The problem with modern publishing: making money.

This article originally appeared on What’s New in Publishing on 8th August 2019.

According to a recent article, the team at LadBible were wrestling with the problem of modern publishing – making money.

So what did they do?

…[We] introduced a first-party data management platform that can monitor who has clicked through on an article, when and from what source. It also stores who they are, and when they return, the publisher can start to piece together a profile on them that’s contextual-based and includes individuals’ purchase intent, so they can offer more interest-based segments as well as track which people are interested in what content in order to send them a related ad within seconds while they’re still on the page. It uses IBM Watson’s natural language processing tech to scan its pages to help build the profiles and determine how best to categorize them.

Source: Digiday

Certainly complicated, undoubtedly sophisticated. But boil it down and it means that LadBible is getting smart about profiling their users. They can work out the ‘purchase intent’ of their users and sell that information to advertisers. Clever stuff, and a hard-won competitive advantage.

There are two problems with it – and they are big ones. 

The first is that it is simply not sustainable. Ad-tech typically struggles to create advantages for long because it’s a brutal world in which the technology race is constantly re-run at breakneck speed.

The second is that it runs counter to a clear trend to protect personal privacy in the digital world.

As a consumer, I’m not sure I am comfortable with being profiled and my purchase intent being worked out, as a condition of reading about someone ending up in hospital because they did 1000 squats.

That feels more than a little spooky. When I read something online it’s just because I want to, not to help someone work out what I want to buy before I know myself (and then advertise it to me).

Consumers don’t like intrusive online advertising anyway. Nor is LadBible Argos or Amazon. People go there to read great content, not to shop.

Other businesses don’t think like that. Starbucks ‘monetises’ its customers by selling them coffee. Aircraft manufacturers ‘monetise’ airlines by selling them planes.

So for publishers, the principal source of future revenue has to be from their content and their consumers, not their advertisers.

That’s not just because the ad game is impossible to win for long. It’s because you should sell what you make to people who value it.

That would involve making a great product that their users wanted and enjoyed.

It would involve drawing attention to it – marketing.

It would involve encouraging and rewarding loyalty and habit.

Most of all, it would involve charging the right price in the right way.

Not via subscriptions. Too expensive, too committed. They work for some, relatively elite, brands but even they can only convert a small proportion of their audience.

If there were options between the extremes of free and subscription, it might be easier to just charge people, casually, for your product.

Then your business would be about finding as many people as you can who are willing to pay a fair price for a great product. The greatness of your product, the appropriateness of your price and the effectiveness of your marketing would be the key success factors. Not the short-term brilliance of your tech.

Being able to charge the right price, and having the right product is key. Big platforms – Google and Facebook and co – wouldn’t then be enemies whose algorithms you spend days trying to game. They would be great partners to help attract attention to your product. It might be as easy as paying for ads, knowing that anyone who responds will be paying you a price you have set.

If it’s so simple, why hasn’t it happened? Because the infrastructure, the common foundation needed to build it, simply doesn’t exist on the internet. It’s not the only missing piece of infrastructure on the internet, and my career has largely focused on identifying these gaps and trying to find solutions for them.

One thing I have learned is that these problems don’t solve themselves spontaneously. Nor do solutions built for a single beneficiary fix the problem for anyone else. The shared capability needed to solve sector-wide problems needs to be delivered so that it can be used by everyone.

In the case of this casual payment problem, that solution needs to provide a foundation for any and every publisher to build great and profitable products, which takse advantage of the internet’s incredible reach and efficiency. Without that common infrastructure for publishers, no network can grow.

The same solution has to deliver for consumers too, of course. As well as being the right price, which might be very low,  it needs to deliver something equally simple – an effortless way to pay. Payment should not be a wall. Being able to use the same method everywhere people go helps deliver that. It works for ordinary money, it works for payments in shops, the internet needs it too.

I have spent the last couple of years stepping forward to meet this challenge and break the paralysis which others occurs when everyone waits for someone else to solve their problem. We have actually built something. 

And, guess what?  It works. The feedback from consumers is hugely positive and the publishers we have launched with so far are all seeing user revenues they never had before.

Solving this also offers new opportunities for all publishers to think differently about how they find their audience.

Where better to suggest something you might like to read or watch next, than where you’re reading or watching something else? Publishers, rather than search and social platforms, have a new opportunity to define the journey you and I take around their products – there is mutual benefit in getting it right.

So, casual payment for media doesn’t just solve an immediate problem for media who can’t win the monetisation game by the current rules. It also empowers their consumers, forces everyone to work harder to earn their spending and demands more investment by publishers, with success rewarded by more revenue.

It works.