Welcome to the age of ‘premium’ publishing

After years of a race for reach many of our biggest mastheads are now touting their ‘premium’ positioning. Mumbrella’s Alex Hayes looks at what they actually mean by premium.

If you follow the trade press (or like me are still on a lot of PR lists and get press releases), then there is an interesting phenomenon which seems to be occurring amongst publishers – the adaptation of the concept of ‘premium’.

In the last few weeks we’ve had News Corp, Fairfax, Pacific Magazines and just yesterday the NRL of all people position themselves as premium publishers. In fact what they seem to mean is they’ve upgraded the user experience on their websites.

Given the rise of fake news, premium is a timely positioning to adopt, giving sales teams a good positioning in market.

And the fact that marketers are starting to wake up to the idea that chucking large chunks of your budget into a programmatic ‘black box’ may not be the wisest move given much publicised issues around audiences, brand safety and unserved or unseen ads also helps.

Fairfax is perhaps the biggest local exponent of this movement in recent months, with chief revenue officer Matt Rowley admitting the company had decided to “rip it up and start again” when it came to its digital strategy.

He told my colleague Zoe Samios last month in a candid interview where he spoke of “cheap inventory sold by the kilogram”, that they had asked themselves the hard question: “How does Fairfax then find a future, or continue the strong brands and the traditions that we’ve got in that sort of digital market landscape?”

Fairfax’s Brisbane Times has a new design

It’s refreshing to hear a brand like Fairfax, with 175 plus years of history and heritage, admitting it wasn’t doing a good enough job of protecting its brand integrity in what is now its biggest medium: digital.

They’re overhauling all the websites with a better design for the content and more importantly better ad units, which are designed not to take away from the editorial product but hopefully complement it.

The Brisbane Times is the first to go, and it’s a much more approachable product for readers – more white space, less clutter. Ultimately they want to make their sites people’s first destinations when they reach for their phone in the morning, rather than social media.

Rowley will give an update on how the strategy is playing out at the Publish conference next month, in the keynote session where execs from The Australian, HuffPost Australia, ABC and Buzzfeed open up on their relationships and expectations of digital platforms like Google and Facebook.

He tells me they’ve already got some interesting stats from the change of strategy, particularly around the way they use Facebook for content distribution.

And that move for publishers to claw back ad revenues from the platforms is front and centre of the ‘premiumisation’ of news media.

“What we have is something the tech giants do not and never will have, a unique unrivalled connection and understanding of Australian audiences,” said News Corp CEO Michael Miller when they launched the News Prestige Network in June.

He then went on to talk about “prestige environments with credible, trusted global and local brands”. Ultimately though the network is a sales and marketing umbrella for a series of mastheads.

On Tuesday, vaunted Pacific Magazines brand Marie Claire came out and overhauled its website, making it easier to use and its ad units more consistent.

The challenges for magazine brands online is staying relevant and beating the competition while preserving the core audience for the prize asset – the print edition. That’s a tough nut to crack.

And even the NRL is cashing in on it – unveiling its new website yesterday, Matt McAleer, head of product, NRL said: “We want this to be a rich premium experience that the fans feel happy staying around and exploring, and generating much richer engagement.”

In fairness, its user experience couldn’t have been much worse.

It’s not surprising these large publishers have taken steps to point out how their environments are different from the social and search platforms. After all, having control of their content is the important part of being able to guarantee brand safety, while overhauling ad units and reducing the number should improve viewability and engagement. You’d hope, anyway.

My fear, though, is that premium is a word that is being bandied around a little too much, and could be in danger of losing meaning almost as quickly as it’s risen, becoming the ‘big data’ of 2017.

Of course, the idea of being a premium publisher isn’t new. In recent years Nicholas Gray, CEO of The Australian, has traded on premium as the differentiator for the national masthead.

And to be honest, that’s the digital brand which has always felt most consistent with the print product in the Australian market – whatever you think of its politics, and stuck to the kind of content it would put into print, something very few other publishers can say.

And that positioning has borne fruit in the last year, with the paper getting back into the black, thanks in a large part to its bundled paywall and subscription products growing the number of people willing to pay for their content.

Here the important part of the premium offering is having that content people can’t get anywhere else.

Which is where some of the other players now need to concentrate if they are to come up with something truly ‘premium’ for readers, or advertisers. Fairfax is showing signs of doing this, which will only be a good thing for the brand.

But of course these legacy players still have a way to go to optimise their ‘premium’ user experiences, particularly when it comes to mobile. And especially when it comes to the next generation of users.

And they could learn a lot from Gen Z upstart site Punkee (as the name suggests an offshoot of Junkee), which has ripped up the rule book in its bid to serve its target audience the kind of experience they have come to expect. It takes a lot of cues from Snapchat’s Discover platform.

A visit to the site on mobile reveals lightning quick load times on that device, and only one article being featured on the screen at any one time on the homepage, given its own space to breathe and time spent designing imagery around each one.

Punkee’s managing editor Tom Pitney is also speaking at Publish next month about its video strategy which has seen them garner 12 million views in just four months, and closing in on a million sessions on its website in that time. Pretty good for a startup.

Obviously the content is different from the average news site as it’s very targeted around specific interests, in particular The Bachelor(ette), but if this is what the next generation of consumers are being bred to expect, then it’s going to be interesting to see how publishers, and marketers, can adapt.

Is there a model to allow online content to breathe a little more and have its own unique personality? Ultimately that will be achieved by mainstream publishers once they figure out how to curate stories and personalise experiences for each user – something we’re a long way from just yet.

But for now, we’re entering the ‘premium’ era of online publishing. Let’s hope the content lives up to the billing.

Alex Hayes is publisher, live and bespoke at Mumbrella.

Tickets are still available for the Publish conference which takes place in Sydney on October 19. Click here to see the full program.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.