We’ve seen it more times than we want to admit. The publisher, general manager or CEO spearheads a new initiative: “We are going to do [fill in the blank].” The newsroom and sales teams drop everything to focus on this new project because of the potential revenue and audience opportunities. Cost is no object!
But inevitably you are “early” and the project fails. Consumer or client behavior has not yet made it there. The technology adoption you depended on for success is years away, or management’s expectations were just overinflated.
Maybe the project won good adoption by a few consumers or customers. It serves a clear need in the product mix, but not enough to justify the initial focus and effort. You end up giving the product away to consumers and advertisers as “value added” and it becomes an expectation for a media company to provide for little or no cost.
Your product has entered what I call “The Checklist Zone.”
A few things happen to Checklist Zone products. They move from being an investment to being an expense. When a product becomes an expense, you look for the lowest cost provider: free if you can get it, or better yet, a revenue share. The low-cost or free product sucks, but you get what you pay for. You complain about how the product line has not been improved for years and the vendor doesn’t give you the attention you should get.
Sometimes Checklist Zone items just die. In most cases, they just limp along and can’t be killed. But in a few cases, underlying consumer behavior and technology adoption catch up. You don’t realize it, because you take it for granted, but it might become one of your highly used products with a loyal user base.
What now? Does this sound familiar?
These types of stories have defined my career, and I’ve seen all of them unfold firsthand: E-editions, electronic editions, replica editions or digital editions — they are all the same — plus mobile news apps, streaming audio channels, and, dare I say, websites.
A background in being too early
I worked on the launch of The New York Times e-edition in 2002 and became its product manager in 2003. At the time, 60% of the U.S. population had internet access and 19% broadband access. The Sunday NYT e-edition was 70 megabytes or larger. Not bueno on a 56-kbps dial-up modem.
We launched the first mobile news app at the long tail of media, i.e. not The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal — at The Commercial Appeal in Memphis in 2010. It was a huge initiative; part of the first digital reader revenue initiatives in the industry. It had everything: an e-edition, comics, puzzles, and classified ads via an XML feed we created for the app. It was paid as part of the all-access subscription package. Smartphone adoption was 40%. We were early but we were hopeful.
Streaming audio channels have been a Checklist Zone product likely from the turn of this century. That’s when radio stations began simulcasting their over-the-air stream. I recently worked at one of the companies that pioneered the technology and amassed a huge number of radio stations on their platform. Interestingly, much of the thinking that drives modern connected television (CTV) and over-the-top (OTT) services was pioneered in the streaming audio space, including adaptive bit rate streams, dynamic ad insertion and advanced audience targeting. And this was done more than 10 years ago!
Market shifts lead to opportunities
Why bring up the Checklist Zone? While products in this zone have gone mostly unchecked (pun intended), set-and-forget, and managed as cost centers, the underlying consumer behavior and technology has finally caught up to the opportunity. But are publishers leaning into the opportunities — especially with e-editions, mobile and streaming audio?
On the digital edition front, fast forward to 2023. Digital reading has exploded with e-readers, tablets and ridiculously fast internet connections, and ubiquitous wifi has made digital reading the norm rather than the exception. Not in the U.S., but in Europe, India and Asia, major newspapers have invested heavily in taking advantage of the new consumer behavior. European companies like PugPig, Twipe and PageSuite are innovating and creating next-level reading experiences.
Smartphones have almost saturated the available market. Everyone has one and spends an average of 4.1 hours a day on it. Yet very few publishers have really explored the opportunities of mobile publishing. When I was responsible for mobile at the then-largest newspaper group in the U.S., we uncovered some very interesting facts across our 300-plus newspapers. We discovered that design of the app, content and messaging strategy and user acquisition opportunities could drive meaningful revenue for smaller publishers. It just took a deep understanding of how revenue was generated, and the value and loyalty of a mobile app user.
I recently led several webinars on digital audio. As podcasts are the golden child of digital audio, few think of streaming audio channels as an opportunity. While 73% of the U.S. population, or 209 million people, listens to digital audio in a month, and 38% of the population listens to podcasts — only 5% of the total time spent listening to digital audio is podcasts. In other words, 95% of total digital audio consumption is spent listening to streaming audio. Streaming audio includes terrestrial radio simulcasting their signal, digital-only “radio” channels and streaming audio channels like Spotify and Pandora.
In fact, 55% of all audio consumption is streaming audio vs. over-the-air radio. That 55% of time spent includes terrestrial stations’ streamed signals. Major technology companies are starting to enter the world of digital audio, including Amazon on the infrastructure side and Google on the ad side. This was formerly an area dominated by niche technology companies like Amperwave, Triton Digital and AdsWizz.
Seizing now as the time for revenue
All three of these former Checklist Zone products are ready to be revisited. For publishers, the underlying audience opportunity is there now. The technology has improved — if you look beyond the low-cost providers. It takes a fresh perspective on revenue and content strategies, and a focus on user acquisition in the manner of the mobile app industry.
As part of our 2023 key initiatives, the LMA Technology Resource Center will reexamine the opportunities that publishers hold in their hand, with three technology cohorts covering digital editions, mobile publishing and streaming audio. We will revisit financial models, identify technology gaps that could exponentially increase revenue, and visit competencies that may not exist within the organizations, but are needed. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t have anything to do with content or sales. Guest experts will share knowledge, and we’ll preview some demos from research and development partners who, we believe, are tackling the opportunities the right way.
The cohorts will be small, with a maximum of 10 media companies per group. Digital editions, mobile, and audio will be separate groups. The cohorts will consist of four one-hour sessions spread over eight weeks.
Send me an email to get on the list: email@example.com. And stay tuned for when we make a public announcement in a few weeks with open signup.