The Return Of The Publishing Genius

**Originally published on Marketing Land**

There’s nothing like a white-hot economy, or a white-hot sector, to create marketing geniuses. Notice that there are a lot of well-known social media geniuses these days. The financial service sector seems to have a shortage of them. Which is not to say there are none. It’s my belief that the very smart executives shine in tough times. They may not get the publicity, but the executives that have deep skill sets understand that businesses have cycles. They live and breathe; expand and contract.

So it is with publishing. It’s easy to point to the decline in print ads for 2011. Easy to find doom and gloom in newspaper circulation drops. But for me, a lot of respect is due to the publishing business. Content can be created anywhere and consumed everywhere, so every producer has gone from living comfortably in their offline sandpit, to a fight to the death in a borderless, endless, ocean.   At the same time, they have had to recreate themselves for the digital platforms that change seemingly every minute, and keep their brand intact while they do it. Not easy.

With the digital migration in full-swing, many publishing companies are focused on monetization, and rightfully so. It used to be a very simple equation. Readership = audience. Audience = circulation. Circulation = advertising.  It’s not so simple anymore. Publishers need to figure in premium branding partnerships, page views, conversions, remnant inventory and cross-media package deals. While they’re doing all this, I suggest they return to a basic tenet of the business: the audience.

The Audience Is The Thing

If you view a title as one publication rather than two separate online and offline properties, you come back to audience. It’s not a reader and a viewer and a social follower. It’s one publication and one audience with many interaction points. Within this landscape the audience is a valuable asset. I think too often that publishers need to have a better understanding of how to monetize that audience. Remember, audiences create data. And their partners in the digital area need to have a better understanding of how audience data can be used.

For simplicity’s sake let’s call the audience “readers” even though they may become viewers, searchers, and other iterations. This reader is the source of a tremendous amount of data. They click on ads, share stories that interest them, search for more information about products and services and then, hopefully, take action. They are not simply passing through. They are engaged. The readers of ForbesThe New York TimesVanity FairThe Chicago Tribune andThe Hollywood Reporter are all going there for a reason. Once they get there, the behavior they exhibit and the data they generate is extremely valuable.

Don’t Give It Away

My question here is: why give it away? Why not monetize it? I’m not suggesting that publishers sell their customers like list brokers (very 20th century). But I am suggesting that they leverage their audience data to better serve their readers and monetize customers at the same time.

It’s logical business sense that a publisher’s sales team will focus its efforts on big-ticket direct sales that fill premium positions. Large homepage takeovers and unique creative executions play the largest role in publisher’s revenue. It also makes sense in the current market to use ad networks and exchanges to fill any un-sold inventory.  However, picking who you will allow to sell your unsold inventory can be challenging.

I suggest all vendors be looked at through this lens: Is the person buying from you because (a) they want to re-sell the audience you have gathered, or (b) because they have data that was obtained elsewhere and are looking to see if their target audience happens to be visiting your site.  Avoid the former, it’s cannibalistic in the marketplace.  But data driven media buying — the buying of audiences — is clearly not cannibalistic.  And, like it or not, no publisher has the scale to do this effectively by themselves — so you might as well take the money.

Take A Close Look At Behavior On Your Site 

For the longer term, I would suggest taking a deeper look at reader behavior including searches within a publisher site, what pages and content are engaging audiences most, etc. For example, if a site visitor conducts a search query for “luxury travel,” the publisher may want to consider showing that reader an ad for American Express Premier Rewards Program or perhaps deliver more relevant content related to travel plans, vacation reviews, etc.

Retargeting search queries, display interactions and text ad interactions allows the publisher to increase ad relevancy, while simultaneously increasing the value of their inventory. Publishers can act on that data without giving up revenue. And, while its not going to be the “bread winner” for the publisher’s business model, it’s certainly a step toward owning and monetizing data instead of giving it away. There’s nothing better than multiple revenue streams for a business. Premium ad sales, remnant ad sales that are driven by data, and data sales are all different pieces of the audience puzzle that advertisers are solving for.

I tip my hat to the publishing geniuses that focus on building a strong business during the digital migration. We all know it hasn’t been an easy transition into the digital world. Those that have shifted with the times rely on their greatest assets — the readers. Readers generate data, which creates a promising market for publishers to live and breathe, expand and contract. And better markets, well, they create geniuses.

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