Online Experience for Publishers: Innovate or Die

We need an experience revolution.Revolution Fist

Each week, we hear of major publications and traditional broadcasters who are struggling to stay afloat in a digital age with new economics and new expectations.  Despite the promise of interactivity made with the internet revolution over the last 15 years, most publishers have done little more than replicate dead trees online, with zero innovation beyond the hyperlink, the slideshow, and an embedded video now and then.

And yet we can see from the rising successes of the last decade like Facebook, Google, Zynga, YouTube, and others that what catches audience attention is interactivity.

To earn loyal audiences today, publishers need to go beyond content creation:  they need to produce compelling experiences that distinguish them and get the consumer coming back for more.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded that “when asked whether they have a favorite online news source, the majority of online news users (65%) say they do not.”  In an era where the consumer’s cost to switch is the flick of a click, publishers must offer compelling, differentiated experiences to earn loyalty.  Choices abound consumers:  there are scads of publishers online in every category; content suggestions offered constantly via social networks; and blue links proffered by search engines dozens of times per day per reader.  In an environment of choice, as brand experts have known for years, nothing builds loyalty like a great experience.

And now is the perfect time to create those breakthrough experiences.  The enabling technologies for the digital customer experience have improved considerably in recent years: we now have ubiquitous broadband, flash and other streaming video, plus HTML5 and maturing mobile application platforms.   Add to that personalization, targeting and social graph access, and there are some amazing opportunities to innovate.

It’s not just consumers that are thirsty for upgraded experiences.  Advertisers are showing that they will pay more for immersive interaction over basic display ads next to text.   Video ads during full TV episodes on, Hulu, and others, or mid-day live sporting broadcasts command many times the CPM of typical display ads. Indeed, according to Michael Learmonth at AdAge, The Wall Street Journal’s online video content is bringing in envy-inspiring CPMs at $75 – $100.

But video is not the only way to create an immersive customer experience online.  Online sites of traditional publishers like Better Homes and Gardens are experience train wrecks (to be fair, they’re not alone in that regard).   Contrast that with the much more successful (certainly from an ad rate perspective) which has many of the same elements – a top stories slideshow, cross-promotions for the print magazine, etc., and it’s a substantially better experience due to the focus on design and usability that is expected of the Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO) brand.

Even still, much more can be done with today’s technology to put the consumer’s needs and interests first.  The latest example I’ve seen of true creativity in user experience design is Microsoft’s (MSFT) Glo.    There are additional signs of greatness in the tablet demo that Time Warner (TWX) built for its Sports Illustrated brand.   And The New York Times (NYT) continues to excel in their applications and interactive graphics which enjoy significant pass around ( shows over 5,000 social media clicks to a recent budget infographic and today’s “A Moment in Time” project has already generated over 100 tweets in the first 15 hours).  But too few companies are making similar efforts to distinguish themselves.  The opportunities are there, and we need to step up.

Consumers will decide which brands deserve their loyalty and content alone won’t cut it.  We are on the brink of a total revolution of experience.  For publishers, it’s reinvent or fail.

Do you know additional examples of publishers innovating?

5 thoughts on “Online Experience for Publishers: Innovate or Die

  1. Ben, couldn't agree more with the spirit of this article. Unfortunately, management at most newspapers is too locked into saving their newspaper instead of saving their brands. I like a lot of what John Paton is doing with his BenFranklin project at Journal Register ( Islands magazine from the Bonnier Group is thinking beyond the print magazine and leveraging their brand digitally in cool ways – wallpapers, island finders etc. Both those brands are definitely thinking about their audience and starting from there. Some of these organizations with 100+ year histories have a harder time moving away from what they've been doing for so long and how they've been doing it. They talk about innovation, but never pull the trigger. I find myself often referencing Theodore Levitt's “Marketing Myopia,” published in the Harvard Business Review in 1960. In this paper he chronicles the demise of the once mighty railroad companies who dominated the early part of the last century, but were insignificant by the 1950s because they didn't evolve with the times. They sold themselves as a railroad company and not a transportation company. In contrast, the oil companies started selling themselves as energy companies instead of just petroleum and flourished. Newspapers find themselves in the same position now. Like you said, innovate or die.

    • Thanks for pointing out those sites. As you suggest, we're at a critical point in the history of publishing: the opportunities are there for those who can embrace change.

  2. It is great to see some of these examples of visual and UI innovation, but I'd also like to see more innovation in the space of personalization, community, and providing of applications. With the technologies we have today, it's easier than ever to provide experiences that are customizable and personalized, and publishers who adopt this mindset — even if their content presentation alone doesn't change — can win very loyal users, perhaps more loyal than sites that invest heavily in eye-candy.

    • I absolutely agree that personalization and social connectivity are missed opportunities right now for media companies. The world is moving too quickly to be 3 years behind the times.

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