Can Personalization save the Publishing Industry?

05 Oct 2016 | By Tom Wilde

Personalization for publishers is no longer add-on, or nice to have. It is the entry price for being an online publisher. And without it, there is no business.

Content, we are repeatedly informed, is king. Which should be good news for online publishers. But all is not rosy in the publishing garden, and the publishing business is under fire as never before.

Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism have highlighted how publishers face new and multiple challenges. These include the rapid transition of social media sites such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter from news distributors to destinations in their own right, the switch to mobile and consumer backlash against digital ads.

Just over half (51%) of those surveyed by the Institute say they use social media as a source of news: around one in ten (12%) name it as their main source. 44% use Facebook to find, read, watch, share or comment on news each week.

Overall, some 28% of the under-24s see social media as their main source of news; women are much more likely to use social media to find news and less likely to go directly to a website or app.

At the same time, ad blocking is on the rise: 38% in Poland! Few are yet using them on their mobile, but a third of respondents say they plan to load blockers in the next year. Again, the younger age groups, and those who consume most news, lead the way.

In other words, this is not just an issue today but, given the target audience demographics, one that can only get worse for content providers.

Publishers must build a sustainable digital business model

These factors undermine traditional publishers’ business models. Add consumer reluctance to move to a pay-for-content model and online publishers clearly have a problem: all that expensive content, but fewer and fewer people looking at it, much less prepared to pay for it.

And perhaps that is the problem. There is just so much content out there that consumers are overwhelmed: they are fleeing, in their millions, to the comfort of online spaces where news, features and items of interest are filtered according to personal taste.

Readers want content that pleases them, and they want it now

The ultimate prize, for time-pressed individuals, is complete personalization: they don't want to wade through pages and pages of irrelevant content to find the two or three stories that tickle their interest; still less wait for a seemingly infinite advertising stream to load before they strike gold.

They want content that pleases them now: and if they aren't getting it, they will reroute their online journey to make sure they do.

Reuters makes this clear: some 36% of news consumers – the largest single group – are happy for their news to be selected automatically based on past viewing habits.

Understand user preferences with deep insight

A prime example of how not to do it is the Rio Olympics. Without doubt many millions of individuals across the globe were enthused and spent hours watching; in fact, could not get enough of it. Yet Rio was a divisive event because those who dislike sports – and there are many millions of them, too – really dislike it.

Some companies made use of this fact: one UK television provider (Sky) used Rio to offer two very different introductory packages. Sports for the sports enthusiasts, and special deals on other entertainment packages – including its premium film service – to the rest.

By contrast, so excited by it all was the BBC that the only thing presented to visitors, above the fold on their homepage, was sports. Sports and more sports.

And while there are no stats available for the impact of this approach, anecdote abounds: plenty of people turning away from broadcast media. And common sense rules that whatever turns people away from one medium will turn them away from online, too.

Perhaps that is unfair: the BBC was not alone in this approach; and less than a month before the Rio Sportfest, they launched BBC+, an app that collates BBC content and tailors recommendations to its users. Clearly, the BBC has got the personalization message.

However, they are playing catch-up to the likes of the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal both of whom have already technology in place to deliver personalized content – yet there are ahead of the Washington Post, which is planning similar.

Content is still king, but in the right context

The old truths are changing: content is still king – but only when it comes anointed with the blessed oil of relevance. Without that, it is just so much more clutter for which consumers have already demonstrated disdain: give us personalization, they chant, or give us death. In this case, the death of traditional publishers.

Besides this, other issues, such as monetization and maximizing the value of existing content pale into insignificance: because if your readers are no longer reading, you have nothing to monetize, nevermind maximize.


Increase reader engagement and build a sustainable digital business model. Download Honing Your Homepage: Delivering perfect personalization to increase audience loyalty, advocacy, and engagement

Honing Your Homepage