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Managing the Digital Transition

Few publishers have embraced the digital revolution as wholeheartedly as Future. One of the first to spot the potential of the iPad, the company has been at the forefront of tablet publishing and has worked hard to realign itself for the digital age. CEO Mark Wood describes another busy year at the specialist publisher.

By Mark Wood

It’s always nice to win awards. They motivate, they’re calling cards to partners and they’re a great bellwether of what your peers think of you.

Future was lucky enough to win more than our fair share of awards in 2012, but two stand out. In July, the Association of Online Publishers named us Digital Consumer Publisher of the Year – for the second year running. And in September, the Professional Publishers Association gave us their top digital gong when they also named us Digital Consumer Publisher of the Year. No other publisher has ever won the AOP award twice – and no other publisher has ever scooped both the industry’s top digital awards.

The reason these award wins are so important to us is because they are indicative that the industry recognises our drive, ambition and innovation as we recalibrate the Future business towards digital transition. And we’ve certainly made good progress in the last year.

As we reported to the City in November, Future has grown its online audience by 70% in the previous 12 months, now reaching over 50 million unique users across the globe each month. And since Apple launched Newsstand in October 2011, we have sold over two million products on iPad and iPhone, generating over £6m in gross sales. In the last year, Future has become a world leader in tablet publishing, with leading brands in the UK and the US, as well as our own proprietary software, FutureFolio, powering our own interactive digital editions, as well as a raft of other publishers’ products internationally.

Over the last twelve months, our digital revenues have increased by 30% to £20.6m – and our aim is to generate more than half our revenues from digital markets within three to four years.

Content is (still) King

I believe Future is superbly placed to be a global leader in the inexorable transition print publishers face to a primarily digital business. And our position as ‘specialist’ publisher is a defining strength.

As a content business, we have historically focused on five key sectors: Technology – with brands like T3, and Gizmodo UK; Entertainment – including Total Film, Edge, PC Gamer and; Music – including Classic Rock, and Guitarist; Creative – including our craft and photography titles; and Sport – including BikeRadar and CyclingPlus.

Our content is created by world class specialists, passionate about their subject matter. It is consumed, typically, by engaged, affluent and loyal enthusiasts, passionate about their chosen interest. And as digital technologies and platforms increasingly break down the geographical barriers print publishers have faced, one thing has become overwhelming clear in the last year: our content travels well.

Our success on Apple Newsstand underlines this – with 80% of sales coming from outside the UK and 40% from beyond the UK and US combined. And the other good news – around 90% of sales have been to new customers to Future.

And online brands like TechRadar prove that quality content will work internationally. The news and reviews site has seen a 147% increase in unique users, to 17 million every month.

So world class content is clearly at the heart of everything we do digitally. But an exploration of our twin track digital strategy – encompassing Tablets and Online – will help to illustrate that in the brave new digital world, innovation is an absolute essential.

The Tablet Revolution

Eighteen months ago, no-one could be sure what the tablet opportunity could mean to publishers. Very early on, we made a commitment to work with Apple, and we had 100 flat or interactive products available for the launch of its magazine store, Newsstand. A year later, we have in T3, the UK’s biggest-selling digital lifestyle magazine on the iPad, and in MacLife, one of the biggest-selling digital editions in the US. We have developed FutureFolio – our app-creation software tool which allows us to own the means of production, and to scale it, producing everything from flat PDF page turners to fully interactive HD editions of our pillar brands. And our commitment to tablet publishing is undiminished – while iPad has clearly been the early adopter, we have close working relationships with Amazon, Microsoft, Google et al, and launched a raft of more than 30 brands onto the new magazine section of Google Play.

At a macro level, Gartner estimates that by 2016, there will be over one billion tablets in circulation worldwide – a promising prospect for publishers given that consumers readily accept that content via tablets should be paid for.

And research from Flurry Analytics indicates that peak usage of both tablets and smartphones (which at this point, of course, have a much higher install base) hits in the evenings between 7 and 10pm – indicating that tablet usage favours leisure content.

In the tablet sphere, as in all digital publishing, the secret of success is agility, innovation and a keen understanding of the consumer. And we have used our close dialogue with consumers to inform our launch strategy, allowing us to develop wholly new, targeted tablet brands at new frequencies.

In the last year, we have researched and launched a range of new, paid-for weekly products across our core markets.

In May, we launched CyclingNewsHD – a must-have weekly package for all followers of international road racing. Photography Week launched in September, packed with rich, interactive video and editorial content to help photographers of all skill levels. And in October, we premiered Gathered by Mollie Makes, a weekly brand extension of the hugely popular contemporary craft brand, curating craft projects, videos and photo galleries for those who live and love handmade. In technology, we’ve also launched tech. – a weekly, international tablet magazine aimed at busy technology enthusiasts. All of these brands have been developed in response to consumer demand and the speed and efficiency of tablet publishing is allowing Future to experiment and learn, develop and launch at exceptional speed.

Creating New Businesses in the Digital Space

The success of our FutureFolio software has opened up new international markets for Future. Already we are licensing FutureFolio to publishers in the UK, US, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Brazil and Taiwan, powering over 60 digital titles using Folio.

In the UK, we have partnered to produce a highly interactive edition of Jamie Oliver’s magazine, as well as working with AutoTrader to develop and produce a new weekly brand – ignition. The new app allows readers to use integrated search functionality to load dedicated search results from AutoTrader’s full classified listings.

And January saw the launch of a new partnership with the Press Association – the official data partner of the UK professional football leagues – to create Football Week, a weekly international iPad magazine for followers of the English Premier League.

Published every Friday, Football Week covers the week's games in depth, offering editorial previews and team line-ups. Match information will update live as games are played, bringing in live text commentary, confirmed team line-ups, dynamic performance stats and tables plus post-match reviews. 

Here’s another great example of innovation and agility with world class content at its heart. PA provide the live football data, breaking team news, match reports and previews. Future’s dedicated editorial team then curate and embellish the content, creating a truly interactive football magazine with the up-to-the-second flexibility of a website but the design and packaging of a digital edition.

The Template for International Online Success

Alongside tablet development, the other key platform for Future’s digital growth has been online, where again we have benefited from continued UK and international growth.

Our accelerated growth has in no small part been down to world class SEO being embedded into our online DNA. We have also embraced our social media audiences as both active traffic drivers and real time consumer panels. Across our social media channels, we now have over 4.6 million followers and they have been crucial as we prototype new brands online and off. Some of our most successful brands are new launches, like Mollie Makes, the Simple Things and N-Photo, which were developed in close dialogue with our relevant existing social media audiences. Working in this way allowed us to refine the brand proposition and define the potential market ahead of launch, de-risking the process to a great degree and setting print subscription records at the same time.

Elsewhere, video has become an increasingly fundamental element of our online offering, and we delivered over 120 million video views in the last twelve months across our brands, up over 300%. With dedicated video teams in the US and the UK, we are creating high quality content for hungry audiences online and on smartphone – and we can offer these services to commercial partners also.

As discussed earlier, we know our content travels well, and in the last year we have established a low-cost template for launching localised versions of UK-generated content into territories hungry for high quality content. TechRadar has led the way here – becoming a truly 24/7 brand with local market websites launching into the US and Australian markets over the last twelve months, utilising existing TechRadar content localised for each territory. Not only has this allowed us to monetise these international audiences for the first time, but we have also been able to drive fast growth – with the new US TechRadar site doubling in size within six months of launch. This is a template we are already rolling out elsewhere – with plans for English and non-English language territories.

Keep on Learning

As we move further into 2013, two things will remain constant in our business: change and our capacity to learn from it. And our learning will be enhanced by the launch of our new Illuminate Research Panel – the largest online consumer research programme Future has ever undertaken. Enlisting over 10,000 UK consumers, our aim is to ensure that insight remains at the heart of our digital strategy, bringing us even closer to our consumers and fuelling our continued hunger to innovate in digital markets.