Digital transformation – the COVID-19 upside

WAN-IFRA's vice president Lisa MacLeod explains

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Lisa MacLeod, vice president, WAN-IFRA

Rahm Emanuel’s famous words “Never let a good crisis go to waste” are so relevant to the situation media and journalists now find themselves in, particularly with digital transformation. It seems the COVID-19 crisis could be the final warning to adapt digitally or risk extinction. While digital revenues are still no match revenue for print advertising, an informal survey of international colleagues confirmed there are some hard truths emerging. Those news organizations that moved to digital publishing earlier have been in a better position to service their readers through the crisis. And those journalists, whose digital skills are up to speed, have found working through the disruption of isolation much easier.

Here is how digitally savvy organizations found themselves ahead of the game:

– Staff are equipped with laptops and data bundles to enable them to work from home or remotely

– Digital staff are well-skilled and trusted and empowered to make decisions within the hierarchy

– Paywall or registration technology is in place to capture the enormous inflow of digital audiences

– Product teams work in an agile way and can quickly create or alter products to suit audience needs, and tech infrastructure is sound

– Tracking and analytics engines are in place to help newsrooms gauge interest and engagement on topics and themes, and to interact successfully with new readers

– E-Editions are part of the regular product offering and can be quickly scaled to “replace” the comfort of print (but see caveats below)

Unfortunately, the speed at which the lockdowns arrived would have largely precluded those individuals and news operations behind the transformation curve from successfully implementing such measures in a short space of time. But there are many positive stories about how digital is suddenly the cool kid on the block, with one digital transformation lead saying he was delighted because all his lengthy battles to win over his colleagues to digital thinking and publishing had been supercharged and realized in just a few weeks. Previously, he said, he had not even been invited to attend news meetings, “and now I am running them!”

Some of the positive aspects to emerge from the crisis:

– Digital audience numbers are surging, with record numbers of unique browsers being reported globally

– While there has been a reduction in direct digital ad sales and private PMP deals, there are reports of decent budgets flowing to open auction buys as advertisers take advantage of the traffic numbers

– It’s a great time to convert colleagues to the power of digital publishing, emphasizing the immediacy of digital distribution

– Those with paywalls have seen record numbers of digital subscribers, one reporting a 60% increase in the past six weeks

– There is a huge demand for veracity at a time like this, with consumers seeking out branded news above all to make sure that what they are reading is correct and true

– Because the nature of Covid-19 coverage obviates almost all other news streams, it’s a good time to reassess content choices for the future

– Organizational changes in crisis can help pinpoint future leaders in your organization

– Production and operational changes to the distribution of print products may highlight opportunities to make changes permanently in the future. An example would be to move permanently to reduce print editions during the week and double down on the (usually) more profitable weekend print editions

– It’s a great time to experiment with paywall access and pricing: offering lower entry points to capture a bigger slice of the huge influx of online readers

– If the paywall is suspended for COVID coverage, are you at least asking for registration to facilitate future acquisitions?

– This is a time to foster closer engagement with readers, to use video and UGC to really connect with current or future customers

– Build trusted brand relationships now. Examples are media houses facilitating photography competitions, recipe sharing, shared Google docs with lockdown journals, book recommendations, online quizzes and exercise with readers

– There is an opportunity to monetize these “franchises” as advertisers shy away from fragmented advertising and look for meaningful sponsorships instead

– Many media houses have used the opportunity to entrench their e-editions with their readers as a viable alternative to print, with some reporting incredible numbers akin to print consumption – but there are caveats. Is your user journey seamless, and is your e-edition provider/partner able to secure your pdfs to paid-access only, and prevent downloading and sharing? This is a common technology problem and needs to be addressed if e-editions are to provide a “new” revenue stream

Let your stars shine: if you have talent in online video and interactives or graphics, this is a great opportunity for alternatives to text storytelling. There is a huge appetite for data-led stories right now, and video is a powerful and deeper way of capturing the national mood.

Finally, start planning for the future. This planning at the moment seems to be focused almost entirely on disaster scenarios and worst-case outcomes. But it is also a good time to think about the green shoots, and how to build a resilient and future-proofed business.

It is well worth reading Frederic Filloux’s recent Monday Note in which he asked his students for their view of the future for media.

They all see news operations becoming smaller, more agile, and less centralized with new ownership structures and business models favoring deep audience involvement, engagement, and support. Ads are seen for the most part as “unethical, invasive, misleading, and just moderately efficient. Only some forms of carefully vetted sponsorship seem acceptable”.

The students favor a different kind of news, absolutely focused on fact and data-driven analysis. Explanatory journalism scored highly as many of them were “shocked by the recklessness of some journalists always ready to jump on juicy stories without any distance or even research”.

Finally, despite the reaffirmation of the value of good journalism, they were unequivocal that the pandemic has for once and all declared print “the embodiment of the ancient world”. It will not have a place in the future.