What might the metaverse mean for publishers? Martin talks to the PPA

Blockchain and the metaverse

Mashplant Media founder Martin Ashplant spoke to the Professional Publishers Association (PPA) about his views on the digital publishing industry and what he’s learned in his two decades in the business.

A full version of this article first appeared on the PPA website.

Chart your career from the start to now.

I started off as a journalist. Way back in the early ‘90s I was a winner of the Young Sportswriter of the Year Award for Shoot magazine. That whet my appetite. My route into journalism was a post-graduate diploma and placement work at a local newspaper and a couple of magazines. I then went to work for a digital news agency for a while, and eventually moved over to Metro as their first mobile editor, which was back in a time when every new year was billed as the ‘year of mobile’. I remember someone telling me at that point that there was no way people were ever going to read news on their mobile. That’s how long ago this was!

I spent about six and a half years at Metro. I held a number of roles, including Head of SEO, Head of Digital Content, Technology Editor. During my time at Metro I became much more aware of all the many facets of digital publishing. It helped with my understanding of audience development, marketing and product development as well.

After that I moved to City A.M. and spent a couple of years there as Digital Director, building a digital proposition for the newspaper. I then moved back to Metro to spend a couple of years on a mobile app project, and then I made the jump to become a digital media consultant. I’ve worked for multiple publishing clients, one of whom was Beano Studios, part of the DC Thompson family. I ended up working for them as a consultant and that developed into becoming their Chief Product Officer, and then Chief Digital Officer. I spent about three years building a digital proposition for kids and turning that into a data insights business. And most recently, I’ve spent two years as Chief Product Officer at The New Statesman Media Group, and the GlobalData media brand. In the last few months I moved back into consultancy again and I’m now producing and chairing the PPA Decodes series and really looking forward to it!

You have experience as both a journalist and a product leader – do you think these roles are converging more as product and content become more linked?

I really do. I think there’s two parts to this. Whenever I talk to product people I am struck by the similarities between a good journalist and a good product person. To my mind, a good product person is someone who is very inquisitive. The kind of person who really wants to understand the root of what’s going on and wants to make evidence-based decisions, which is exactly the same as journalists. Journalists are good at asking questions, getting to the bottom of something, cutting through the noise, and getting to the heart of the issue. So, I think from that perspective, there’s a real overlap.

From a wider perspective, I think a good publisher has to also have a good product. Content is a huge part of that, but it’s not the only part. You can have the best content in the world. But if you don’t have a good product, which provides people with a good experience, then you risk wasting your time. The ability to market that product well – whether that’s through SEO, social media or other distribution channels – is really important. I think there is an ever-increasing need for publishers to ensure they’re thinking about the whole product, not just the strength of the content.

Were you aware of the importance of thinking about the distribution of digital journalism when you started your career?

I can almost pinpoint when I came to that realisation. It was during my first period at Metro when I was involved in aligning the digital and the print newsrooms. I remember saying at one point that not having a digital strategy would be like leaving a newspaper outside our office and simply hoping someone would pick it up. No one would ever do that! There was this sense with digital that you just sort of put it out there and people would come – but it doesn’t work like that. You have to have those marketing channels. You have to ensure you go to where people already are – that could be Google or Facebook or somewhere else. You also have to ensure that your product works really well on whatever device people are using. At that point our mobile readers were becoming the majority but there was still an internal focus on what the website looked like on desktop. .

I think that was when it really struck me that there’s no point in me just looking at the content side if I’m not also looking at how that content is going to be delivered. How do we get analytics data back on that content? How do we understand what’s working? How do we have a commercial model behind it that supports the production of that content? My perspective became one of needing to look at all of those pieces to create something sustainable and valuable.

A knowledge of SEO is something journalists are expected to be well versed in. What is your advice for starting to learn the language of SEO?

My view on this is that SEO has evolved a lot and it can be easy to get caught up in the technicalities, especially as a publisher or a journalist. But I tend to stick to the core principle that Google inherently wants to reward high quality content that is relevant to what a person has searched for. So being ‘good at SEO’ is actually in alignment with being a good journalist, because you are seeking to understand what your audience wants and then delivering them with a very positive experience. This is where I think publishers need to focus on what they’re good at. Focus on their expertise because that’s where they’re going to give a really high-quality experience.

There was a point a few years ago where I think many publishers were just trying to cover whatever people were searching for in Google, and that meant there was a lot of thin content, contributing to the coining of the phrase ‘clickbait’. Publishers would often respond to trends by producing a really quick piece of content just because a lot of people were searching for it. There needs to be more of a discerning approach to it where you say: ‘No, this isn’t our area of expertise. People are not going to come to us as a publisher to read about that, because that’s not what we stand for. Let’s focus on what we’re really good at.’

What do you think the future of magazines looks like in a world fuelled by data?

I’m a real optimist about this because, for me, the power of magazines has always been that they have a strong community-based audience who they have a shared interest and a trusted relationship with. If you are buying a magazine, it’s usually because you trust what they are telling you and because you are interested in what they’re talking about. Now in a world where data is increasingly important digitally, magazines have this advantage of having that trusted relationship already. As a user, I will be much more accepting of sharing my data with someone who I was getting something back from, who I trusted, who shared my interest, who I felt part of. I think magazines, potentially even more than newspapers, have a real strength in that world because the value exchange is so strong.

What’s on your radar?

I’m fascinated by what the media and publishing industry is going to make of Web3 and the metaverse. There are still many different ways this whole thing could go but the concept of there being a decentralised web, where individuals have the opportunity to be creators and owners, and make money from the things that they create, is really interesting for publishers. Some have already dipped their toe into the market, whether it’s selling old covers through NFTs, or getting more involved in the metaverse. Over the next year or so it will start to become clearer what the real opportunities are. I think all publishers should be paying attention to it.

No one can sit here yet and say this is definitely what is going to happen. But it is certainly worth experimenting with things within the metaverse, blockchain and NFTs to see what might be right for your audience. That relationship with your audience will determine what’s right and what’s not right for you in that space.

The conversation around NFTs and the metaverse can still feel quite difficult to grasp. How can publishers make their consumers more a part of that conversation?

I think a lot of people are thinking exactly the same. I’m sure many journalists are having to research what the blockchain is!

I liken it a little bit to mobile phones. Back when I started at Metro there were multiple different mobile phones with multiple different operating systems. There were lots of detailed conversations about the technology that underpinned it. It took the arrival of something like the iPhone to just get rid of all of that. It suddenly became part of people’s lives and became intuitive. You no longer had to explain what apps were. They just became a very natural part of how we lived our lives. I think what will happen over time, whether it’s NFTs or some other thing that’s based on blockchain, it will just become normal.

The stage we are at currently feels like where you have early adopters on the bell curve – it’s whether what happens next is it just fizzles out, or whether it becomes a core part of what people do, and I don’t think we know for sure. You’ll hear some people say, ‘this is the future.’ And you’ll hear other people say, ‘this is a complete gimmick, fuelled by a few people who’ve been made super rich through early buying of Bitcoin.’ The truth is, it’s probably going to be somewhere in the middle, and we don’t really know at the moment, but it’ll be really interesting to find out.

Why publishers need to start with why – now more than ever

Simon Sinek: Start With Why Ted Talk

It’s likely you will already have heard of Simon Sinek. The author, speaker and self-proclaimed optimist has become something of a business social media stalwart with his inspirational quotes about leadership and eminently shareable video clips about how to be better at pretty much whatever it is you do.

But it is Sinek’s seminal 2009 book Start With Why and his subsequent Ted Talk on the topic which seem to have had the most profound effect on people. And it is the concepts about understanding the ‘why’ of your organisation rather than what you do or how you do it which seem to me to be crucial to creating and sustaining a successful media or publishing business.

If you’ve not read Start With Why – and I strongly advocate that you do –  the central message can be neatly summed up in this quote:

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”

Sinek uses Apple, the Wright brothers and Southwest Airlines as examples of those who have a strong understanding of their why which resonates with those around them and propels them to success.

But in many ways publishers are even more closely linked to this concept of ‘why’ than any of these examples – and yet many seem to have lost sight of this over the last decade or so. Fundamentally, a publisher exists to provide content to its readership, whether that be online, in print or via broadcast media. That is its ‘what’. ‘How’ it does that will include operational elements such as its Content Management System, its printing presses and the technology it uses – as well as the people it hires to do the jobs it needs them to do.

None of this is enough, though.

For as long as publishers have existed, it has been the ‘why’ which has created the connection between publisher and audience. “I read newspaper X because it aligns with my political views”. “I watch broadcaster Y because it has the best sports coverage and I love my sport”. “I subscribe to magazine Z because it helps me be better at the job I do”. All these statements and many more besides talk to the ‘why’ people choose to consume (and often pay for) the publishers with who they have that relationship. There is an alignment between why that publisher exists and who those people see themselves as.

And yet the rise of the internet has seemingly led many in the industry to lose sight of this. In the race for scale, content became a commodity and the ‘why’ was lost. You could read the same bit of content on multiple publishers and be hard pressed to tell the difference – even between those on opposite sides of the political spectrum. And, worse, the eyeball-centric digital advertising ecosystem nudged publishers to prioritise getting clicks over generating true engagement from the people who valued them most – and who the publisher should value most.

Things have changed in the last few years and this scale for the sake of scale approach has largely now been accepted for what it was – a meaningless pursuit for a bucket of advertising money that was never really there – but much damage has been done.

And this is why the so-called pivot to reader revenue has been vital. It has forced the industry to go back to that crucial question of why. Why will someone pay for access to my publication? Why will they decide to pay for our product over someone else’s?

But it shouldn’t just be publishers with paid subscription as their business model who should be asking that question. Even those who rely on advertising should still frame decisions based on what would convince their audience to ‘pay’ in some form or other – whether that is with money, data or time.

And now in an era of disinformation and fake news, publishers more than ever need to go redouble their efforts to building and maintaining that trusted relationship with their audiences. They should be constantly asking their audience what they want and checking in with them to understanding if they are delivering or not. User research, audience panels, surveys, prototype testing. These are all powerful ways to measure whether your publication’s ‘why’ is resonating strongly enough.

To misquote Simon Sinek. Readers don’t buy what publishers do, they buy why they do it.

The digital media industry is on the rocks – but it won’t sink

If 2018 was digital media’s Year of Great Upheaval then 2019 is starting off like a year determined to snatch that title for itself.

Before the first month is even done we’ve already seen Buzzfeed announce plans to cut 15% of its workforce and Verizon reveal plans to cut somewhere in the region of 800 jobs in its Verizon Media division including HuffPost, Yahoo and AOL.

In a sign of the times it’s also been reported that the WarnerMedia investment arm which helped to boost the coffers of the likes of Mic, Mashable and Bustle has turned off the taps and will no longer be investing in media companies.

It’s all helped fan the flames of a narrative that is already pretty bleak: that the economics for digital publishing are irreversibly broken.

As NBC reporter Chris Hayes despairingly asked on Twitter: What if there is literally no profitable model for digital news?

Certainly, this picture doesn’t look particularly pretty when it also includes a list of exhibits such as: Mashable being sold for $50m when it had been valued at $250m 18 months previously; dmg media writing down its investment in Elite Daily and then selling it for a reportedly knock-down price; and Vice putting a freeze on hiring after missing revenue targets.

Then you had millennial-focused site Mic laying off its entire editorial staff at the end of 2018 before being sold for a fraction of its previous value to Bustle Digital Group. As she left the business, Mic Publisher Cory Haik talked of “macro forces” at play, “unsettled” business models and how “tough” the business of journalism is.

In this instance the “macro force” at play was Facebook’s decision to cancel the Mic Dispatches show on its Watch platform, for which Mic was reportedly being paid $5m a year. This seemingly was the final straw for a publisher which was overly reliant on Facebook for its audience and which had already suffered when the social media giant reduced its focus on news content in early 2018.

Facebook has been given the blame for various other recent digital media failings. The shuttering of LittleThings and Cooking Panda owner Render Media were directly blamed on declining love from Facebook, while the plights of TheAwl in the US and Unilad in the UK were at least partly put down to Facebook’s changing focus.

Along with Facebook, the other major player taking the blame for much of digital media’s ills is Google, with the two together forming the so-called duopoly which is draining the internet of its advertising money, leaving very little for publishers to fight for.

Google and Facebook’s dominance of digital ad money is such that research group eMarketer estimates they took 58% of all market spend in 2018. That did slip from 59% the previous year, but only because another tech behemoth, Amazon, grew its share of the $111bn total spend.

And that dominance is making it increasingly hard for publishers to make money from the web. The digital ad ecosystem rewards scale over quality and there is no shortage of inventory to be had – at mostly rock-bottom prices.

So it’s not hard to understand the current narrative of doom and gloom around digital media, with seemingly no obvious way out of the current predicament.

But when looking at the big picture it’s important to note that there’s a pattern on show here, one which involves digital publishers getting big audiences in a short space of time and, often, taking on significant levels of investment to try to make the most of that growth. But when the money doesn’t come in at the same levels to balance out those investments then a correction is needed. Sometimes that correction is slight and sometimes – sadly – it’s terminal.

What the industry does appear to be doing, however, is slowly learning from what is going on around it. Amidst the apparent chaos, there are signs of a positive future, where quality and genuine engagement trump scale.

At the Times, which stubbornly refused to get drawn into a battle for digital eyeballs, instead staying firmly behind its paywall and keeping its journalism only available to subscribers, the accounts are back in the black after a year where pre-tax profits hit £9.6m. There, digital subscribers now outnumber print for the first time and together equal more than 500,000.

Also in London at DMGT, the MailOnline now appears to be showing signs of being a reliable money maker after years where costs outstripped revenues. While audience numbers have been slipping over the last year, revenue is on the up, increasing by 14% in the last three months of 2018. Notably, DMGT highlighted that future growth will be “driven by increasing engagement with the direct audience”. Not by trying to keep up with the tech giants on scale.

There are other green shoots to take hope from, as digital publishers increasingly focus on delivering a value exchange direct to their most loyal and engaged users. This “pivot to readers”, as it has been knowingly termed, has been gathering momentum in 2018 and early 2019.

The Guardian is the poster child of the membership model which has successfully seen it step back from the precipice of financial meltdown towards returning to the black as a result of 1m donations from readers keen to back what The Guardian stands for. This model has apparently been so successful that internal discussions about a paywall at the publication have now been taken off the table.

Meanwhile Dennis, which publishes The Week among others, has seen success from a different approach to generating revenue direct from its readers – through ecommerce. Through its Buyacar title it has been linking its motoring content with a car sales business with the result that it expected 40% of total group revenue to come from this stream.

There are many other potential revenue streams being discussed and experimented with, from micropayments to events to blockchain technology. Some may work, some may fall by the wayside – and the same is true of digital publishers.

What’s clear is that the endless pursuit of digital scale without a clear prize in sight is over. Now, more than ever, it will all be about delivering something that people value. And ideally value enough to put their hand in their pocket.

No publisher should be surprised if Facebook pulls away the rug

Facebook is a commercial business. Facebook makes decisions which it believes are best for Facebook. Facebook is out for number one.

All the above are statements of fact. So when fears grow that Facebook might be about to make a change to its product which could leave publishers in a bit of a jam, one emotion that really shouldn’t be expressed is surprise.

After all, Facebook has form with doing this sort of thing when it believes its interests are not best being met — regardless of whether that might be hurt publishers in the process.

Back in 2011, with much fanfare at Facebook’s f8 conference, the Guardian, Independent and others launched what were referred to as social reader apps. Essentially what they did was allow a Facebook user to share what news stories they’d been reading with their Facebook network.

Mark Zuckerberg himself referred to these as having “the ability not only to change the way we think about news but have the ability to change the way the whole news industry works”.

Alas, it turned out that people weren’t actually that keen on broadcasting to all and sundry what stories they were privately reading and the user feedback Facebook presumably quickly got back was that this was a bad idea.

And so the much-feted social reader app experiment disappeared within a year, despite a number of publishers having sunk significant development cost into the project — with some publisher apps never even seeing the light of day.

And you can’t blame for Facebook for pulling the plug. If something is not delivering the user experience that is required then it should be shelved, regardless of collateral damage.

So, six years on and with concerns whirling that Facebook might be readying to move all publisher posts into a separate (lower-profile) Explore Feed — with the inevitable reduction in referral traffic that would bring with it — the thing to remember is that user experience will prevail.

Which means that if Facebook’s current crop of tests spits out data to suggest that users dwell longer and engage more deeply with a feed shorn of publisher posts then a feed shorn of publisher posts is what will surely come to pass.

Conversely, if it turns out that scrolling seamlessly between a post from a friend and one from a publisher you follow is what Facebook users want then that is what will continue.

Either way, what publishers have to accept is that, in a world where much of their digital audience comes from and exists on Facebook, if Facebook decides to make a change which it believes is the right one and that happens to hurt publishers then that’s just the way it is.

Think you might need some help dealing with a challenge like this or moving your digital media business to the next level? We’d be delighted to help. Please get in touch and let us know what you are trying to do.

Will people pay for news online?

Are there enough people who are willing to dig into their pockets and pay real money to consume news online?

That’s the question the digital publishing industry has been wrestling with for many years – and has been asking in increasingly urgent tones as revenue from digital advertising has plateaued for some and declined for many others.

So it was little surprise that there was an impressive turnout for the launch of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Kantar Media’s report into attitudes to paying for online news.

Fronted by the ever-insightful Nic Newman, the report revealed some cautiously encouraging stats for publishers keen to find a way for a sustainable future which doesn’t solely rely on the dwindling pot of advertising revenue.

It’s well worth reading the full report, which was funded by Google’s Digital News Initiative, but the main theme I take from it is that there is a willingness in theory to pay for news online from a reasonable proportion of people – but they don’t always do so.

As the authors of the report say:

There is value is various aspects of news – both the content and the delivery format – but this
is tempered by the context of abundant free content. The problem is exacerbated by the
fleeting nature of much news, which quickly dates and becomes worthless.

And some of reasons for people not being willing to pay for news are summarised in the slide below.

So, it seems, one of the key reasons people don’t currently pay for news is simply because they usually don’t have to. There are such a variety of sources of free news around that the perception is that there’s rarely the need to pay.

The exceptions mostly appear to be those which offer niche or high-value content, the Economists and Which?s of the world – rather than the mainstream news offerings.

There is value in news about specialist topics and coverage of niche interests, as well as
content from writers of repute. There is also value in variety, which allows serendipitous
content discovery, as well as evergreen content that remains relevant beyond the daily news

But the question that was left hanging tantalisingly in the air was what would happen if the norm was to have to pay for good quality content from the vast majority of publishers. There was a sense that, just as people have got used to paying for music on Spotify and films on Netflix – they may get accustomed to paying for news online too.

A number of options on how to access news content were given to the subjects of the research to understand their willingness to do so:

  1. Propositions that permit or bypass advertising  eg providing an email address to allow tailored advertising, turning off ad blockers or paying for an ad-free experience.
  2. Fundraising propositions eg fundraising to support the brand/business or paying for membership with benefits
  3. Paywall access and subscription propositions eg paying for unrestricted access (soft paywall), paying a brand subscription (hard paywall) or pay-per-use (micropayments) of a bundle of providers (aggregation)

The option that particularly interested me was the final one – the idea that users could pay small amounts of money to access content across a range of sites. And it seems that consumers were also inclined not to dismiss the idea:

This proved the most interesting and appealing proposition for paying for online news, and
had been anticipated to some extent in the consideration of the other propositions. It actually
combines two ideas – micropayments and aggregation – both of which resonated to some
extent, although the aggregation element drew stronger support.

One of the major problems with micropayments up to now has been the high level of effort asked of the consumer to access content. Can you really expect someone to fill in a laborious sign-up form and proffer their credit card details just to access a piece of content with a value of a few pence? And then ask them to do it again for a different publication.

But there are signs this is changing. Google has recently announced that it is offering publishers the chance to be a part of its Google Contributor scheme which allows users to buy an ad-removal pass to use on selected sites, starting at £5 in the UK. Business Insider is one of the better-known sites signed up.

And there are other companies out there working to make it as easy as possible for publishers to ask for small amounts of money from their users. Propositions from the likes of Blendle, Jamatto and Admiral offer publishers the ability to add micropayments into their business models, while Medium recently launched a membership model which is a variation on the same theme.

If there was a way to make the experience of paying as seamless as it is when you download an app from the Apple or Google Play app store – and to include content from a range of sources within one safe, secure wallet – then perhaps there’s a glimmer of a future business model for an industry in real need of recalibrating the value exchange between themselves and their consumers.

Think you might need some help moving your digital media business to the next level? We’d be delighted to help. Please get in touch and let us know what you are trying to do.