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Are publishers making digital pay?

Author info: HighWire Press
Post date: 19.06.2014
Post type: Article
Subject: Return on investment

A seminar I saw at SSP this year set me thinking about a phrase we use a lot in our industry – the transition to digital – and how deceptively easy it makes the whole thing sound.

The seminar was entitled ‘Making Digital Pay: How Publishers Are (Or Are NOT) Making the Return on Their Digital Investments’ and had a particular emphasis on mobile. What I heard from the panellists made me realise that when we say, ‘transition to digital’, we can too easily think that what we are talking about is a simple change from one channel to the next; a transition between two things that are both solid, understandable entities – like stepping from one bank of a stream to another. A better analogy would be stepping from dry land onto a boat. You feel a wobble in the knees; a derangement of your sense of balance – perhaps even a touch of motion sickness.

In truth, digital is far more fluid, emergent and difficult to predict than our old, settled realities. For instance, just when you thought you had the measure of web, along came mobile, and everything changed again.

UX and digital strategy

Like many sessions on this subject, the seminar might be accused of not giving a straight answer to the fairly direct question posed within the title. Surely it’s all about the bottom line: digital either does or doesn’t pay.

What I understood from the session was principally that it does pay – though not in ways that are directly comparable to the traditional offline model. And since the traditional model is under threat from changing user behaviour, the question is not really an either/or in terms of adoption, but a matter of how we can make it profitable – given that the landscape has changed irrevocably, and publishers really can’t afford to be left behind.

Something we heard with which HighWire would wholeheartedly concur is that publishers badly need a digital strategy in place. This should be a strategy that looks at least three years ahead but probably no further, given the fast-changing nature of the digital space. And a more sophisticated take on metrics might be required than simply opening up GA every week and counting the number of visits.

One panellist said that publishers should be thinking of two important things when it comes to defining digital ROI and success:

  1. Moving users up ‘the pyramid’, from being general users or subscribers to becoming ‘valuable’ users (i.e. users who will contribute more to the bottom line).
  2. Focusing on that small group of valuable users and providing them with value-added services.

This rang a lot of bells with me, playing as it does to the area of user experience and user-centred design that we think a lot about and have blogged about.

Volume of course is still important – you have to ‘fill the hopper’ – but volume alone won’t do it: there also has to be this keen focus on adding value to the relationship with users. The reason being, as another delegate said, that content is no longer king. On the user side, it’s all about services – and the following factors may be of greater value for librarians:

  • Scalability.
  • Platform features.
  • Packages of content attractive to users.

App or web?

So focusing on users, and having a defined digital strategy are key – however it can’t be denied that mobile, in particular, throws up some difficult decisions over technology route. The native-app-versus-web-app one is something we have kept a close eye on and one that is by no means settled in either direction. One panellist favoured the HTML5 route strongly, believing that apps would simply die out eventually, while another pointed out the discoverability drawback with apps, that you can’t currently search in Google for journals that are within apps (as well as the fact that you have to deal with Apple!).

On the other side of the argument, the moderator for the session made reference to an imminent report whose preliminary findings indicate that 57% of publishers currently offer apps. This led another of the panellists to echo the point made earlier about focusing on the valuable users, re-affirming the added value of an approach based around aggregated, searchable apps in fostering ‘an ongoing relationship with the reader beyond the walls of the Institution’.

No easy decision, therefore, and each publisher needs to make a call, based on the business objectives they are trying to achieve; however, the most dangerous strategy, it seems to me, would be ‘wait and see’. The stats mentioned indicate that this is a train, and one you can’t afford to miss.

Calling the future

Looking to a three-year timescale for digital strategy, as recommended above, can clarify these decisions a great deal – apps are unlikely to disappear within that space of time, for instance. Neither are the user requirements we can currently see emerging just going to go away, and nor is it likely that PDF will cease to be an important format by then. However, one also needs an eye on developments further out.

The temporary nature of perfection

PDF was seen by one panellist as pretty much ‘perfect’ as the format for science journals, and to be messed with at our peril. Mindful of academic Jefferson Pooley’s comments quoted previously on our blog, I might be tempted to concur. PDF has many advantages for scholars (e.g. referenceable page numbers) and may well be the best available format in that respect, despite its oft-cited shortcomings. However, the work of Dr Steve Pettifer (whom we hope to feature on this blog in the near future) and others is staring to point to a very different shape for this format, using semantic linking to embed data, images and cited articles in the text; ‘messing with’ the pdf in very useful ways.

Very little remains fixed for long in digital, and the neither the current needs and requirements expressed by users – or their apparent satisfaction with what is currently on offer – have the last word on what technology will provide, and what those same users will welcome with open arms, though they can’t currently visualise it as an available option. Nobody knew they needed an iPod until Apple invented one, much less a smartphone. And iTunes might have seemed the perfect way of accessing and organizing one’s online musical collection – until Spotify arrived.

So along with that wobble in the knees occasioned by stepping off the land onto a less stable, dependable medium; along with the uncertainty of a shifting horizon, comes a good deal of excitement. It’s a voyage of discovery we’re on; a quest for new relationships, new felicities; but to find the buried treasure in terms of an approach that really pays off for your company, you need a sound digital strategy – and of course the right partners to inform and advise you on the journey.

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