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Tara Honeywell Media UK

Publishing 2014: 3 brands tackling the digital challenge


By Michael Feeley | Founder and chief exec

May 13, 2014 | 6 min read

by Tara Honeywell, managing director of Mediator.

Tara Honeywell, managing director, Mediator

In 2014, publishers need to distinguish themselves not only from direct competitors but also from a plethora of online platforms where the ‘always on’ consumer has access to a wide range of content whenever and wherever they want.

In recent years, some traditional publishers have been left a bit dazed and confused by the growing demand for content to be provided on an ever-increasing number of platforms – and, in most cases, for free!

Consumer expectations are challenging brand loyalty. Why pay for NME when you can browse Pitchfork and still be in the know? Why buy a CD when most of the devices don’t even have a CD drive anymore and you can listen to your favourite tracks online anyway?

At Mediator, we champion innovation and are always up for new ideas, so we’ve been impressed by a number of publishers who have tackled these challenges head on. Here are three of our favourites:

The FT

The FT was the first publication in the UK to create an online paywall in 2007 by limiting non-subscribers to only eight free articles a month. The challenge of a paywall for a publisher when there is so much free information available online is to prove that their product merits a fee. The FT has done this through an ambitious scheme of investment and innovation to create one of the most dynamic digital publications around.

A notable example of this happened in 2011 when the FT snubbed the Apple App Store as its mobile distributor in favour of the HTML5 format: this was a great example of forward thinking and planning based on the FT anticipating the demand for content being available on mobiles.

The FT’s insight into the importance of mobile proved correct, with 34% of its digital traffic currently coming from mobiles. Furthermore, the faith the FT placed in its own capacity for innovation paid off, by reclaiming their mobile user’s data it has been able to better target content for both subscribers and advertisers. This, says Rob Grimshaw, managing director of, has resulted in the FT’s advertising revenues “growing every single year since we’ve introduced subscription”.

In 2013, a 24hour news stream called FastFT was launched to challenge Twitter’s limited character format by “looking beyond the instant headline with informed comment”.

Gratifyingly, the FT’s bold strategy has been rewarded by a growing loyal subscriber base: digital readership grew by nearly 60% in 2013 to help total readership hit its highest point in the FT’s 126 year history.

Condé Nast

The FT’s position was to a degree unique in that they committed to investing in digital before the financial crash of 2008. For slower moving institutions reacting to digital has been conducted under the confines of a new economic reality described by the CEO of Condé Nast, Charles Townsend, as a “conservatism that is born of this browbeating 60 months of dark and doom and gloom.”

The post-crash landscape for Condé Nast is the same as the vast majority of firms in the modern economy - a tight budget which needs to be intelligently and strategically spent to maximise ROI.

Condé Nast’s answer to the challenge has been to leverage its considerable brand equity in order to work with partners better placed to answer the challenges of digital. Their major partnership with Amazon allows the brand to shift the challenging and expensive responsibility of managing its numerous subscriptions of their glossy publications (such as Vogue, Wired and Vanity Fair) to one of the most dynamic digital companies in the world.

In exchange for access to its technical expertise Amazon won the right to distribute Condé Nast’s publication to its audience of more than 200 million. In this way Amazon is able to add significant value to its digital newsstand, while providing Condé Nast the digital platform it needs without huge development costs.

The result of the partnership has been a considerable improvement in Condé Nast’s digital performance, with digital subscriptions growing across all of its publications and total advertising revenue increasing 28% in 2013.

The Times+

The Times put up its own paywall in 2010, a move which, at the time, was dismissed by Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales as a “foolish experiment” that would not last.

The scepticism was understandable as while the FT provides a niche type of in-depth journalism, the Times reports on popular subjects, covered by numerous similar publications for free. Why not read the Guardian?

The Times answer to this was to create The Times+, an exclusive reward platform for Times subscribers, giving access to events, discounts and third party offers. The platform added relevant value and generated great content.

A great example of how The Times distinguishes its loyalty scheme is its recent partnership with Spotify. The partnership entailed a free year’s subscription to Spotify Premium (worth £120), a deal which was highly relevant to Times digital subscribers who most likely listen to music digitally too.

This combination of both low and high level incentives for subscribers means the cost of subscription is exceeded by the benefit of being a loyal subscriber. The value of the subscription is reflected in the growing number of digital subscribers to the Times, which increased by 20% from 2012 to 2013 and now makes up 25% of the publications total subscriptions.

At Mediator we believe the best way to retain loyal customers and attract new ones is by delivering a superior service or product and tapping into customers passions.

For companies such as the FT, trends can be anticipated and capitalised upon through innovative products with huge appeal to existing and future subscribers. For most publishers, vision in the field of technology isn’t a characteristic which is owned or can be afforded. In these circumstances Condé Nast and The Times are great examples of brands that have successfully leveraged their brand through smart partnerships that work to reduce churn and entice more subscribers on board.

Thumbs up from Mediator!

Tara Honeywell Media UK

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