but you’ve been there for a long time,” he said.

At the same time, general interest publications might be moving down this avenue as well.  Something for B2B pubs to consider: Is there a potential vertical within what you cover that hasn’t been invented?

Editorial excellence is a critical business asset.

While developing a business model for nonprofit news startups, Poynter researchers learned that having, and executing, a clear editorial mission was “the most essential thing,” Edmonds said.

“You can do about everything else right, and if you do editorial wrong, your chances are not great,” he said.

It’s not necessarily easy: He said that developing worthwhile content comes at a price, and that’s especially hard at publications that face tightening budgets.

Consider mobile.

B2B audiences likely prefer to access a publication’s digital content on their desktop computers, he said. But that could soon change.

“As these phones become more and more ubiquitous … I think that builds on itself,” he said.

He told attendees to access their publications’ sites on their smartphones and ask themselves:

  • Does the site display well?
  • Does it load really quickly? Mobile users are especially impatient, he said.
  • Are the stories and presentation matched to how people use these devices?

“That’s kind of the next step — and I would stay that’s still underway,” he said.

We’re now in the era of publishing on other people’s platforms.

Some publications are posting their content on Facebook and other new platforms, he said. It’s a way of expanding a publication’s audience and finding younger readers.

“I would characterize this action as being fairly exploratory and early days for both sides,” he said. “The big guys are trying to decide how much.”

One major drawback on publishing on new platforms? It’s potential loss of control of ad revenue and audience data, he said.

“There’s a concern that you data becomes their data,” he said. “And they’re awfully good with that.”

Native ads work.

“I think B2B publications have a running start on this as well,” he said. And they work for advertisers and command premium rates, he added.

But other types of outlets have taken notice of this trend. He said leading digital-only sites, like Vox, have established business studios in-house that produce this content. “It does seem to have paid off for them,” he said.

The day is coming when a print-to-digital total conversion will make sense.

He noted that that transition is often difficult — and expensive. So editors need to prepare for when the print product stops generating cash. But for some newspapers, that might be years away.

“Being in decline is not the same thing as being dead,”  he said. “And certain forms of print might surprise us with their long lifespan.”

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