How do you pick a strategy when there are no rules?
I’m sure I’m not alone in struggling to make sense of publishing trends that seem to contradict both conventional wisdom and each other, while also trying to learn from them. Consider these developments from the past week:
Samir Husni published an interview with Emily Cronin, the new editor-in-chief of Trending NY, a new, free print magazine that Hearst has just rolled out monthly after a year of trial issues. It’s no longer unusual to find print launches bucking the trend toward digitization, but what stands out here is the target audience: millennial women—the very group that the conventional wisdom holds are running away from print vehicles.
Why is Hearst taking this step? As Cronin told Samir, “One of the results of living on your smartphone is that you crave a break…New magazines bring a breath of fresh air and a treat…You read a [print magazine] very differently on a long commute or on a flight on in a beach chair than you do at your desk.” Reinforcing that position, she didn’t rule out the possibility that Trending would soon be rolled out in a number of additional cities.
In another instance, a journalism student interviewed me for a project. The class is helping a well-known trade newsletter, with a high subscription price, figure out how to prove its value to an audience that can now get much of the same information from free sources. If people are reluctant to pay so much for so little, the class wondered, how can the business behind the publication survive?
I had three suggestions: 1) Develop unique, proprietary data and mine that as much as possible; 2) Focus on solid, thought-leadership-based long-form analytical content that none of the free newshounds can provide; 3) Look carefully at native advertising and other forms of branded content.
At least two of these ideas play into some current debates: Is there a market for long-form content in a short-attention-span world?; and, Will native advertising compromise the existing publication’s journalistic pedigree?
That last issue is core to a discussion I’ve found myself having with a number of associations lately. While native advertising has been identified as a bright light on the revenue horizon by a wide range of conventional publications and their parent companies—The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg.com, Condé Nast, Yahoo!, Buzzfeed and more—associations, I’m finding, are wary. And not only of native advertising. They shrink from advertorials as if they were an untested form of content marketing, not something that’s been around for decades and that can be found sprinkled liberally through such mainstream publications as Fortune and Travel & Leisure.
Their hesitation is understandable. While associations are hungering for new revenue sources, they’re also afraid advertorials might alienate their readers—readers who, unlike readers of conventional publications, are paid members with a vested interest in the organization itself. Moreover, as many of these associations create standards for their industries (as yet another revenue stream), they’re afraid that the content in advertorials might run afoul of those standards and thereby undermine standard-based revenue. So, at a point when most of the publishing world is running to branded content, it turns out acceptance is not universal. Still, as one association publisher I spoke with recently noted, while associations may have their doubts, they’re starting to realize they may have no choice but to find a way to make it work.
And that was, as I saw it, the key message behind television’s upfront market last week. While digital players, like Netflix, are producing fare that mirrors both the length and the format of standard scripted television, the flexibility they are offering viewers (in terms of phasing, timing and lack of commercial interruption) was clearly threatening to cut into the revenue the networks (both broadcast and cable) need to book from this annual event. What’s the answer? As Chase Carey, president and COO of 21st Century Fox, put it, “We’ll need to work more closely with advertisers to connect with consumers in ways they value and understand.”
And that’s the point. There are no longer any rules. There are no clear models. There are only contradictions. Print thrives in a digital age. Long-form content might be the answer to a news publication’s woes when it’s seeking readers with short attention spans. Publications that have long been wary of display ads may need to make peace with some form of branded content. And television—well, nothing appears to be sacred there.
For some people, this brave new world is fraught with danger. For most, however, it’s rife with possibilities. You just need to be not only open to them, but willing to invent them as you go along—with the understanding that nothing is constant, nothing is a given, nothing is a sure bet.