Publishers: Triumph From Within the Belly of the Content Beast!

Two Inspiring Examples in Monetizing Content

By Published on .

Judy Shapiro
Judy Shapiro

No one can deny the carnage wrecked on the publishing industry last year. It remains a brutal spectacle to watch. My horror is magnified because as the daughter of a printer, my first job was at a magazine, so I hold a special affection for publishers and the printed word.

It is not hard, with 20/20 hindsight, to see what went wrong. In the blink of an eye, the spectacularly long-lived success of the publishing industry succumbed under the weight of too much free content flooding the internet, causing a crash in the value of content. Content went from being a prized asset to the cheap fuel needed to feed this "content-serving beast" (aka the internet). This beast cared not for quality -- only quantity. We substituted feeding the human soul with quality content with a decidedly technology focus that fed lots of SEO-friendly content to the digital content beast. It was a bargain made with the devil, because our sacrifice of the human element was not rewarded with loyal traffic the ad-revenue model promised. Only now in the smoldering wreckage, can we see that the main beneficiaries of this unhappy model were the technology SEO-driven businesses (and that covers a wide swath of the internet technology world).

But also in the wreckage, we see new ideas about how to thrive from within the belly of the digital content beast. Here are two, quite distinct examples that share two things in common. First, their strategy is people-based, which is then augmented with technology, and second, they are making money using content (note I did not say "selling" content -- so read on).

How Matt Kelly learned to focus on satisfying human interests -- not satisfying technology.
Remember the internet build-it-and-they-will-come mantra? The idea was to get a site up, get traffic and the rest will take care of itself. Publishers fell in step and rushed to get their content online for free assuming that the promised ad revenue would be enough to compensate for lost subscription revenue that inevitably followed. So the chase was on to gather as much as traffic as possible using an army of SEO consultants. It looked like it was working for a time because traffic did go up but people didn't "stick." People simply consumed the content wherever the SEO algorithms took them. Bad for business. Bad for reporters. Bad for publishers and mostly bad for audiences.

This was the position Matt Kelly, the new digital content director for Trinity Mirror, a U.K. chain of national newspapers, found himself in when he was looking to redo one of his online sites, the Daily Mirror. At a keynote address given at the World Newspaper Congress keynote in Hyderabad, India, Kelly made the following observation. "Building sites that perform well for humans, not search engines, [is one change necessary to] reverse the damage we've done to ourselves in the last 15 years of the internet. ... So, can the process be reversed? Can we begin to rebuild the connection between investment and reward online? I'm here to tell you, yes, absolutely."

These are fighting words, and that's exactly what Kelly did when he revamped the Daily Mirror. "We fought very hard to put SEO to one side and focus instead on trying to reinject some of the brand values that had served the newspaper so well for more than one hundred years. Some of that bold tabloid panache, the dynamism, the straight-talking, entertaining view of the world so familiar to readers of the Daily Mirror newspaper."

Ignore SEO! That's sacrilegious. But that's what he did and quickly, the new-look was a big success as the fastest-growing newspaper website in the country.

Kelly is the poster child for the next-generation publisher who places primacy on creating great content that drives loyal visitors. Not so easy to do -- but ultimately that's probably more profitable than just herding traffic that will leave as soon as they got there.

How Cyan Banister elevated u-gen content to drive a user experience that celebrates personal freedom -- and drives revenue, too.
If I were to hand out awards for the leading innovator in new user-engagement models, first prize would go to Cyan Banister, the founder of Zivity. She courageously created a site to give voice and a venue to the braver ones among us as a celebration of personal freedom in the digital age. The Zivity site expresses it this way; "Every woman has an inner model who wants to express herself. Zivity is a showcase for all women to have fun by showing off their beauty, gaining fans, building a portfolio and showing the world how much fun it is to be a star." A powerful message for people and a difficult business model to pull off (pun intended).

It is easy to see how she gets people to come to the site, (visit the site -- you'll see what I mean) but how does she monetize all this u-gen content? Quite cleverly by not trying to sell content but by tying revenue to member participation. In her subscription business model, members pay to be able vote for their favorite models. The more votes a member wants to cast, the higher the subscription level. If that's not clever enough, here's the other innovative engagement bit. The models get revenue for every vote they get. The result is that the models themselves become the engine for new user acquisition. The perfect engagement loop that uses content to generate revenue but does not sell the content itself.

As 2010 unfolds and publishers wrangle over how to monetize content, let's be inspired by ideas that are centered on allowing the human factor to take the lead followed by technology. Let's not relive the havoc a "tech led" content engine created. I couldn't bear to see it again.

Judy Shapiro is chief brand strategist at CloudLinux and has held senior marketing positions at Paltalk, Comodo, Computer Associates, Lucent Technologies, AT&T and Bell Labs. Her blog, Trench Wars, provides insights on how to create business value on the internet.
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