Vanity is more dangerous than COVID in 2021

Success and recovery in a post-COVID world involves more than an obsession with metrics, argues The Code Company managing director Ben May.

How will you measure success as a media operator in 2021?

Will you base it on how many people visit your website? Or how big your social audience is? And what if you’ve relied on physical indications of success, like event attendees, sponsorships or print sales – what happens now?

There’s no shortage of articles lamenting the catastrophic effects of 2020 on traditional publishing models. Here’s a random selection:

  • Majority of small publishers fear closure in wake of coronavirus
  • In memoriam: A round-up of the media companies we lost in 2020
  • How coronavirus infected publishing

And there’s an equal number of prophetic pieces, spinning quick fixes and conveniently packaged step-by-step guides to future-proofing your publishing business.

All well and good. Except future-proofing is an oxymoron. As the great black swan of 2020 proved, sometimes even the most self-assured and seemingly invincible media brands take a hard and humbling hit.

The very best we can strive for is resilience. Think of it like this; you’re out sailing when you get caught in a sudden storm. Resilience doesn’t try to make the storm stop. You still get hit by the wave, but instead of clutching at the wheel and going down with the ship, you have a life vest, a raft and a warm blanket to keep you going. It’s this combination of strategies that prevent you from drowning.

For far too long, publishers have been clinging on to the old and seemingly safe ways of operating, yet all the time, they were slowly sinking. Covid hasn’t really changed anything, it’s simply accelerated (admittedly, at lightning speed) a change that was always inevitable.

So what’s a publisher to do?

While I don’t have a magic, one-size-fits-all solution, I can tell you what won’t lead you to greatness in 2021. Vanity.

Digital acceleration has done for traditional metrics what face masks have done for the lipstick industry. Brands no longer care about how many people visit your site. They want to know who visits, how they engage with content and how valuable they are to their specific target audience.To this ever increasing engagement-focused client base, traffic volume doesn’t even scratch the surface.

And it’s deeply uncomfortable. Vanity has served as an industry backbone for so long, it’s hard to imagine a world where media operators aren’t obsessing over traffic spikes and high fiving each other for a PR mention. Covid has forced these companies out of self obsession and forced them to put audience engagement front and centre.

What does engagement look like?

Engagement is one of the most overused words in the medialand dictionary. I almost don’t want to call it that for fear of losing you mid-sentence. But stay with me, because engagement is vital to the sustainability of our industry.

But let’s be clear what I’m actually talking about.

Engagement is the difference between the person that visits your site once, skims an article and goes back to filtering their Instagram shots; and the person who religiously tunes into ‘their’ podcast each morning to hear your specific opinion on the daily news.

Engagement is the reason I pay for a curated industry newsletter that I trust to provide me with the latest tech trends and insights to stay on top of my game.

And engagement is the pride and sense of identity that audiences feel knowing that they’re part of a community of like-minded people with common interests and aspirations. This is one of the reasons why the closure of more than 100 regional print titles has hit local Australian communities so hard.

To be fair, niche publishers have typically always been good at engagement. For example, a small publisher providing thought-leadership for permaculture enthusiasts was never going to waste their time competing in the traffic arena with the media bigwigs. So they never got distracted by vanity metrics and instead focused on quietly building their loyal and committed tribe. And in doing so, they now find themselves with a compelling and lucrative marketing opportunity for the avalanche of zero-waste brands seeking to connect to their ideal customers.

This engagement training has given niche publishers a massive head start in the post-pandemic publishing game.

The three biggest engagement opportunities for media companies

While you can’t stop the waves of change you can prepare your ship for the journey ahead. And for most publishers, that means looking at ways to diversify revenue streams.  

  • Newsletters

There’s nothing new about newsletters but jeez have they had a resurgence in 2020. The New York Times saw an increase of 587,000 newsletter subscribers when COVID first hit.

Perhaps while we’re all trapped at home with only our cat and keyboard for company, we’re somehow comforted by the habit and sense of security our daily news briefing brings. I know I’ll be listening closely when Jacob Cohen Donnelly talks about how to go beyond the broadcast EDM later this month. Cohen is the creator of paid newsletter A media operator and the head of B2B for Morning Brew, the e-news that recently celebrated 1 million daily opens.

  • Podcasts and audio

Podcasts are no longer a fringe medium. Everyone’s at it – even (former) royalty. In 2020 there were 420 million podcast downloads with 32% of Australians now tuning in. Unsurprisingly, established radio stations have the highest share of that audience, but snapping at their heels are the small publishers. Take for example, Schwartz Media who recently took the title of Best New Podcast in the Australian Podcast Awards for their 7am Podcast, which attracts over 45,000 daily listeners. Not bad for a brand that didn’t even exist 18 months ago. 

  • Membership and subscriptions

Arguably the ultimate mark of engagement is a thriving membership base. And if audiences are paying to engage, you know you’re on to a winner. But a successful membership model goes way beyond simply charging people to read your content. It relies on the creation of a thriving, interactive community, where creator and consumer interact and share ideas. And while SaaS platforms like Substack and Medium have made it easier to establish a subscription base, it’s these same platforms that eventually prevent you from creating the customised brand experiences that characterise your community. It’s my firm belief that when it comes to building engagement it’s always better to have complete ownership of your tech, your audience and your choices.

Ben May is the managing director of The Code Company and co-founder of Publisha.


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