By Antoine Boulin
Tech publishing has seen something of a shakeout in recent months.
In January, AOL shuttered both Joystiq and TUAW, combining both sites with Engadget. In February, ReadWrite was sold off by SAY Media. And, most recently, GigaOm abruptly stopped publishing. The shutdown was so sudden that many of its reporters were still covering the launch of Apple Watch when they received word.
Each of these situations is unique, of course, but they demonstrate some of the challenges inherent to tech publishing today. To survive, publishers have to recognize the direction the industry is headed.
Here’s what to expect moving forward, both this year and beyond.
- “Specialized” publishing will trump web culture.
Tech media is fiercely competitive, with no shortage of content. To offset competition, the landscape has shifted into two camps: There’s the “web culture” tech publisher, which covers essentially anything web-relevant, from funding announcements to the latest memes. That camp includes Mashable, The Verge and Gizmodo. In covering a broader topic set, these publishers can pull in a wider audience. The goal here is scale.
In the second camp, you’ll find the “specialized” publisher. The specialized publisher covers a particular subject within the broader technology category. Specialization allows them to focus and differentiate content while building a specific audience that can be mapped and monetized. It’s not a universal or general segment – it’s more targeted, making it desirable among brands and marketers, despite the smaller audience size. This camp includes sites like TheWireCutter, Android Central, and AnandTech
Today, more tech media have adopted the former model. The appeal is understandable because this broader range of content has social reach and drives raw scale. But as more take on the web culture approach, uniformity among competitors undercuts each. On top of that, a broad scope burns resources. News cycles turn quickly, and if you’re not the very first to break a story, your clicks and CPMs suffer.
Given the challenges of this type of breadth, specialized publishing is poised to become more attractive over the long-term. Of course, success as a highly-focused content provider requires achieving balance. As an example, TUAW and Joystiq faltered because they were too narrow. TUAW covered one specific brand, not a subject, offering little incentive for competing brands and advertisers to give them ad dollars. Joystiq, on the other hand, covered a very attractive category, gaming, but reached just 1% of the category’s massive audience.
The lesson here is, if you go specialized, make sure it’s an important and attractive category to advertisers and one you can really “own” – meaning you need to reach at least 10% percent of each category’s respective audience.
- Intent-based content drives a premium.
Being successful in a specific category or sub-category means more than just offering narrowly-focused news content. Today, in the age of social media, dedicated news destinations are becoming redundant. As an example, when the Apple Watch made its debut, rather than follow one site’s live blog, Twitter offered a range of opinions in real time. This is why younger generations in particular are turning to social media, not news sites, for their news. There’s greater breadth and more varied points of view through these networks that publishers can’t always deliver (without a robust community).
Specialized publishing today means a shift toward what I call “intent-driven” content. Intent-driven content is designed for readers who have specific needs or questions – questions about buying or troubleshooting products, for example. It’s developed to address a particular purpose for the reader. For a specialized tech publisher, this might mean detailed reviews and how-to content on 3D printers or drones.
There’s obvious value in this type of coverage for brands and marketers. Readers who seek it out are generally in-market buyers who are in the consideration phase for a product or service. They’re further along the funnel, with the content influencing the latter stages.
Even better, changes in our advertising ecosystem have amplified the value of intent-driven content. As programmatic has scaled, it’s now easier for brands and marketers to target specific demographics across publishers. What they can’t do – at least, not accurately – is target intent. This often requires direct sales alignment to identify the best strategy to tackle in-market buyers, raising the value of intent-based media for the publisher.
For these reasons more and more tech publishers will be focusing on intent-based coverage to succeed. We’ve led that editorial shift, but we’re seeing others take this on, too.
- Diversification has its limits.
A third challenge for technology publishers is diversification of revenue sources. Any publisher who relies solely on advertising or one particular source of revenue above all others is at risk. Diversification is necessary for a healthy business. But, in recent years, diversification has become a unicorn that tech publishers chase too hard, with too little understanding of what their primary business or revenue model is or should be.
In our business, it’s best to excel at one core revenue model, than to be mediocre at three. It’s here where many publishers struggle by not understanding what is additive or foundational to their business. Reliability allows for experimentation, without fear of losses, which is critical for keeping up with category changes. The same applies to audience: don’t try to broaden your base too much. Otherwise you will lose focus, and in return the performance of whatever it is that you sell will diminish.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for independent players to compete in today’s tech publishing landscape. As the market becomes more and more complex, tech publishers need to focus on what makes them unique and either target smaller, but more lucrative, specialized audiences, or partner with emerging powerhouses to provide the scale, resources, and ability to adapt in today’s ever-changing media climate.