Digitization: With these 6 principles of success, publishers survive digital disruption

Timo Lamour

No one in German publishing houses is eagerly awaiting the latest IVW figures. Rather, there is a certain tension because, as is well known, the most important values have known only one direction for years.

No one in German publishing houses is eagerly awaiting the latest IVW figures. Rather, there is a certain tension, because as is well known, the most important values have known only one direction for years.

I am firmly convinced that those who can see digitization as a challenge and not as a problem will stop the downward economic trend.

Those who are brave enough to see digitization not as a danger but rather as an opportunity, and who derive the right principles from it, still have all the reins in their own hands. Especially in an environment that is still strongly characterized by adherence to the status quo.

In the following sections, I will provide you with six principles that will help publishers take full advantage of the opportunities offered by digitization:

  1. Reader focus as top priority
  2. Multichannel is the key
  3. Specialize
  4. Only the content counts
  5. Quality may cost something
  6. Know your users!

1 Reader focus as top priority

Learning from Amazon means learning to win. The company puts its customers at the center of all its efforts. Smooth ordering processes, individualized customer approach through product recommendations and newsletters, goodwill after the purchase. Amazon constantly analyzes its customers' data and tailors content to their preferences.

And with very good reasons. Because the loyal customer who has remained faithful to his bank, insurance company or newspaper for many years no longer exists in this form.

Why? Quite simply. Competitive offers are often a mouse click or fingertip away. Readers need arguments to come back and want to be conquered again every day.

Publishers like to refer to the quality of journalistic offerings in this context. But that is no longer enough. Talk of quality journalism dates back to the days when the publishing industry wanted to differentiate itself from blogs and other news sources.

Readers are now likely to assume that work online is just as careful and of high quality.

What counts most in digital times is a clear focus on a target group whose wishes and expectations must be addressed. Personalization is the lever here.

The best offer is the one that the reader thinks was made especially for them. Digital tools offer the possibilities with which 1:1 communication with the reader can be achieved. In this way, every reader becomes his own editor-in-chief.

Personalization is key to digitalization

The basis on the way to this goal is provided by precise target groups and a clear topic focus. New technical options are then built on this.

Figures and analyses are becoming even more important for publishers. Did the reader like an article? Then draw conclusions from it and offer relevant additional content.

Systems based on machine learning can further refine the insights. In the end, it's there again, the bond between medium and user.

2 Multichannel is the key

Users' media consumption is fragmenting. They read, watch videos or listen to podcasts. At first glance, the variety of genres and channels seems to be an obstacle on the way to a digital strategy.

In reality, however, it offers you more journalistic freedom.

Instead of long tutorials, users feel more quickly informed by a video clip. And a podcast better conveys the mood during an interview or debate. So far so good.

Publishers need to adapt to these changes in user habits. Dr. Ruth Betz, responsible for digital transformation at the Funke Media Group, put it this way in the IJNotes podcast: "We no longer think in terms of devices. We now think in terms of readers."

In this context, it is less important whether the media company's focus is on a full range of products or on the digital world. Multichannel reflects the zeitgeist and consumer behavior.

This applies to retail, banking and journalism. A multichannel approach requires creativity and a willingness to experiment. And a technical solution that simplifies the implementation of ideas.

3 Specialize

Anyone who wants to publish about "everything" in high quality for "everyone" has a hard time. At this point, let me once again draw on an analogy with retail.

Away from Amazon, there are successful online stores that are in the black. Question: What one thing do you all have in common? They are highly specialized.

Each publisher has to figure out in which area its specialization can lie. That can be the (hyper-) local, or it can be a specialist topic.

As a medium, you have to give the user a reason every day to get information from you and not elsewhere. Because, for example, they can only find the best industry news that will help them in their job with you. Or they can only get tips from you that they can't get elsewhere, or because you classify facts and trends in a particularly comprehensible way.

A great example of reader focus, data analysis and specialization is the beacon among media companies, the New York Times.

The publisher determines the user's location in order to offer the user relevant news and articles based on this. There are special subscriptions aimed at puzzle fans.

New York Times personalised crossword subscription

And, also a very crucial point, the editors personally maintain close contact with readers via social media. There, for example, they regularly ask what users are interested in. This gives customers the impression that a medium is being produced here that takes their wishes seriously.

Skeptics like to argue that the market is larger in the U.S., which is why it is futile to compare the digital revenues of the New York Times with those of German publishers. However, the NYT not only focuses thematically, it really puts the reader at the center of its work. Modern and data-driven.

4 Only the content counts

Unfortunately, publishers often get in their own way when it comes to digitization and keep making the same avoidable mistakes.

Mistake number 1: Page views as the main goal

In January 1996, a certain Bill Gates wrote in a much-noticed essay: "Content is the area I expect to make a lot of the big money on the Internet in the future, just like television." That was back in 1996, mind you.

If you don't deliver on the "content is king" promise in your strategy, you may initially be happy about high page views.

However, this does not contribute to the sustainable development of a readership. On the contrary, a glance at the statistics will probably show a high bounce rate.

This also happens when a simple list article in the form of a lengthy photo spread is distributed across various sub-pages. This may improve the statistics, but it wastes users' time.

The term clickbait has also long since left the publishing houses. Perhaps not every user knows its exact meaning yet, but the mechanism of generating clicks behind it probably does.

Mistake number 2: Wrong production strategy

In many houses, there is still a clear orientation that is either "online first" or "print first". This has not done justice to actual usage behavior for a long time.

Development of the global distribution of portfolio structures in the publishing industry

If you take this strategy to the extreme, you degrade a channel to a dinghy that appears loveless and neglected. If, for example, energy flows exclusively into the online presence, too few resources remain to provide longer analyses in print or content that was not available online. The reverse is also true.

It is therefore essential to have a system at the heart of content production that allows employees to concentrate on the content without burdening them with too much technology.

Media-neutral production offers the freedom to publish content on the channel that seems most suitable.

With our Multichannel Publishing Hub, it's child's play to create structured and media-neutral content. Find out more now.

5 Quality may cost something

The majority of publishers in Germany launched their first digital offerings when the Internet was just about to become a mass phenomenon.

Mainly due to the lack of technical billing systems and the strategic requirement to build up reach, content migrated to the Internet free of charge. This went well until print revenues plummeted.

The claim that paywalls cannot work in Germany is wrong. This is demonstrated time and again by the success of national media and specialist offerings.

Whether it's a single call-up, such as with LaterPay, a monthly subscription, a combination of different approaches, or an innovative dynamic paywall like those already used by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Wall Street Journal. Each publisher must find out for itself, step by step, the right path to its own success.

New York Times Freemium Paywall Model

If you focus on your readers and offer them decisive added value, you are literally worth more to them.

Digitization also offers additional options for tapping new sources of revenue. For example, by developing new formats. Digital content is more agile, developments can be brought to market and tested much faster than was conceivable in pure print times.

Thematic newsletters that regularly provide subscribers with in-depth information on a special topic are a great example. Hot news distributed to users via Messenger is another.

I'm convinced that every publisher has a potentially huge treasure trove that just needs to be harnessed. Because with every user interaction, the publisher gains data. Information that they can use to develop target group-specific forms of advertising, among other things. Creativity, lateral thinking and innovative business development win out.

6 Know your users!

Data is at the core of digitization. Digital business models are inconceivable without data analysis.

In order to define your target group, you first need to know who they are in the first place. In many publishers, however, this information lies dormant in different data silos.

That's why publishers need systems that break down such silos and use modern technologies such as artificial intelligence to analyze the information. Recently, Ranga Yogeshwar even attracted a lot of attention in this context with his statement: "Europe is still asleep".

Data analysis requires effort, especially at the beginning, and sometimes unpopular decisions are absolutely necessary. For example, when it becomes clear that the publishing IT that has grown over decades is no longer up to modern requirements.

This is underscored by the low competence score in the area of customer analysis in a recent survey by BrandLab.

Tech Competence survey by BrandLab

However, it is worth the effort, because machine-aided analyses are not only faster, but also open up new perspectives. For example, you gain access to user segments that would otherwise remain undiscovered.

With every post, every click and every app call, users leave behind a lot of information that reveals something about their preferences and current interests.

If it is possible to react to this in real time by reordering and grouping content, this greatly increases the relevance of the medium for the user. Artificial intelligence is the driver here for greater personalization of the offering.

I would like to conclude this section with what I think is a very appropriate quote from Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella: "Every company is a software company. You need to start thinking and acting like a digital company. It's no longer just about procuring and deploying a solution. It's not just about a simple software solution. It's about thinking about your own future as a digital enterprise."


The internet, and with it digitalization, will not simply disappear again. That's the way it is with radical advances in history.

German publishing houses are still in the midst of a disruptive change. Of course, this doesn't just affect the publishing and media industry. With a few exceptions, it affects almost all of them. The challenges are the same.

In the meantime, there are many positive examples and promising approaches that are encouraging. A wealth of ideas, a high standard of content quality coupled with modern technology are guaranteed to reward those companies that optimistically face up to the challenges with good reason.

And one final comment: if there are still employees with the job title "digital" in your company, you are most likely not yet a digital company.

Do you have any other ideas regarding the challenge of digitalization? We would love to hear them.

Please feel free to contact us here.

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Kevin Kallenbach
Head of Sales