Guest post: Digital publishers need a spine

Digital publishers need to find something they’re excellent at, argues Ben Shepherd, of media agency Maxus

We know that for humans, the spine is an important part of us. The spine is central to the skeletal system. It supports the head and encloses the spinal cord. Without it, we’d be in trouble.  

I’m all for analogies and will take the opportunity to use one whenever the opportunity exists. A strong spine is as important for a media company – it’s what keeps the market interested and keeps employees motivated and focused. By a strong spine I don’t mean a strong sense of ethics (although that would be nice), I mean a strong product that is easily identified.

Being excellent at one thing is underestimated in this market, especially within digital media. It’s often considered better to be okay at loads of things than exceptional in one core area. Trouble is, to have a strong spine as a media company you need to be truly excellent at something.

Being excellent at one thing is what opens agency and advertiser doors. It’s what makes you attractive as an employer and gives your brand a sense of identity. In a market as competitive as ours it’s a mandatory.

Now before anyone points out my blatant hypocrisy I will point it out now. I work in a media agency and the media agency world is most probably worse than it’s publisher cousins at creating meaningful points of difference, spines if you will, that distinguish competitors. Similar tools, similar fee structures, similar buying clout, similar ‘strategic’ offerings, similar offices, similar structures, similar acronyms, similar parents .. you get the idea. It’s something we’re working on.

So anyway, when you read the trade press and see the almost weekly announcements around digital media product enhancements you wonder whether what the point of them is as most don’t seem to address what is really important.

In the last 2 weeks we’ve seen PR drummed up around

Here’s the question:

Are these products?

More about PR column inches to show that the media brand is doing something to appease investors and internal stakeholders?

An attempt to extract more revenue out of the market by tapping into what they believe will be a high growth area in the future?

A way to sort out an immediate yield issue?

A quick, smart response to a legitimate demand from advertisers?

Now, it really should be about the last point … but I’d say that, as I am an agency guy and my motivation is to get the best for the client. However, sometimes you get the impression it’s about the first two. Again – the same points can be asked of advertising and media agencies.

It’s often said it’s easier to invent new problems rather than solve existing ones. The hardest and most important problem for a media company (and any company) is defining what makes you unique commercially and making that stronger and stronger. This isn’t easy.

Locally the market leaders all have strong spines either through historical legacy, connections or just bloody good product development. Google is exceptional at search and organising information. Fairfax Digital is the strongest player in news. Ninemsn is the leader at high volume entry points (Homepage, Hotmail, Messenger). These strong spines ensure the door is always open for these operators.

Look at the mid-tier and it’s dominated by best-in-breed. CBS‘s backbone is its excellence in technology content. Sound Alliance is the leader at nurturing community around music and creating meaningful advertiser integration. Kidspot knows mums better than the rest of the market. They focus on what they do best and continue to make it stronger and more nimble.

When it gets to the second tier of large players it’s not so clear.

Yahoo!7 is the market leader within Lifestyle but seems to want to be all things to all people (mobile, network sales, news) and as a result doesn’t have a clear identity 3 years on. Mediasmart‘s real jewel is the Bigpond Network and the potential around this, however still has dominant legacies from the old Sensis days which show when they approach the market. News Digital Media’s real strength is local mastheads (which is the core of the News Ltd business overall too), but like Yahoo!7 their belief appears to be to play in as many areas as possible and often they ignore the strength of this local offering. When you look at these players, their spines are weak. This can make doors hard to open.

And when that happens it can be difficult to focus … which can result in creating products that perhaps the market doesn’t really need and products that don’t help you build on your core. It’s hard to build on your core if perhaps you don’t know really what it is.

Here’s the thing. Media companies are great at creating products that people, ie their readers, want. If they’re not … the audience will go elsewhere. Sometimes, maybe, they don’t apply this simple principal to their advertising products and in doing so create products that serve to satisfy internal motivations and not external demand. Sure, it’s tempting to indulge your own motivations and ego (on all sides) … but in our industry the client is king and your focus needs to be on helping him/her satisfy their motivations (and ego sometimes).

I can’t speak for the market, but right now what I want is partners that are exceptional at what they do best and I think advertisers do too. Less is more.


Ben Shepherd is the national digital director at Maxus. He also writes the excellent Talking Digital blog which Mumbrella wholeheartedly recommends


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