In Theodore Levitt's classic marketing essay, "Marketing Myopia" he describes how the once mighty railroads went bankrupt by failing to understand they were in the transportation business, not the railroad business. Many publishers are making the same mistake, thinking they are in the content delivery business when they are actually now in the customer engagement business.
Like the railroads, many publishers are failing to see how much new technology can transform an industry.
The Internet makes content a commodity. Think that great celebrity interview in your June issue is so unique? Type her name into Goggle followed by the word "interview" and see ten other interviews your readers can instantly access. But your ability to use content to engage and service readers has never been more valuable. The internet may commoditize content, but is also creates a need for knowledgeable guidance though the vast, conflicting, un-moderated content chaos that is the Internet.
Also, digital media does not just "transmit" content like print media does, digital media transforms it. When content is delivered through digital social media channels the content added by readers can be more important than content generated by editors. How many readers link to an article can have a profound effect on search engines ranking which can make or break the life of a piece of content. Publishers who think their "transition to digital" is about swapping analog transport for digital ignores the importance of interactive reader participation. This came out loud and clear in the recent study, "The Case for Advertising in Interactive Digital Magazines" as it documented the core reason marketers advertise in digital magazines is to deliver an interactive brand experience to readers. When value comes from interactivity it is not hard to see why straight digital replicas of print magazines have less value to advertisers.
It is important to anticipate that digital content will be aggregated, redistributed, rated, commented on, ranked by Goggle, re-purposed, trashed, praised, and ignored as part of the process. All this is very healthily, adds value to the content you create, and is the key to your ability to monetize it. Why? Because it shows that the mere content that you pump out is driving the creation of an online community. If you can show a lot of interactivity between your community members, the value increases. Again, online, most content is a commodity, but when you use it to build a community, you create something of unique value that you can charge for.
For publishers, the transition from analog to digital can be painful, unfair, and frustrating. At the heart of a successful transition to digital is a reinvention of the business model. Magazine publishers are often initially surprised by the tiny revenue their digital media generates as they swap $10K print pages for $1K newsletter banners. But those newsletters, operating within a community as data gatherers, can return big profits when leveraged properly. Subscriptions for magazines and newsletters are harder to charge for when they go digital, but free subscriptions operating as content development centers, can be leveraged to create other reader experiences that can be monetized.
The key to figuring all this out starts with answering the simple question, "What business are you in?" Online, most content is a commodity. If you still think you are in the content business...please, think again.