By Greg Mason

Consumers today have an unprecedented amount of choice — where they get information, where they shop, what device they use. This gives marketers infinite options on the places they can go to target eyeballs, demographics and customers and, paired with advertising technology, it’s rendering certain publisher brands almost irrelevant.

Never before has it been so important to truly differentiate yourself as a publisher — it’s no secret that many companies’ whose main offering is journalism are struggling to avoid becoming the next Internet failure. Old school publishers’ sustenance was connecting eyeballs to marketers. This is what paid for content. Many “new media” companies are, more or less, still leaning on this value proposition. And despite funding and adoration, just producing traffic isn’t sustainable.

The New Digital Order

To succeed in the new digital world, you need content that’s unique, adding value to consumers, and a unique business model. If you’re creating marginally valuable content for readers, you can’t get marketers to pay you because you’re not attracting valuable eyeballs that are meaningfully differentiated, or the audience is easily found in many other places. And if the marketer is not replacing the value of content costs and at least a portion of general overhead, you cannot be a profitable business.

As the Internet has brought attention to the performance of marketing, both online and offline, marketers look for scale, but they’re increasingly looking for down-funnel reach — targeted audiences to serve ads and promotions to — and they expect results.

There are a few different camps of publisher monetizing strategies arising. One is with the BuzzFeeds of the world — general news and entertainment entities taking the public by storm. They have unique models and content styles that incorporate multiple formats and delivery mechanisms, user generated content, mobile and more to drive down the traditionally heavyweight costs of good content generation and attract huge audiences. They monetize those audiences mostly with native ads and with ad inventory that programmatic ad tech vendors use to target users based on their online behavior.

Another camp is with publishers, who, rather than continuing the publishing tradition of building an audience first, create direct revenue streams by building platforms that attract and support contextual purchase intent.

Still, the overwhelming mentality in this industry is “I’m a publisher and I build audience,” and then I’ll sell access to that audience to marketers. But we, as publishers, aren’t limited to that — we can figure out ways of doing things differently and diversifying. If we don’t, we won’t be able to build sustainable and thriving businesses — or, worse, we’ll cease to exist.

A Service-Oriented Approach to Publishing & Brand Development

All the most important web companies are solving a problem. Google’s mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. At its core, it’s incredibly utilitarian. It does this with its search engine, but also across other mediums — video on YouTube, hot air balloons that provide Internet access to remote areas in Project Loon and via health-tracking contact lenses. At their core, these are all about connecting people to information.

As Jerry Dischler, vice president of product management for AdWords at Google has said, “Our mission has always been to connect people with what they are looking for in the exact moment they are looking. These are moments that matter to consumers, to marketers and to us at Google because they are when decisions are being made and preferences shaped.”

So why don’t more publishers take this approach and focus on the problem they’re solving for readers and, then, how they solve it? Rather than being constricted to the old model — “I’m a publisher and I build audience” — modern digital publishing companies have the capability, like Google, to bring content, services and different tools together to solve a single problem. If you’re not doing this to some degree, you’re just old media reformatted.

There is yet another crop of digital publishers emerging who actually are doing this — combining the traditional publishing model with a service-oriented approach. Houzz blends photos, content and connections to actual home professionals to help people redesign homes. Yelp combines user reviews and local advertising to help people find businesses and restaurants. TripAdvisor merges reviews, forums and on-site booking to help people plan travel. At Purch, we do something similar to help people make complex buying decisions, especially technology-related, by connecting product reviews, user recommendations, e-commerce, and mobile-based in-store shopping.

We — and others that focus on solving a specific problem — are in a new category of “publishing,” marrying content, commerce and community, in respective industries, to genuinely hit consumers’ expectations and serve their needs.

The model is no longer primarily about content, but about supporting the entire experience and the job that needs to get done — bringing all of the assets you possibly can to the user’s problem. We, like Google, are utilitarian at our core. We, as a category, are disrupting specific verticals where consumers seek out information to make a decision — whether to buy a new smartphone or to rewire their home to make it ‘smart.’ We’re oriented around a task and recognize that consumers’ expectations have evolved.

Expert editorial content, promotions, user-generated content and reviews, mobile apps, online storefronts, and even ads, all comprise the service-orientated approach to publishing. The big difference is that the service-oriented approach doesn’t just throw ads onto the pages, but instead considers how to bring them into a full-circle environment to service the consumer.

This enables a vibrant publishing model with a diversified revenue stream where advertising is a minority piece of the pie. By extending to offerings beyond content, you’re not just competing for digital advertising dollars, but also lead generation, brand marketing, affiliate and CPA budgets. What’s so compelling about this business model is the notion that we’re reaching consumers when they are making their final decision — it’s a very clear value proposition for a marketer.

And when this model, or better yet consumer environment, is well-designed and constructed around solving a problem — like Purch, Houzz, TripAdvisor and others are — all of the activities under the umbrella, including advertising, become helpful, rather than burdensome to consumers. When you get this dynamic working, you’ll see performance that’s off the charts. Service-oriented publishers are able to bring exponential value to marketers and build a healthy business while still serving, and holding above all else, the user.

It’s also worth saying that a service-oriented approach doesn’t necessarily mean that a publisher should abandon all content that doesn’t help someone make a decision. There’s still value in content that generally informs, entertains, and enlightens its audience, but it simply can’t be the cornerstone of your business model in today’s publishing environment.

Not Just “New Media” In Name, But in Practice

Publishers used to deliver information consumers were seeking out in a very one-dimensional way, restricting their ability to build great, lasting businesses in today’s multi-channel digital age. But today, look at all of the tools we have to do this. In fact, Google’s mission is largely fulfilled by the publisher community. It is simply a very convenient mechanism to direct a consumer to what they are looking for when they need it most.

The byproduct of this problem-solving and service-oriented model may still look like digital publishing, but in actuality it uses content, data, advertising technology, tools, services and apps to help consumers make decisions — at scale, in whatever way works for them at a personal level. Like Google, service-oriented publishers can and have found a connective tissue between all these mechanisms. The problem lies at the center and each of these tools and services are attached to it horizontally, allowing us to meet the new consumers’ expectations.

It’s a tumultuous time for publishers, but an exciting one, too, and it’s only the first inning of the game for Purch and our peers. Every additional step toward this model, and expanding it to keep up with what’s to come, creates new, unprecedented ways to create lasting value to consumers, marketers and the industry.

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