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Digitalisation: 6 Principles Publishers Should Follow to Thrive in a Digital Era

Timo Lamour

Timo Lamour

Principles publishers should follow to thrive in a digital era

Nobody in English publishing houses is eagerly awaiting the latest ABC figures. Rather a certain tension prevails, because as it’s well known, the most important metrics have only gone in one direction for years. 

I am firmly convinced that those who can see digitalisation as a challenge rather than a problem will stop the economic downward trend. 

Those who are courageous enough not to see digitalisation as a danger, but rather as an opportunity and derive the right principles from it, have things firmly under control. Especially in an environment that is still strongly characterised by adherence to the status quo.

In the following sections, I offer you six principles that help publishers take full advantage of the opportunities provided by digitalisation:

  1. Reader focus as top priority
  2. Multichannel is the key
  3. Find your niche
  4. Content matters most
  5. Quality costs money
  6. Know your users!

1 Reader focus as top priority

Learning from Amazon means learning to win. The company places its customers at the centre of all its efforts. Smooth ordering processes, individualised customer approach through product recommendations and newsletters, goodwill after the purchase. Amazon constantly analyses the data of its customers and adapts content to their preferences.

And with very good reasons. Because the loyal customer who has remained faithful to his bank, insurance company or newspaper for many years no longer exists. 

Why? The answer is quite simple. Competitive offers are often a mouse click or fingertip away. The reader needs reasons to come back and wants to be convinced every day.

In this context, publishers like to refer to the outstanding quality of the journalistic offering. But that should no longer be enough. Talk of quality journalism dates back to a time when the publishing industry wanted to differentiate itself from blogs and other news sources. 

In the meantime, readers likely assume that online work is just as carefully sourced and also of very high quality.

What counts particularly in digital times is a clear focus on a target group whose wishes and expectations must be addressed. Personalisation is the leverage here

The best offer is the one that the reader thinks was made especially for them. The digital tools offer the possibilities with which a 1:1 communication with the reader can be achieved. Each reader thus becomes his or her own editor-in-chief.

Personalisation is key to digitalisation

The basis for achieving this goal is to offer precise target groups and a clear thematic focus. New technical options then build on this. 

Figures and analysis are becoming even more important for publishers. Did the reader like an article? Then draw conclusions and offer relevant additional content. 

Systems based on machine learning can further refine the results. In the end it is there again, the bond between medium and user.

2 Multichannel is the key

Users’ media consumption is fragmented. They read, watch videos or listen to podcasts. At first glance, the diversity of genres and channels seems to be an obstacle on the way to a digital strategy. 

De facto, however, it offers you more journalistic freedom.

Instead of long tutorials, a video clip makes users feel more informed. And a podcast better conveys the mood during an interview or debate. So far so clear.

Publishers have to adapt to these changed usage habits. Dr. Ruth Betz, responsible for digital transformation at Funke Mediengruppe, put it this way in the IJNotes podcast: “We no longer think in devices. We think in users now.” 

In this context, it plays less of a role whether the focus of the media house is on a full range or on the digital world. Multichannel corresponds to the zeitgeist and behaviour of consumers. 

This applies to retail, banking and journalism, too. For a multichannel approach, creativity and experimentation are required. And a technical solution that simplifies the implementation of ideas.

3 Find your niche

Whoever wants to publish in high quality for “all” about “everything” has a hard time. At this point, let me once again resort to an analogy with the commerce industry. 

Next to Amazon, there are quite some successful online shops that are in the black. Now, I’ve got a question for you: What one thing do they all have in common? They are highly specialised.

Every publishing house has to find its own niche of specialisation. This can be the hyperlocal or a specialist topic for example. 

As a medium, you have to provide the user with a reason every day to obtain information from you and not elsewhere. This could be because you offer the best industry news, or tips and advice that aren’t available elsewhere, or because you classify facts and trends in a particularly understandable way.

A great example of reader focus, data analysis and specialisation is the flagship among media houses, the New York Times

This publisher determines the user’s location in order to offer the reader relevant news and articles. They’ve got, for instance, special subscriptions for puzzle fans. 

New York Times personalised crossword subscription

And, a very crucial point as well, the editors keep close personal contact with readers through social media. Their users are regularly asked what they are interested in. This gives customers the impression that the publisher is producing a medium that takes their wishes seriously. 

Skeptics like to argue that the market in the USA is larger, which is why it is pointless to compare the digital revenues of the New York Times with those of European publishers. But the NYT doesn’t just publish thematically, it really puts the reader at the centre of its work. Modern and data-driven.

4 Content matters most

Unfortunately, when it comes to digitalisation publishing houses are often their own worst enemy and make the same avoidable mistakes over and over again.

Error number 1: Page views as the main goal

In January 1996, a certain Bill Gates wrote in a highly acclaimed essay: “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet, just as it was in broadcasting.” Mind you that was in 1996.

If you don’t keep the promise “Content is King” in your strategy, you might be happy about high page views. 

However, this does not contribute to the sustainable development of a readership. On the contrary, a look at the statistics probably shows a high bounce rate.

This also happens when a simple list article is distributed to various subpages in the form of a lengthy series of pictures. This does improve the statistics, but wastes the time of the users.

The term clickbait has also long been around publishing houses. Perhaps not every user knows its exact meaning yet, but probably at least the mechanism of generating clicks behind it.

Error number 2: Incorrect production strategy 

In many houses there is still a clear orientation, which is either “Online First” or “Print First”. This no longer does justice to the actual user behaviour. 

Whoever pushes this strategy further risks alienating one half of their audience or readership. If, for example, the energy flows exclusively into the online presence, only a few resources remain to deliver longer analyses in print or content that did not exist online. The same applies vice versa.

It is therefore essential that content production focuses on a system that allows employees to concentrate on the content without burdening them with too much technology. 

Media-neutral production offers the freedom to publish content on the most appropriate channels.

By the way with our Multichannel Publishing Hub, it is child’s play to create structured and media-neutral content. Learn more here.

5 Quality costs money

The majority of publishers in Europe started to offer digital content when the Internet was just about to become a mass phenomenon. 

Content migrated to the Internet free of charge, primarily due to the lack of technical billing systems and the strategic goal of building up reach. This went well until sales revenues from the print sector went down.

It would be wrong to believe that readers are not prepared to pay for digital content. Netflix and Spotify have millions of consumers worldwide who only get access to movies and music for a monthly fee. 

Also, the claim that paywalls cannot work in Europe is wrong. This is shown again and again by the success of supra-regional media and specialist offers. 

Whether a single access, such as with LaterPay, a monthly subscription, a combination of different approaches or an innovative dynamic paywall such as the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Wall Street Journal already use. Every publishing house has to find out step by step how to achieve its own success

New York Times Freemium Paywall Model

Those who focus on their readers and offer distinctive value are literally more valuable to them.

Digitalisation also offers an additional option for tapping new sources of revenue. For example, in which new formats are developed. Digital content is more agile, developments can be brought to market and tested much faster than was conceivable in straight print times.

Thematic newsletters, which regularly provide subscribers with in-depth information on a special topic, are a great example. Recent news distributed to users via messenger is another example.

I’m convinced that every publisher has a potentially huge treasure that just needs to be realised. Because with every user interaction, the publisher gains data. Information that can be used to develop target group-specific forms of advertising, among other things. That is: creativity, lateral thinking and innovative business development wins.

6 Know your users!

Data forms the core of digitalisation. Digital business models are inconceivable without data analysis. 

In order to define your target group, you first have to know who it is. In many publishers, however, this information slumbers in different data silos.

This is why publishers need systems that breakup such silos and analyse the information using modern technologies such as artificial intelligence. In this context, Ranga Yogeshwar recently attracted a lot of attention with the statement: “Europe is still asleep”.

Data analysis requires effort, especially at the beginning, and sometimes unpopular decisions are imperative. If, for example, it turns out that the IT of a certain publishing house, which has grown over decades, is no longer up to modern requirements. 

This is underlined by the low Competence Score in the area of Customer Analysis in a recent survey by BrandLab.

Tech Competence survey by BrandLab

However, it is worthwhile to use machine-supported analysis, because it’s not only faster, but it also opens up new perspectives. For example, you gain access to user segments that would otherwise remain undetected.

The user leaves a lot of information behind with each retrieval of a contribution, with each click and each app visit. This all reveals something about his preferences and their current interest. 

Also, if it is possible to react in real time by re-sorting and grouping content, the relevance of the medium for the user will be greatly increased. Artificial intelligence is the driver here for a greater personalisation of the offer.

Finally, I would like to conclude this section with what I think is a very fitting quote from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella: “Every company is a software company. You have to start thinking and acting like a digital company. It’s no longer just about procuring and delivering a solution. It’s not just about a simple software solution. It’s about thinking about your own future as a digital business.”


The Internet and with it the digitalisation will not simply disappear again. This is how it is with radical progress in history. 

British publishers are still in the midst of disruptive change. Of course, this does not only affect the publishing and media industry. With a few exceptions, almost everyone is affected. The challenges are the same. 

In the meantime, there are many positive examples and promising approaches that are encouraging. Inventiveness and a high standard of content coupled with modern technology are guaranteed to reward those companies that face the challenges optimistically.

And one last remark: If your company still has employees with the job title “digital”, you are very likely not yet a digital company.

Do you have any other ideas regarding the challenge of digitalisation? We would love to hear them. Just write us on LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter.

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