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How publishers can create products their audiences love: Five takeaways from the PPA Festival 2022 Product Stage

By Martin Ashplant

24 May 2022

To deliver digital products that genuinely resonate with their audiences, publishers should be brave, responsive, and true to what makes them special. That was one of the key themes coming out of a packed line-up of experts in their field who appeared across six sessions on the Product Stage at the PPA Festival in London on May 19th 2022.

Here are a few of the things we learned from the 14 speakers across the day.

Collaboration is key, especially when editorial teams are involved

“Don’t build a content management system that makes editorial teams cry.” That was the advice from ITV’s Laura Jenner during her session with The New Statesman Senior Editor George Eaton about ensuring product and content teams work effectively together. Drawing on their experience of redesigning and re-platforming the NS in 2020 and 2021, the pair both agreed that communication and collaboration was a key factor in its ultimate success. Having an editorial team who feel ‘done unto’ and unheard during a major piece of product work is a sure-fire way to generate problems. Especially if they are left with a CMS that brings tears to the eyes.

Be essential to your audience – and then work out the best way to monetise that

Brian Morrissey, founder of The Rebooting, captivated the audience with his take on the future of the publishing industry, predicting that we are headed for a period of what he calls the Great Rebundling. In a nutshell, this is the reversal of the recent switch away from institutions to individuals (see Substack) and the development of a more talent- and audience-first approach from the big media players. But, he was at pains to impress, this only works if you have created something your audience sees as essential to their lives. And this was a theme underlined in a session on revenue models later in the day, where Campaign’s Maisie McCabe, Telegraph’s Karen Eccles and Speciall Media’s Carolyn Morgan discussed a variety of approaches but all agreed that unless your audience values what you do enough to pay for it in some way then decent revenues would be hard to come by. That ‘payment‘ could be through subscriptions, but also with a willingness to engage with commercial sponsors or to share their data with the publisher. But trust and value perception are imperative.

Data science can sound scary and expensive but if you start simple it can quickly be valuable

That was the message from data guru Magda Woods in her session on turning AI into ROI. She talked through her experiences at various publishers of different shapes and sizes, breaking her approach down into four areas: 1) where you get your data, 2) the decisions made on what to do with that data, 3) automation and personalisation and, 4) monetisation. But regardless of how big (or small) your data team is, her advice was to get in there and invest time and resources in the basics of data. And to make sure your model is underpinned by understanding your audience through data.

Great podcasts are made by finding something that really matters to your listeners

The Week Unwrapped team know what it takes to make a successful podcast, having built a loyal and engaged audience and won a PPA award to boot. The team shared what they had learned in the style of one of their podcasts, with regular host Olly Mann facilitating the discussion. And top of the list of things is to ensure that you pick a topic that you know already resonates with your audience – and then find the right people to talk about it. Authenticity is key to earning the trust of your listeners and gaining a place in their lives. But the team also encouraged other publishers to be spontaneous and to create a relaxed environment for the conversations. And if anyone is worried they don’t have the modern, high-tech studio to do a successful podcast then they should be suitably reassured by the Week team’s revelation that the majority of their episodes have either been done remotely or from a basement office surrounded by broken photocopiers…

Don’t hide from the metaverse. No-one really knows what they are doing there yet

If there was ever any concern that publishers were not that interested in web3 and the metaverse then that was dispelled by the turnout of for this session. Despite it being scheduled in the middle of lunch, it was standing room only as Dazed Media’s Izzy Farmiloe, Management Today’s Kate Magee and publishing veteran and Artificial Intelligence and Web3 In Media founder David Tomchak took to the stage. And their message was clear: publishers should not be afraid to experiment in what is still a nascent and evolving world. Farmiloe revealed that some of the younger people she has researched are already suffering from meta-fatigue, while Magee reassured many in the audience as she talked through MT’s decision to explore the metaverse based on little more than curiosity and a desire to help their audience better understand this potential future world. And the panel all agreed that is too early to tell whether this is a future we will all be inhabiting soon or pure hype. But publishers should get involved either way.

After a fascinating day of insights and debate, the message to publishers from the speakers on the Product Stage was clear: deeply understand who your audience is, make yourself essential to that audience and be brave in the products you build to delight that audience.

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