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Crossing the digital divide

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One of the fun things about being a technology media company is the opportunity to be a first mover on trends that will become mainstream. In tech media, our readers and advertisers have always been early adopters of new media formats, which means we change our models at a faster pace than the rest of the media world. A case in point: As the broader media market reacts to a forced and jarring shift toward a digital center of gravity, we have already completed that transition. Last January we moved our flagship print brand, PC Magazine, to a purely digital position. That move was the culmination of a seven-year transition strategy designed to ensure that our digital footprint would be big enough to sustain the brand's position into the future—when advertising demand for print would no longer make it economically viable to publish in that format. We made it to the other side, and now have a scaled, vibrant, go-forward business poised for continued growth and prosperity. Many media brands that are proclaiming “all-digital” positions right now will fail because they are being forced to do this before their digital position is fully developed. Typically, supporting the brand infrastructure can be achieved only by significant cuts into such critical operational areas as content. The recent experience of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer highlights this problem. In going digital, executives had to cut 80% of their newsroom; so not surprisingly, they lost 70% of their traffic on the other side. Our transition was not easy, but we did learn some important lessons along the way: ?Set a realistic timeline on demand expectations. It's critical to map out the exact point in time when you expect print demand will lower to the point where you have to exit that part of the business. Don't be fooled into thinking that levels of print decline will slow. We found that we had to adjust our projections constantly as the rate of print decline accelerated. ?Manage print business for cash and digital business for growth. Any business has constant resource- allocation decisions. It's critical to feed the long-term digital growth opportunity capital to ensure sustained growth. Using cash from the legacy print business to achieve this objective is worthwhile. ?Ensure your digital leaders are empowered to succeed. The transition to digital requires experienced business leaders who have vision. You need to have that talent pool in place, and your digital leaders need the authority to succeed. There is pain involved in this transition, particularly when brands are shared across print and digital platforms. In each area (content, ad sales, audience marketing), it must be clear to all that the priority rests with digital expansion. ?Use the transparency of the digital platform to understand customer demand. The greatest thing about digital media is that the data are all there to see. You don't need subscriber studies or ad market research to understand what readers like about your content or why advertisers are buying your media. It's all there to see and react to every single day. Your business should embrace that reality and take advantage of it. ?Understand the constant evolution of business models inherent in digital media. Digital models change rapidly. Whether it's in the way media is bought (performance vs. CPM pricing) or in the way consumers access it (free or paid), you can be sure where the industry is today is not where it'll be tomorrow. That's an opportunity. We are finding new ways, such as next- generation mobile devices, to monetize paid readership. You need to be sure your business can adjust to these model shifts and can be a first mover when new opportunities arise. The brand equity PC Magazine built during its 27-year tenure was crucial in our transition to digital. While our economic position is smaller for now, the seamless way readers connect with content online means that our audience is bigger than at any point in our history. Our first quarter as a standalone digital business was great: We saw growth in both audience and revenue—in a nasty economic environment. For much of the media world there will be huge pain and displacement in the coming years. Some will follow the steps outlined above and find safe haven on the other side. Many will not and, sadly, some truly great print media brands will die along the way. Jason Young is CEO of PCMag Digital Network. He can be reached at jason_young@ziffdavis.com.
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