More Profitable Online Publishing

Publishing’s strength has shifted from the media elite to the masses. It began in the late ’90s with sites like GeoCities. In 2005, we witnessed the explosive emergence of the blogosphere. And in 2006, video and social Web sites drew the attention.

Today, anyone with a browser and a digital camera can be a publisher.

This is hardly a groundbreaking revelation, but as our digital society evolves, publishers find themselves in seemingly new territory and asking new questions. One question from a friend who works for a major publisher got us thinking about the differences between merchandising and journalism:

In journalism, what’s the sales transaction?

To be a profitable journalist and publisher in today’s climate means overcoming the same hurdles as your counterparts in merchandising and marketing. It’s all about earning trust, credibility, interest, usability, and relevance. Just because you aren’t peddling a shiny new product or service doesn’t mean you don’t have to persuade. A sale certainly does take place.

The best way to think about the journalism sales transaction is to break it down into four significantly overlapping categories: journalist to reader, publisher to reader, publisher to advertiser, and advertiser to reader.

If you were to look at this as a Venn diagram (define), the overlap would be visible.

  • Journalist to reader. This transaction’s essence is the readers’ trust in the integrity of the viewpoint and credibility of the information, and sometimes of the journalist. Credibility keeps readers engaged in the content. Credibility can stem from the publisher’s brand, a personality, or the content’s reliability. Trust isn’t sufficient, however, unless there’s also interest.

  • Publisher to reader. This transaction’s essence is interest. Interest is what prompts readers to keep reading this edition and the next and prompts them to explore other topics in the same publication. The reader also trusts that advertisements will be relevant within the context of their interest in the publication and that the publisher vets advertisers’ integrity.
  • Publisher to advertiser. In this transaction, advertisers must trust that the publisher knows how to attract and hold reader interest. They also trust the publisher will market and distribute the publication and will help advertisers understand what’s relevant to their readership.
  • Advertiser to reader. Relevance lies at the heart of this relationship. The reader’s relationship with the publication is critical. The reader hopes ads will be an extension of the content. When the content and ads are in sync, the affinity the reader feels for the product or service increases.

A fifth category may be journalist to publisher. This relationship’s significance has grown parallel to the usability of the tools the average joe needs to publish. GeoCities made it easy to put up a Web site, YouTube made it easy to upload videos, and Flickr made it easy to upload photos. These publishers rely on the content amateurs post to build traffic and attract new “journalists.” Although a successful relationship is largely about usability and viral popularity, publishers will soon have to better serve everyman journalists and maintain the relationship by providing differentiating benefits.

Bottom line: Journalist, publishers, and readers aren’t all that different from sellers, advertisers, and buyers. They’re all people with needs, motivations, and preferences. They’re people who must be persuaded to take action. The same basic issues permeate product, service, and journalistic transactions. Understanding this, along with planning persuasion scenarios, is the key to more profitable online publishing.

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