Are Publishers Really Putting Their Audiences First?

By: Peter Houston

What a time to be alive… the people, fresh from taking the U.K. out of Europe, are sending a reality TV star to the White House and the brightest brains of our society didn’t have a clue what was coming up in the elevator.

The worrying part of that for me — outside of my concerns for the future of Western Civilization — is that the pollsters on either side of the Atlantic didn’t come close to understanding what the public were thinking.

If the world’s leading political analysts, awash with data, can’t get close to forecasting an election result, what hope does your average publisher have of figuring out the complexities of a 21st Century reader, their behaviors, and their needs?

And yet the publishing industry’s mantra du jour is ‘Audience First’. How do we put the audience first when we can’t call a two-horse race?

Almost 25-years ago at Medill Journalism School, Professor Abe Peck carefully explained to me how publishing is a three-legged stool: Audience — Revenue — Content. You could put those three elements in any order you wanted, but if they don’t balance, the future for your publishing outfit is going to be wobbly at best.

Since those early Internet days, we’ve come through a succession of ‘First’ strategies in publishing. ‘Digital First’, ‘Content First’, ‘Mobile First’, ‘Social First’ and soon no doubt, we’ll get to ‘Video First’. Right now, the focus seems to be ‘Audience First’ and although audience isn’t the worst ‘First’ of the bunch, it does make me wonder what we’ve been doing all this time to balance the stool.

The fad for flying the ‘Audience First’ flag suggests the audience hasn’t been at the forefront of publishers’ minds for a while. The rise of ad-blocking would certainly support that theory. It’s estimated that in 2016 about 70 million Americans will have used an ad blocker — that’s 10 million more than voted for President Elect Trump’s backlash against the established order.

The popular revolt against banner-based business models has shone a spotlight on cavalier attitudes to audience experience and brought publishers’ focus sharply back to the reader experience. And for the first time in a long time, they are having to consider relevancy over reach as they try desperately to re-constitute reader-pays revenue models.

The fact that publishers are talking enthusiastically about the prioritization of audiences is a positive. But reading some recent ‘Audience First’ announcements reminds me of an old comment from one of the U.K.’s leading publishing cynics who said a few years ago:

“Calling your editors content managers is not a digital strategy.”

Putting an ‘Audience First’ wrapper around your latest corporate policies — from platform shifts to newsroom consolidation — doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re really thinking about what’s best for your audience.

And seeing ‘Audience First’ in the context of identifying, understanding, and meeting some all-encompassing set of information needs, as transatlantic democracy has recently proved, is an impossible task.

Publishers surely need to fix on the specific audience that they are best equipped to serve. Not everyone, just everyone that cares about what they do. Digital publishing platforms deliver us a lot of data but audience insights are not developing as quickly as available data points. As the Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman put it recently, data is just a pile of bricks until someone builds a house. Metrics are only useful if they are used in tandem with behavioral data.

Delivering what’s best for that audience isn’t necessarily about letting them decide what’s best. Publishers should remember the audience has the ultimate control — they can block or not block, pay or not pay, leave or stay. But they also need to remember that audiences have always looked to editors and publishers, and advertisers for that matter, to show them the way in everything from hairstyles to house building. They can’t afford to give up that leadership role.

By just following the behaviours of the crowd, pandering to the lowest common-denominator, publishers are unlikely to recapture the brand-passion that has driven so many publications to become household names in the past. They are even less likely to make reader-pays or engagement-driven business models a sustainable reality.

I’m excited by publishers talking about ‘Audience First’ strategies, putting reader needs front and center in the decision-making process again is real progress. But maybe it’s time to try something more like a ‘Value First’ strategy.

With a ‘Value First’ approach, publishers would consider the value of their content to the audiences they distribute it to. They would spend time thinking about the value of the attention their audiences pay to their content. And they would keep a very close eye on the value that their commercial partners place on their operations.

Unlike every other ‘First’ strategy, a ‘Value First’ approach would draw together the strands of every recent publishing formula (and those still to come) because it focuses on balancing the three core elements of any successful publishing business.

Surely that’s a publishing strategy everyone could vote for.

Author: Peter Houston

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