For some it has been arduous and complicated to cross over to online, but for niche magazines it seems somehow simpler. Brandon de Kock explains how RamsayMedia did it.
Many of the world’s greatest media giants are finding life increasingly intolerable as the immediacy of new media channels erodes their ability to be relevant. But for those of us who play in corners of the market populated by special-interest communities, the digital era represents far more of an opportunity than a threat.
To put things into perspective, let’s go back to 1997 when a simple website build could cost as much as a small family car. In that year, DVDs were launched as a competitor to VHS tape, Google search was born, Steve Jobs rejoined Apple – and the guy who invented Facebook was just about to finish junior school. It’s no co-incidence it was also the year a magazine publisher called Ramsay, Son & Parker first set up a formal digital division. Even back then we realised that, in the quest to satisfy the insatiable thirst for knowledge and information that defines special-interest communities, all platforms had to be embraced in order to remain competitive.
There were two early lessons that set the tone for where we are today. Firstly, that it was just the beginning of an extraordinarily dynamic era for the publishing industry – characterised by minimal barriers to entry, community empowerment and exponential growth. Secondly, we realised that this accelerated evolution in media would rapidly lead to what Wired editor Chris Anderson would one day famously describe as the ‘Long Tail’: an environment where it was possible, for the first time, to satisfy any number of vertical ‘micro-niches’ within even the most specialised horizontal market. As niche publishers, it was digital gold.
Adding fuel to the fire was the realisation that the majority of niche interests exist in the top end of the market. For every relatively ‘free’ special interest category, such as surfing, there are multiple examples of more cost-intensive activities, from travel and 4x4ing to fine wine and mountain biking. And it’s a simple fact that no matter how broad these special-interest categories might be, they are all targeted at affluent consumers – people who embrace current technology, can actually afford to own it and consume massive amounts of special-interest media in print, online and through mobile media.
Strategically, then, investing heavily in digital distribution channels is a no-brainer. What is debatable is the relative level of energy deployed across the myriad available platforms – and from a niche publishing perspective, that’s an area where we have a distinct advantage.
Special interest/niche publishers have an exceptionally clear picture of their audiences, what they want, what they like and how they want to consume their media. So rather than deploying content on every platform just because we can, our approach has been considerably more tactical. With the vast array of digital possibilities, it’s very much a ‘horses for courses’ environment. As of this month, for example, the fastest growing consumer goods in our stable are digital magazines – not apps or special digital editions with layers of embedded rich media, but rather electronic copies of our print titles. The mind boggles as to how our audience is going to react when we start delivering content that’s custom-made, rather than customised, for their favourite delivery mechanism.
Above all, what we see in the near future is not so much the demise of one medium and the rise of another, but rather a diversification with each platform delivering specialised content in the way best suited to it – to an increasingly demanding audience. Will a tablet device with a battery life and a reflective glass screen ever completely replace a printed magazine for someone who’s going to go to the beach for the day? Will a map book ever be able to deliver the holistic information experience of a virtual reality smartphone app? Will static golf instruction ever be able to match a video lesson? In all three cases, probably not.
The point is, there really isn’t such a thing as a ‘digital divide’ that needs to be bridged or conquered. All that’s happening is that the delivery mechanisms are changing. A magazine delivered on paper is no different to one delivered in bits and bytes over the internet – and a news item in print is identical to one sent to a mobile platform in real time. Above all else, we are and always have been in the business of storytelling. All that’s changed is the soapbox we stand on and finding the right street corner where enough people will stop and listen.
And right there is the challenge that lies ahead not only for niche publishers, but for the industry as a whole: if you remain open to the possibilities on offer, prioritise the user experience and focus on strategies that encourage agility and enable you to respond as fast as the market is changing, then you’re in with a chance. n
Brandon de Kock is RamsayMedia’s creative director.
This story was first published in the July 2012 issue of The Media magazine.