Successful digital strategy is not about chasing traffic, according to UK’s biggest publishers

Digital leaders from three of the UK’s biggest publishers sat down to discuss digital strategy and the state of the publishing industry in the age of the internet at the Leaders Meet Innovation event at London’s BAFTA.

Quality reach, not total reach

Digital director at Conde Nast, Wil Harris, told the panel: “We’re not about building lots of scale, we’re not out there to build the biggest audience that we possibly can with millions and millions and millions of readers. We’re really trying to find a valuable audience in small niches.”

Harris explains: “Most successful business models in the online world come from enormous scale, a stack ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap approach, so the approach that we’re trying to take is finding increased value per reader, rather than simply increasing the number of readers.”

This approach is attractive to the sort of high-end advertisers that Conde Nast relies upon for revenue across its respected titles like Vogue, Wired and GQ. But news publishers are taking a similar approach.

As chief marketing officer at News UK Chris Duncan is responsible for both print and digital products, which includes The Times, Sunday Times and The Sun newspapers, websites and apps.

Duncan started by saying that his strategy is similar to Conde Nast, in that they are looking at the quality not the quantity of customer. However, unlike Conde Nast, News UK has to work with titles with wildly different readerships, leading to a dual approach to digital strategy.

Duncan explained: “At The Times and The Sunday Times we have a premium subscription model. We still sell advertising but we’re generating probably 80% of our revenue through direct customer transactions.”

The Sun requires a more traditional approach though, as it is more of a “mass market brand. In fact, The Sun considers The Times to be a niche brand with a tiny audience,” says Duncan.

This idea of quality reach was neatly put by Tom Grinsted, product manager at The Guardian. Grinsted believes that The Guardian’s strong audience of 150 million monthly unique users is still not sufficient. He said: “[The audience] at the moment is not generating as much revenue as we need to survive.”

His approach to monetising this audience mirrors Conde Nast and News UK: “One of the things we’re really looking at now is quality reach, not total reach,” says Grinsted, “so we’re far more interested in building ongoing, deep meaningful relationships through our content, as opposed to just going for that top-line number.”

Industry changes

All of these publishers are working within a climate now where someone can write a piece on Medium, post it to social media and have it picked up by a news organisation in the time it takes you to get home from work. This is where brand and quality control are of the utmost importance.

Duncan said that at News UK it comes down to: “Where does quality win out over time?” Harris agreed, saying: “Media has never been so democratic” but that this presents an opportunity for publishers in that “authority and brand value now has more value than ever. We are really pegging our success on the value of our brands and what those brands stand for. It’s bigger than journalism, it’s about the entire value package that you have.”


As the likes of Facebook, with instant articles, and Apple with Apple news, will siphon off traffic from publishers, apps become the best place to fence readers in. Grinsted explained: “In the new world we may have given up ultimate control over our distribution, but what we’ve gained is control over the actual product, which is the journalism that people read.”

Grinsted believes that it is about removing barriers between the consumer and your content, especially as that audience continues to move to mobile. This is why The Guardian is so focused on delivering content through its app, as this becomes a predictable place to serve the audience Guardian content.

Grinsted also stated his belief that native advertising will be the best way to solve the issue of monetising mobile traffic. “Mobile is about content, it’s not about massive banner ads. So if you can create content that in itself is monetised then that, for us, is really helping solve the mobile problem,” he says.


Content has never been so fractured as it has become on the internet, meaning editors have less and less control over how their content is packaged and displayed online.

This is another reason why publishers are so keen on pushing their app platforms. Duncan of News UK said: “What you’re finally seeing now with apps is that people really want to read the content in the way that we’ve curated it. The distribution capability of Facebook and Google is incredible, but the lack of control as an editor is enormous.”

Harris takes it one step further, stating that packaging is one of the three key prongs of a modern day publishing business when it comes to driving revenue. Harris argues that consumers won’t pay for content as most consumers, when faced with the first barrier, will simply find it elsewhere. What they will pay for is: “Identity, packaging and something tangible.”

The first two of these come down to your brand and the last comes down to getting creative in what you can offer readers in addition to your content. Whether this is events, exclusive offers or handpicked products. This is where the challenge for publishers will lie in the future.

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