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Planning for the Digital World

‘Planning’ and ‘Digital’ are two words which do not sit very comfortably together. If ‘digital’ is all about being agile, fast-moving, responsive, silo-busting and questioning accepted norms; then ‘planning’ feels as though it should be about order, mapping and structure – all a bit ‘legacy’. Yet, writes Jim Bilton, planning your digital strategy is absolutely essential!

By Jim Bilton

What is clear from the work that Wessenden does across a number of media categories is that digital usually drives a flurry of uncoordinated activity. The textbook theory is that an overarching vision trickles down into a structured strategy, which in turn cascades into an action plan – clearly prioritised and tightly project-managed. Instead, the coalface reality is often the exact opposite. Here, people run around like headless, digital chickens, driven by a ‘to-do’ list which is both unrealistically long and created by knee-jerk reactions to what is going on around them - often simply what the competition are up to. This ‘to-do’ list is dressed up as an action plan, repackaged as some kind of a strategy in an off-site planning meeting one weekend, which is then massaged into a vision for the benefit of a wondering outside world.


We have been trying to encourage a more structured approach to digital planning within publishing companies. Working with subscription service operator, Dovetail, and some of their publisher clients, we start with a very simple grid of digital activity and try to attach a level of importance and priority to each cell. This process immediately highlights four recurring themes:

* There are simply too many actions to do any of them properly. Ruthless prioritisation then follows, often with a ‘one in / one out’ approach and with the question, ‘When will this activity realistically deliver a return on the investment required?’ being key.

* Digital is a big word. ‘Digital’ is not just about content, which everyone immediately focuses on. For example, an email comms strategy with existing customers may deliver a bigger and faster return than a shiny new app. ‘Content’ is not just about digital editions – a mobile-optimised website could be a better first move. ‘Digital editions’ are not just Apple iOS products, although for the time being, they still dominate. And so on.

* Creating a product or service first and then wondering how to bring it to market is dangerous. Channel management issues will inevitably shape the product itself.

* Every publisher claims to be reader-focused, yet very few actually are, even though they have the data analysis tools at their fingertips to make truly customer-driven decisions. Ironically, gut-feel and sample-of-one (ie. me) actually hold much more sway in digital development than in print product development.

Let us zoom in on one cell of activity as an example – creating a digital, issue-based edition of a consumer magazine. To set this in context, it is helpful to map the market from the publisher perspective: PPA’s latest Publishing Futures survey explodes two well-entrenched publishing myths. Firstly, ‘Everyone has a digital edition these days’. No, they don’t – 44% of consumer magazine brands do not. Secondly, ‘No one produces PDF replicas anymore’. Yes they do; and far from being out of kilter with consumer demand, there is growing evidence that a significant proportion of readers quite like simple page-turners – but more of that later.

Now let us turn everything around and look at the market from the consumer’s perspective. Here, Dovetail’s latest Subscriber Service Survey (SSS) – a massive poll of 145,000 active magazine subscribers – throws some light. The survey highlights that we should be looking at consumers by three key factors: (1) digital access, (2) digital acceptance and (3) digital usage.

1. Digital access

How many of the target market actually have the digital kit to access an emagazine? What types of device do they have? And do they actually read emagazines currently? For example, the Dovetail SSS shows that 64% of UK magazine subscribers have got at least one tablet in the household (the average is 1.2 tablets per household with the Apple iPad holding only a 53% share as Android and other devices gouge share rapidly). The SSS also shows that only 21% of subscribers currently have a digital magazine in their repertoire. So, there is a big gap between the number of people with ‘digital access’ and those who are ‘digitally active’ in magazine terms; and this gap varies massively from market to market.

2. Digital acceptance

Where does digital actually fit into the lives of the reader? The assumption that everyone wants digital products is another wildly inaccurate and dangerous myth as the chart (see above) from the Dovetail SSS shows.

76% of the SSS respondents did not have any digital magazines active in their reading repertoire at the time of the survey. All of these ‘Print Only’ readers were asked if they would like to have a digital edition if they could:

* 54% said ‘no thanks’, the main reason being that they simply preferred print magazines to digital products. Interestingly, a significant proportion had actually tried digital magazines, but simply did not get on with them.

* 22% said they would like to try a digital version, but had not had a go in the past for a range of reasons which all revolve around not really knowing what their options actually were – the whole area of ‘discoverability’ remains a real issue for digital.

The ‘Digitally Active’ (the remaining 24%) are a mix of ‘Print + Digital’ (20%) and ‘Digital Only’ (only 4%). Both groups were asked what they thought the major benefits of digital editions were. The main reasons given are to do with very pragmatic factors (eg. portability, anytime / anywhere access) rather than the core ‘reading experience’ itself – here print still seems to be holding its own. This last issue leads on to the final factor…

3. Digital Usage

Here there are two key factors:

* Title Choice. The SSS shows that consumers are using digital editions in three distinct ways. Migraters are digitally sophisticated and are in the process of moving from print to digital. Experimenters are using digital as a low cost / low risk way of trialling new titles which they normally might not look at in print. Enhancers love their magazines and just want as many contact points with their core titles as possible – print, digital replica, website, enewsletter. These are the ‘superfans’ – loyal, high-spending and highly lucrative for the publisher. The reason for categorising consumers in this way is that the whole acquisition strategy (notably, where to pitch the price of the digital version) is fundamentally different from group to group.

* Reading Experience. There is a growing raft of research, especially from the USA, which shows that different types of consumer want very different things from their digital products. Conservatives like their digital editions to look like their print versions. So, they are quite comfortable with page-turning PDFs and they rate highly things like consistent navigation across all magazine brands rather than having different apps perform in different ways. Moderates are more adventurous. They like to hyperlink into other sites - especially to buy products that they see featured in the magazine. They like streamed videos. They appreciate being able to search through archive material and to share with others what they find. Yet they also like to be in control and they do not like gimmicky ‘bell and whistles’. For example, a recent US survey showed that 70% want videos to last for under a minute and that the majority also want to able to choose whether they activate a video rather than have it kick into life automatically. By contrast, Radicals want their digital editions to be very different from the print experience – ‘That’s the whole point of digital isn’t it?’ - so, they will hungrily gobble up every bell and whistle on offer.

Understanding how digital products are going to be used by the target market is obviously fundamental to what kind of digital product needs to be created.

Other customer journey issues then need to be laid over the top of all this. Questions included in the Dovetail SSS include:

* Where do consumers go to look for a digital magazine when they are in the mood for one?

* Where do they go to buy a digital magazine when they know they want one?

* What kind of customer service will they require? Some magazines still have very digitally-unsavvy audiences who actually call to get help with using their device, never mind the magazine they have just bought. Customer service is one of the hidden costs of digital activity.

The bottom line is when this all filters through into satisfaction with the end product. The Dovetail SSS has collected scores from every digital subscriber as to how they rate, on a score of 1 to 10, the specific digital magazines they currently read. Across the 63 digital magazine titles surveyed, the average score is a solid (but not sparkling) 7.5 out of 10. The highest ranking magazine gets 8.6 while the lowest gets a very poor 5.6. As to be expected, fully interactive apps score more highly than average at 7.7, but not dramatically so: flat PDFs average 6.9 and enhanced PDFs 7.5. The conclusion of the ranking exercise is an obvious, but critical, point – that creating a digital product which fits what the audience actually wants is more important than producing something that is technically leading-edge.

This kind of planning process is based on data that is either publicly available or easily accessible. It is also just informed commonsense rather than rocket science. Yet it helps to provide the answers to some big questions, such as: Just how digital does my operation really have to be in the short-term? How quickly do we need to become more digital and in what direction? How much resource do I need to allocate? Who should my partners be on this journey? And so on.

‘Planning’ and ‘digital’ are two words which do go together. We now have so much data to inform our decision-making and there is so much at risk by getting things wrong. I recently overheard a young publishing executive justifying the creation of a digital product by saying, “We’ve just got to put it out there to see what happens. The fact is that we’re all working in Beta now.” We are all working in Beta now; and being agile and responsive and experimental are all essential qualities. Yet, sometimes, silo-busting can simply be a smokescreen for sloppy thinking, lazy execution, poor quality control and commercial naïveté. It is time to put the planning back into digital.