FIPP and UPM Communication Papers recently published a whitepaper, “Innovation in Publishing” which looks into how publishers are innovating to counter the challenges faced by the industry. The whitepaper states that there are two key trends seen in publishers’ approach to innovation.
According to the authors, “Some businesses continue to incorporate innovation into their entire company culture, while others have established innovation hubs or dedicated innovation teams.”
The authors add, “The companies that are seeing the most success are those that have moved away from ‘chasing innovation for the sake of it,’ towards a more measured, strategic approach.”
Companies are asking, ‘what can we stop doing that is taking up much-needed resources without delivering return on investment, to free up time to pursue one or two things that we know will work for our business and help us thrive in the market?’John Wilpers, Author of the annual FIPP Innovation in Media World Report
And that’s important because though innovation has been at the heart of publishers’ ability to navigate through disruptions, it can also be an alluring trap. In fact, a Reuters’ report, published late last year, warned of the dangers of over-innovation.
The report was based on a year-long study in which 39 journalism innovators from 17 countries participated. The participants agreed about the need for innovation in the news industry. But also feared that the relentless pursuit of technology-driven innovation could be almost as dangerous as stagnation.
“What is the point of this innovation?”
Lucy Kueng, Strategic Advisor and Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute of Journalism says, “There’s no doubt that some in the media industry were justifiably anxious about the industry and their organizations, and they just thought ‘we must do something’ – anything is better than not moving.
“But the risk with that is that you end up with a plethora of initiatives, some of which have really unclear objectives, eating up resources, eating up mind space and weakening strategic focus. In this way, innovation can end up damaging rather than improving the organization.”
According to Kueng, two things need to happen, “Firstly, reflection up front is key – asking yourself ‘why the hell are we doing this and what is the point of this innovation?’ It can simply be to experiment and learn, that’s entirely valid, but if that’s the case, make sure that is clear and that expectations are realistic.
“Second, ensure you do some structured reflection and evaluation on what has been learned. Often there are really valuable insights on cultural barriers to change inside the organization as well as learnings on the market or technology. It’s important to capture these too.”
“Innovation in Publishing” in publishing covers two publishers that are taking a carefully considered approach to innovation and reaping the benefits. They include global player Meredith and leading Swedish publisher Mittmedia.
“Driven by user behavior”
Mittmedia recently got the Best New Corporate Innovation Initiative Award at the INMA Global Media Awards for its ‘Data Platform as a Platform of Innovation’ project.
According to its Chief Digital Officer Robin Govik, innovation at Mittmedia is driven by user behavior. He says, “While we operate in a competitive market – where there is a lot of disruption and a rapid pace of change – the drive to innovate comes from the end-user experience rather than from trying to protect our position. We look at the users’ needs and their behavioral shifts and use those as the basis for innovation.”
The company has been quite successful in its experiments with robot journalism and paywall strategies. Automated content helped it publish nearly 480 articles per week on home sales. Between 2017 and 2018, it published about 34,000 articles.
What’s more, they even helped bring in a thousand paying subscribers. And the introduction of a ‘timewall’—which entailed keeping all content free for the first hour and then putting it behind a paywall—helped it increase conversions by 20%.
Mittmedia hit upon this strategy after finding that average page views for articles peak approximately an hour after they’ve published. It also found that most articles have the majority of their traffic after the peak.
The publisher’s automated content strategy was driven by the finding that real estate articles were very popular with its readers. This led to the goal of publishing reports about every property sold locally.
But it wouldn’t have made sense for its reporters to do that, so they embarked on automating the process. The publisher did not share revenues, but it has 140,000 digital and print subscribers a figure that has doubled since the beginning of 2017.
According to Govik, for Mittmedia the best approach to innovate is to have a clear path or goal and to let the teams know that everyone is expected to innovate. There is no specific department to look after innovation at the firm. It is part of development teams’ daily work.
At the same time, he also emphasizes the importance of having the right infrastructure to innovate upon. At Mittmedia that infrastructure is provided by its data platform.
Govik says, investing in building the data platform to support all innovation was a significant move for the publisher. He calls it the “foundation of all our innovation.”
He adds that innovation at Mittmedia is not always about shiny, new things. On the contrary, the publisher focuses on a higher number of smaller things, trying to figure out how to do them more cleverly and effectively.
“It’s the iterative approach rather than the ‘big project’ approach, where we won’t see our return on investment for three years. We need a return on investment almost immediately. You still have to have the infrastructure in place – but not every innovation has to be a massive investment,” he comments.
The success of an innovation project isn’t always just about the end outcome or indeed the final result. You can learn valuable lessons along the way and achieve things that, although they were not really the final objective, still help your business grow and improve. That’s a cultural thing as well.Robin Govik, Chief Digital Officer at Mittmedia
Identifying new engagement points
Unlike Mittmedia, Meredith has a dedicated innovation division called the Meredith Innovation Group. It comprises three new units—Meredith Product Studio, Meredith Voice Network, and Meredith Smart Codes.
The group works at identifying new engagement points for audiences and advertisers. The goal of the group is to boost Meredith’s e-commerce and product development platforms.
Meredith Product Studio uses the publisher’s first-party data and insights, and editorial expertise in various consumer verticals to help brand partners design, develop, market and sell direct-to-consumer products.
Meredith Voice Network converts editorial articles into audio for advertisers. They are then distributed on Meredith sites, social media and podcast platforms, and smart speakers.
Its also developing a range of AI-powered voice “skills” (for Amazon Alexa applications) and “actions” (for Google Assistant applications). These will enable consumers to access Meredith content through smart speakers.
Meredith Smart Codes is developing QR code technology that readers can use to scan Meredith’s print magazine pages with their smartphones and connect to a range of digital experiences. It will also provide opportunities for advertisers.
The innovation group was launched earlier this year and it will be sometime before we get to know how it has performed. But it’s an example of a planned approach that other publishers may consider taking to innovate effectively.
“Getting the culture to be more innovative”
According to Kueng, innovation in organizations is as much an issue of culture as it is of inspiration. She says, “Getting the culture to be more innovative is very hard and you’ve really got to address some of the very tough sinews across the organization.
“Trials, experiments, and piloting can really help, especially if there is an open sharing of findings and even more so if those involved are seen to have benefitted from their involvement – in terms of their credibility inside the organization or profile outside it.
“That can send a powerful message to the wider organization that innovation and change are positive things. But changing the cultural DNA of an organization takes time. It’s always worth trying to do but it always takes longer than you think.”
She adds, “A lot of organizations have an awful lot of creativity in the middle and lower layers that is having a problem finding a voice. So part of the challenge is to cut the sinews and put systems and structures in place so that talent can deliver what it can. Strategic projects and teams are perfect for this. They also help bind that talent to the organization.”
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