When it comes to cracking the digital media code, 2011 involved more testing than learning. Media companies seem to be locked in a feverish search mode. Their sense of urgency is reinforced by the continuous depletion of worldwide fundamentals: digital advertising’s encephalogram remains flat (at best); and when audiences grow, revenues do not necessarily correlate. As for legacy media such as large quality newspapers which still draw 70-80% of their revenue from print, they are still caught in a double jeopardy: losing circulation plus looming downward price pressure on ads. We see an unforgiving mechanism at work: on mature markets such as Europe or North America, print media currently absorbs about 25% of ad spending while time spent on newspapers falls well below 10%. On digital media the balance is just the opposite: the web takes roughly 20% of ad investments for 25% of time spent; as for mobile devices, there is almost no ad money spent (<1%), but people spend about 10% of their time on their smartphones — and the growth is exponential.

Last year, we saw many efforts in the “right” direction—”right” being a rapidly redefined. Below is a subjective list of moves, trends, innovations, attempts that burgeoned in 2011 and are likely to become more sharply defined with this coming year.

#1 Paid-for news. Many are trying, but no one has cracked the code—yet. Part of the problem is we are in a model that’s just the opposite of one-size-fits-all. We are likely to witness the emergence of many different ways of charging readers for quality content. Variables in the equation are many and sometimes hard to quantify:

- National vs. local
- General news vs. specialized
- Typologies of contents
- Most Likely Prime time reading
- Most Likely Prime device use
- Target group structure.

Go figure a reliable business model with a so many factors in the formula…

Paywalls come in different flavors. The prize for complexity goes for the New York Times’ Digital Subscription Plan launched March 17. According to the Times, its crystal-clear equation can be summed-up as follow:

Once readers click on their 21st [in a 4 weeks period], they will have the option of buying one of three digital news packages — $15 every four weeks for access to the Web site and a mobile phone app (or $195 for a full year), $20 for Web access and an iPad app ($260 a year) or $35 for an all-access plan ($455 a year). All subscribers who take home delivery of the paper will have free and unlimited access across all Times digital platforms except, for now, e-readers like the Amazon Kindle and the Barnes & Noble Nook.

Weirdly enough, this overly complex and pricey scheme seems to work: by the end of Q3, the Times had harvested 324,000 paid digital subscribers. This has to be viewed in the context of a site getting 47 million Unique Visitors per month on average, and 33 million in the US alone. As for mobile access, 11 million iPhones apps and 3 million iPads have been downloaded.

To watch in 2012: how fast the NYT will recruit new paid digital subscribers. To get a good view of the key elements in NYT’s digital revenues, see Ken Doctor’s analysis in Newsonomics. Plus, after the sudden resignation of its CEO (Janet Robinson), the NYT might be entering a new era; she could be replaced by a predominantly digital person.

#2 The Web App Movement. The boldest move of the year was made by The Financial Times: in June, it unveiled a web app for iPad and iPhone, independent of Apple’s closed ecosystem. Among its many advantages, the web app allows the FT.com to foster a close relationship with all its customers. In five months, the FT.com has collected over 250,000 paying digital subscribers. Its entire digital operations now accounts for 30% of its revenue. (More on the FT.com’s economics in this PaidContent story.)

To watch in 2012: The outlook seems quite good for the FT.com. Its marketing division is working hard to tap into a huge database of 4 million registered users, including 1 million for the independent web app, half of them putting it on the home screen of their device.

#3 The Apple’s Newsstand is another item of the 2012 watch list. The project responded to publishers’ wish to see their prestigious titles rise over the crowd of garage apps, and to be able to propose long term subscription plans. In October, Apple came up with its digital kiosk, which is essentially a shortcut for publishers apps displayed in a wooden shelf. For good measure, Apple added an exclusive feature: automated downloading. In short, it is a success for magazines who register massive hikes in their digital sales, but much less so for dailies which remain a bit shy. (We been through this in a previous Monday Note)

==> To watch in 2012: the key issue for a massive move to Apple’s Newsstand remains customer data. Either Apple and the publishers will be able to work out a scheme in which about 70% of the customers will agree to provide their coordinates (see Apple’s Newsstand: Wait for 2.0), or the independent web app movement (FT.com-like) is likely to gain traction.

#4 The switch to Digital Editions, as opposed to dumb PDF, might play a critical role in the development of tangible revenue for the industry. Here, I spoke highly of great examples of tablet-specific applications such as BloombergBusinessWeek+ or the Guardian’s iPad version.

To watch in 2012: the adoption of Digital Editions will depend on three factors: 1) The publisher’s willingness to invest significantly on projects not profitable in the short-term, 2) The advertising community’s ability to understand that digital editions will bring their clients much higher benefits than PDF versions or even web sites will do, 3) The acceptance by various Audit Bureaus of Circulation that reader engagement is incomparably higher for designed-for-tablets editions (for more on the subject, read our recent column Unaccounted For Readers.) If these three items are checked, 2012 is likely to be The Year of Digital Editions.

#5 The Huffington Post contagion. Its acquisition by AOL for $315m has propelled the HuffPo to new highs. The content—largely based on unabashed aggregation and legions of unpaid bloggers—remains mediocre, but no ones really seems to care. As in the pre-bubble era, only eyeballs and hype count. The HuffPo has plenty of both. (OK, when you look at the numbers, as Ken Doctor did in this piece, you’ll see a HuffPo visitor brings 3.5 times less money than the NYT does…).

To watch in 2012: This is the year where the Huffington Post will go legit. Everyone is now kissing Arianna’s ring. Including large media company, such as Le Monde, ElPais, DieZeit and a couple of others in Europe that will help Arianna to go global. As appetizing as an alliance between Alain Ducasse and McDonald’s. Sometimes the search for strategy goes haywire…

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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