24 March 2015

Four themes shaping the future for digital first publishers

Publishing, like many industries, is undergoing a shift from traditional media to digital. Young publishing brands are emerging in a digital-first environment, built for purpose and ready to embrace the digital channels their customers do. Established publishers are finding that their hard-earned positions as trusted brands are being undermined by lack of visibility and availability, while being held-back by ways of working that are not tailored to the challenges and opportunities of digital channels.

Four themes highlight a number of trends that are shaping consumer expectations for consuming content, discovering products and making online purchases - particularly when on devices like smartphones that enrich their daily lives.

Reaching customers

An increasing landscape of devices and channels

Customers are using increasingly varied devices and channels to discover and consume content. From laptops, to smartphones, to smart watches - brand messages are appearing on different screens and in different contexts. This makes it harder to reach customers with a consistent message and voice across the different screens, activities and environments where customers access digital content.

Customers don’t differentiate between brand experiences on different devices, or at different touchpoints - whether it’s in-store or online or on the phone with customer service, any failure to meet expectations will be perceived as a failure of the brand as a whole. If any of these experiences let customers down, they’ll go to a competitor with higher perceived value.

With customers demanding relevant and rewarding experiences across devices and contexts, publishers need to be accessible and available everywhere. Customers want to find inspiration, access information and make purchases wherever they are and whatever they’re doing. Responsive web design ensures that publishers’ own websites are delightful, regardless of where they appear.

Intermediation of sales and customer data

Marketing, sales and product discovery are often mediated to third parties such as Amazon for sales, or discovery services such as Goodreads (an Amazon company). This puts those third parties at the heart of customer interactions, and gives them the best opportunities for developing customer relationships and learning from customer behaviour.

Because of the intermediation of sales, publishers have limited visibility to their customers and rely on third parties to deliver purchase and support experiences. Building trust and customer loyalty depends on having control of your relationship with customers so you can guarantee the best possible experience.

By embracing the themes and subject matter of their publications, publishers can become destinations for content, discussion, and unique experiences that place them as the first stop for potential customers. Inviting customers to engage with brands gathered around the content they love, publishers can develop a voice of their own with communications and marketing, build trust and loyalty by demonstrating expertise and quality, and aid product discovery by exposing potential customers to the themes and subject matter of their publications.

Help customers discover products

Helping customers discover your products is a major challenge for any business. Many publishers are embracing new mediums to engage with customers beyond traditional marketing - such as display advertising - including social media, native advertising, and curated content experiences.

Social media is driven by bite-sized, easy to consume content. While publishers are traditionally structured towards creating long-form content that is commissioned and then, after a long creative and editorial process, emerges as a finished product. This creates a disconnect between the editors and authors that create the products publishers release, and their audience.

Formatting content with the many roles it will need to perform in mind will help it to better fit into the contexts where modern consumers discover products. Posts on Facebook and Twitter, snippets in Google summaries, images on Pinterest or Instagram, mentions in Tumblr posts, or notifications on your phone or watch, all play important roles in product discovery and each have unique content considerations. Publishers need to consider these contexts when commissioning content and developing relationships with editors, authors and artists.

Beyond formatting for content discovery, some publishers are experimenting with diversifying into new forms of content. Combining books, films and games into new narrative experiences that span media such as video, mobile, games and non-linear digital experiences. Narratives that bridge traditional, digital and emerging media have yet to come together into an established format, but offer enhanced availability to customers across media and their daily activities - and could even open doors to new products or revenue streams.

Extending products into digital experiences

Books are desirable objects, bring them to life online

Physical books are an experiential product - many readers we’ve spoken with enjoy the physicality of real books, but prefer eBooks for convenience.

Authors like Seth Godin have given away their eBooks for free, but sold their physical books at a premium - and sold them in large quantities. This goes to show that people are willing to pay a premium for the tangible experiences books offer.

Books and magazines, as cultural objects, are valuable experiences in their own right, and should be celebrated through digital experiences that reinforce this. Remind customers of this by delivering rich digital experiences that reinforce the desirability of books as physical objects and experiences. Indulgent digital experiences should celebrate books as objects that are unique, expressive and personally relevant.

Translate books into digital experiences

PricewaterhouseCoopers predicts that eBook sales are set to outpace physical books in the US and UK by 2018. This is largely due to the rise in adoption of eBook readers and mobile devices combined with the demand for fast-moving titles and genre fiction.

"We can now reach a worldwide market 24 hours a day, seven days a week – everywhere there is mobile telephony and credit card usage. It has hugely opened up the market for us beyond that which could be reached only by bookshops. We live in golden age of reading, where more recent works are consumed than at any time in history through digital delivery." - Nigel Newton, chief executive of Bloomsbury (See source article here)

Moving beyond ‘print replica’ is the only way to accommodate the variety and convenience of digital devices and channels - simply replicating print products and the working process that created them won’t translate into content suitable for the way customers use different digital channels. The solution is to embrace a variety of content formats and change the way content is commissioned and created to embrace how customers engage with content in media like web, mobile, video and social.

MoMA’s Picasso: The Making of Cubism 1912–1914 app did more than just replicate the book. It enhances content, allowing users to dig deeper into artworks with additional content like x-rays and more.

Build books into digital services

Books are the product of expertise, inspiration and well crafted communication. These qualities are well suited to be extrapolated into rich digital experiences, tools and services that extend the purpose, content and usefulness of books - while creating new revenue streams for publishers.

A great example of this is Phaidon’s ‘Where Chefs Eat.’ The physical book is a wonderful object.  Well crafted and styled throughout, it looks as much at home in a high street fashion store as it does on a bookshelf at home (fashion and lifestyle retailers Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters both sell the book). In the digital sphere, Phaidon has transformed this book into a different animal. Leveraging geo-data and location awareness, the ‘Where Chefs Eat’ app turns the book into a tool to help customers discover restaurants near by.

Driving and supporting sales

The best online retailers offer personalised services

The most successful online retailers have, for a long time now, enhanced their offering to customers with personalised product recommendations and targeted messaging tailored to individuals tastes and behaviours. Whether it’s a personal scrapbook for customers to collect their favourite content (like the Channel 4 scrapbook) or a fully automated recommendation engine (such as on Amazon’s homepage), personalised messaging surfaces content that users would have otherwise had to hunt for.

Without access to information about customer behaviours, tastes and opinions, publishers cannot deliver the personalised discovery and purchase experiences customers now expect.

To create those personal experiences, publishers need to own their conversations and interactions with customers throughout all of their customer touchpoints. Recommendation engines, personalised search results, tailored messaging and notifications. Bringing relevant content to customers will reduce barriers to product discovery and improve the likelihood of sales.

Readers connect with personalities

Content creators like the Guardian, the New York Times and the BBC have encouraged engagement by creating platforms for their personalities. Authors are increasingly empowered to create their own audiences. And are already connecting with them through blogs and social channels.

Becoming a platform for authors and content creators creates a wealth of content to attract potential customers through social media and natural search. It also allows authors to connect directly with their audiences, fostering an engaged community around their products and offering opportunities to test ideas.

Leverage authors, and their expertise and passion, to attract customers, engage them in subject matter, and cross-sell products. Celebrate authors by facilitating a connection with their audiences.

Customers discover products through content

The way people discover and consume digital content is changing. Search giants like Google, Bing and Yahoo! help their users find specific content they are looking for - using the content itself as a cue to the relevance to individual searches. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest help their users discover new content through recommendations from friends and serendipitous algorithmic wizardry.

People share content they find entertaining, interesting and meaningful - and when they share it, it spreads. Search engines like Google find content and judge its’ relevance based on its’ quality, meaning and social recommendations.

Publishers need to improve the odds of customers discovering products by creating content that celebrates them. Taschen’s free quarterly magazine supports their products by indulging in their subject matter and introducing the themes and subject matter covered to customers - aiding discovery. They do this with unique content, striking images and visual design that communicates clearly and entices the viewer.

Enabling customer lifestyles

Books are lifestyle objects, digital services enable customer's lifestyles

In the context of history, books have transformed societies and spread valuable knowledge almost since their inception. But on a personal level, books are deeply emotional and expressive objects. The books that change your outlook on life and that you choose to bring into your home are expressions of who you are.

Publishers are uniquely positioned to become lifestyle enablers. As cultural gatekeepers, publishers provide their customers with content and cultural experiences that resonate with them at very personal and emotional levels. In this way, publishers are enabling their customers’ self-expression, and helping them to build the things they love into their lifestyles. Digital is by it’s nature an enabling medium. By reframing their relationships with customers as enablers of their lifestyle, publishers can build deeper, more meaningful relationships with customers and open new opportunities for products and services.


Digital services can benefit customers throughout the whole customer journey. For publishers this includes every part of the book experience, from discovery to purchase to reading and after-sales support. Digital services in publishing can play an important role in developing relationships between customers, the subject matter and the authors of content, positioning publishing brands as facilitators and lifestyle enablers. There’s more to being a digital-first publisher than just content and marketing - digital services can position publishing brands at the centre of customer’s cultural experiences.