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Retailers are becoming publishers, and vice versa

A number of surveys conducted earlier in the year highlighted the continuing blurring of boundaries between publishers and retailers. Both are starting to behave like the other! Henry Hyder-Smith looks at these survey results to see what each sector can learn from the other.

By Henry Hyder-Smith

There’s a growing trend of retailers becoming publishers. Online retailer ASOS recently launched a digital edition of its popular ASOS Magazine to help expand its reach internationally, and supermarket publications have been around for a while. Indeed, ASDA magazine recently announced an 11% growth in readership.

In its first Content Marketing Survey Report 2012, Econsultancy found that nearly three quarters (73%) of digital marketers agree that ‘brands are becoming publishers’. In addition, some publishers are becoming retailers as they diversify into ecommerce and other non-traditional areas in a bid to widen their brand appeal. Direct-to-consumer opportunities are rising, fuelled not least by the Apple Newsstand and other digital app stores.

So what can retail learn from the publishing sector? And conversely, how can publishers look to take advantage of the online tracking / immediate sales conversion skills that retail are so good at?

Do selling products and publishing magazines require very different approaches to digital marketing? Well, they are more similar than first appears – relevance, personalisation, data quality, behavioural are all challenges that both sectors face. Each sector has its strengths and weaknesses: retailers send more email and enjoy an excellent ROI from it (no other marketing channel has a higher figure, as we will see below), plus do more segmentation and behavioural email; while publishers undertake more social media integration, use more content personalisation and CRM / email integration, plus are more focused on clean data.

We look at these two sectors from the Adestra / Econsultancy Email Marketing Industry Census 2012, the largest survey of email marketers in the UK.

Which ESP services do you use?

Publishers are using more social media integration and personalisation in their email marketing, while retailers use more automation.

Email volumes

Retailers are more prolific users of email, with 41% sending upwards of half a million each month (against 33% of publishers). This in itself is not surprising, as retailers have for a significant amount of time focused on loyalty schemes and customer retention, even before email became commonplace.

How do you rate the following channels in terms of return on investment?

Email tops the chart for ROI. Retail sees the best ROI from email for any sector (39% said ‘excellent’ ROI); publishing is in second place (with 29% saying ‘excellent’). For retailers, as sales tend to be direct, it is easier to track and justify ROI. For publishers, a sale may be more indirect and involve a longer leadtime and may concentrate on delivering content via email. With changes in how content is consumed across social channels, whether through the changing of Twitter’s API terms or from shifts in Facebook’s EdgeRank algorithm, email holds its own as it lies outside of these walled gardens.

Which three areas of email marketing do you really need to focus on over the next 12 months?

Publishers are more concerned about improving the data / list quality (and rightly so), while retailers are more focused on segmenting, which is important for up-sell / cross-sell using transactional data. Both agree strategy is key.

Which of the following practices are part of your email marketing efforts?

* Behavioural targeting

Over twice as many retailers are planning behavioural targeting (48% retail, against 22% publishing). Many online retailers rely on email to drive traffic to their site, providing instant and trackable sales. They then can use this information of buying behaviour immediately, a very powerful tool for marketers. For publishers, it’s a more complex ‘sell’, by monitoring what people click on and which articles interest them, brands can build up a picture of their behaviour. However, using this vast amount of data can have fantastic results; see Centaur Media case study.

* Content personalisation

Twice as many publishers are undertaking content personalisation already (35%, against 17% of retailers), as it increases readership through relevance and drives engagement.

* Video content

Interestingly, video is being used much more by publishers (25%, against 12% of retailers), as perhaps it lends itself more to a news / interview format. Although some fashion brands are already using content-led video. This is a real growth area and ideal for boosting engagement, particularly as the growth of smartphones and the adoption of multiscreening behaviour leads to increased opportunities to capture the attention of consumers.

Do you send out automated emails based on any of the following triggers or behaviour?

Retailers are more focused on direct sales triggers: they do three times as many abandoned baskets triggers (as publishers), twice as many click through no purchase triggers, and four times as many date notifications triggers.

However publishers are focused on longer term or behavioural triggers: they do twice as many up-sell and cross-sell triggers, four times as many subs renewals (as expected), and three times as many content downloaded triggers.

In many ways, the concepts of inbound marketing and content marketing appear to appeal to publishers more than retailers. As their strengths already exist in these areas, this is no surprise.

Which of the following have the biggest impact on improving email deliverability?

How can brands improve email inbox delivery? Almost twice as many publishers believe clean data is the key (71% against 43% of retailers). Retailers believe relevance is the most important factor (51% of retailers said this). Clearly, both practices are important and closely linked – without clean data, no matter how relevant your message is, it will not get through to the inbox. Furthermore, attitudes to clean data can extend beyond email and be more representative of the organisation as a whole. Many publishers have historically also used direct mail as a channel, which has left them with a legacy of focusing on correct and up-to-date customer data.

How well does your company integrate email activity with the following areas?

Twice as many publishers have well integrated email / CRM systems (26% against 13% of retail). Tracking customer behaviour and using this data for behavioural targeting can be extremely powerful and proven to deliver results. Yet almost twice as many retailers integrate email with both sales conversion data (22% against 12% publishing) and web analytics (29% against 16% publishing)- vital to their direct sales model and ecommerce systems.

So what do the above figures mean? The tough conditions for publishers in general, as consumers look to free content elsewhere, means that these companies are adopting different tactics and practices to other brands.

“Publishers in many ways are focusing on different areas than brands,” says Linus Gregoriadis of Econsultancy. “The tough financial climate, and with the fact that consumers are expecting great content for free, means that they have to diversify their revenue streams in order to maintain profitability. This has been reflected in recent research, where we found that publishers were in some cases focusing on harder metrics such as incremental revenue, rather than softer indicators such as engagement.”

Publishers become retailers

The research has shown that as retailers are becoming publishers, so publishers are becoming retailers. The recent Specialist Media Insights research among 170 publishers showed that 43% of consumer publishers currently sell physical goods where they hold stock, and a further 11% plan to. 25% sell physical goods on a commission from retail, and 19% plan to. Already 34% sell event tickets and 13% sell digital goods. As yet this is not a significant revenue source, but the intentions are clear. B2B publishers are more focused on events and digital goods: 31% sell event tickets and a further 13% plan to. 34% sell digital goods and a further 33% plan to.

At the Specialist Media Conference, Richard Walker of Future plc shared their experiences of ecommerce in the crafts market. Publishers already have strong audience insight and reach, and good direct marketing skills. By partnering on logistics and customer service, they are well placed to move into ecommerce.

Publishers are also looking to assist brands with lending readership to other companies. Major websites such as Forbes and the Atlantic now regularly partner with brands to offer new ways to engage their audiences. In the next few years, we can expect ‘brand journalism’ to become a more commonly discussed topic, particularly as it becomes harder to cut through the noise and connect with customers in interesting and valuable ways.

“The adage that ‘everyone is now a publisher’ seems to become increasingly a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says Gregoriadis. “But as pre-existing publishers and brands occupy the same channels and media, I think distinctions between the two will become increasingly difficult to define.”

The lines are blurring between the two sectors and there are many best practices to be shared and skills to be learned. If you are a retailer or publisher, the next twelve months should prove interesting times!