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.