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.