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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Publishers should build products that customers want to pick

February 1, 2018 | By Thomas Baekdal, Founder, Publisher and Media Analyst— Baekdal.com @baekdal

The shift to abundance is a very well-known trend in the media industry, and something that most publishers are struggling with. But the dynamics behind this trend are not unique. As soon as you get too much choice in a market, it starts to split in in two very different directions.

The Supermarket Effect

One direction is what I call the “supermarket effect,” where you focus on building scale with content that covers people’s general needs. This works great if you are big publisher, because then you can use your size to drive revenue, even though the value per article is extremely low.

But this is also where the problem is. Because, if your editorial strategy is to be a supermarket, being small just doesn’t work. There is no market for a smaller supermarket.

This is the problem we now see in the media. Most publishers have traditionally been centered around creating “packages of random content,” which, fundamentally, means the they are designed to be a supermarket of content. This worked great for a while. But in today’s world of abundance, it puts a lot of pressure on smaller publishers.

The Local Papers

We see this very clearly when we look at local newspapers (especially outside the larger US cities). Think of it like this: A local newspaper is like a small grocery store with a little bit of everything for the local community. And for many years, it was the go to place for everyone in its community. But imagine what happens when, one day, Amazon opens a Whole Foods store next door.

The answer is obvious, the smaller local store is outcompeted.

Being local is no longer viable, because you can’t compete with Amazon’s many advantages of being able to offer more items, at lower prices, with bigger marketing budgets, Amazon Prime, and a hugely scalable back-end logistic system.

We can see this in play when with companies like Meredith acquire Time Inc. Their strategy is to become a bigger supermarket by consolidating not just how many publications their own, but also how they work. And, as a strategy, this is a good approach if they can build up enough scale.

The Selective Approach

But this isn’t the only way to win the future. Another way is to become the opposite of a supermarket of content … which is to “get picked.”

People use supermarkets when they are just filling their daily needs without really thinking too much. So, the opposite of this is to get people to think and to choose to spend time with you. To do this we have to change the way we exist as publishers. Instead of focusing our editorial strategies around creating packages of content, we must start to build publishing products that people can (and will) pick.

Let me give you an example.

Most traditional magazines do reviews, but they are not designed for people who have a specific need. Instead, they are just published like any other article. This is not what people want when they are looking for a review. There is a very big difference between people who just sit down and flip through pages (or randomly come across links on Facebook), and people who are actually looking for answers. So, what we see now are companies like The WireCutter, which was created in 2011 by Brian Lam, to be a new type of review site that only focused on bringing you very high-end and very detailed reviews.

And look at what has happened. Because The Wirecutter designed itself around people when they need a review, they have become the destination for people to go to when they want to figure out what products to buy.

This is the difference between just having a “supermarket” editorial focus where the reviews are just another random story and having a “product” editorial focus where the content is designed to solve a specific need.

Product Makes Perfect

And this also applies to many other things. For instance, a traditional fitness magazine often has a wide-ranging selection of stories about health, nutrition, and exercise, but there is no real goal or structure to them.

Then look at the digital native publishers. They are not creating random articles. Instead, they are building fitness publishing products. They offer you actual training, they create meal plans for you, and they actively help you achieve your health goals.

A simple example: Compare Women’s Health with The Body Coach.

Consider business publications: Are you just giving business people random news? Or are you helping them do their job better? Are you providing them with content, data, and insights that they can put to work?

Watch YouTube

On YouTube, for instance, YouTube itself is the “supermarket of random videos.” And, because of this, every single YouTuber knows that the only way to be successful on YouTube is to instead do something that people will specifically pick. So, every YouTube channel is defined around a very narrow focus, because you need that to create something for people to connect with.

YouTubers know that you can’t be a supermarket within a supermarket. Meaning, you can’t just give people a little bit of everything in a place where there is already a lot of everything.

This is now the reality of the media.

A few larger publishers will attempt to become the modern supermarkets of publishing and they may succeed. But next to this is another marketplace, where individual publishers create publishing “products” that are designed to be picked. The kind of specialty places that they turn to when they have a more defined moment and want something specific.

This is your challenge for the future. What will you do to get picked?


Thomas Baekdal is a media analyst and publisher of Baekdal Plus.

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