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Interview with Russell Pierpoint, MD

What's New In Publishing Interview Monday, 9 March 2015 - 8:08am

When and why did you set up Evolved Media Solutions?

Having worked in publishing for over 20 years I could see the potential for a business that would help publishers make the most of the opportunities that digital media was opening up for them. We launched Evolved Media Solutions in 2007, at a time when digital magazines were just flash-based page-turner replicas of print titles. The advent of Apple’s iPad in 2010 was seen as a saviour by magazine publishers, but this hasn’t really turned out to be the case.

What have been your biggest challenges?

After the initial excitement and hype around launching digital publications, many publishers lost heart when they found that their digital magazines weren’t bringing in a whole new audience or even retaining their existing subscribers. Publishers have been learning as they go (and making mistakes) as it’s a totally new platform and market with new challenges. Unfortunately some titles have failed while others have downgraded their investment in digital magazines and the initial wave of innovation has now faded.

We think digital publishing still offers huge potential, but publishers need to seriously rethink what they are doing – and getting them to realise this has been the biggest challenge we’ve faced over the past few years.

What have they been getting wrong?

The trouble is, many publishers simply replicate their print magazine on a tablet rather than thinking about what kind of service consumers want – consumer expectations of digital formats are complex and can be very different from print magazines.

A good example of this can be seen in the many magazines that make up the interior design sector. Most have just imitated their print product in a digital format, while maybe adding some interactivity. As a result, they have struggled to create the audience they might have expected. They see the other magazines in this sector as their competitors, when actually they should be looking more at the likes of Houzz – a social platform for home remodelling and design - as a competitor.

Houzz gives people much of what they want from an interiors magazine with an added twist. As well as providing inspiration to create moodboards and scrapbooks, it makes itself more useful and relevant to the consumer than its magazine counterparts by providing practical tools and connecting them directly with architects and designers whose style they like. You can even buy the products shown so that you can also live the dream and create the same look you’ve seen on screen.

Houzz provides a service and this is what publishers should be focusing on too, rather than concentrating solely on content and channels. Consumers live in a digital world and have got used to products providing options to click through to find out more or make a purchase on websites. They want digital magazines to do the same.

For the likes of Houzz, this is potentially a great business model too. They can earn money through an affiliate-style payment model, earning commission for the introductions. Plus, they can feed the need for content with a constant stream of images being uploaded by those keen to sell their wares or services and there’s an advice forum too.

A digital magazine has the potential to create the connectivity, but with added credibility. The gravitas and third party intelligence that journalists provide should be able to lift digital magazines above the new publishing pretenders – but only if it’s one part of the mix that gives consumers more.

Grazia is one of the few magazines that gets this and is carving a hugely successful path as a result.

So is it just a state of mind that’s holding digital publishers back?

No. There has also been a problem with a lack of joined up thinking with the companies that provide publishers with digital solutions such as apps. They create products for publishers that are on brief – but they should look beyond the brief and help publishers see the bigger picture about what technology can really do for them. As a result, there are artificial barriers between technology and the publications which hamper the evolution of more sophisticated consumer interactions.

Cohesive thinking would help in other aspects too. Technology firms, publishers and retailers should come together as a dream team to create digital publications that provide the inspiration, connectivity and experience that takes consumers on a journey from the spark of an idea through to purchase. However, they tend to work in silos and with different standards and formats which make it difficult to share things and merge content and applications. Hence, digital magazines remain essentially in analogue mode.

What is you main piece of advice for publishers?

Rethink your payment model. Publishers still measure success in terms of subscriptions which is fine for print magazines, but subscriptions for digital magazines create barriers for consumers who are used to a digital world where most things are free. It’s a big sea change for digital publishers, but they need to make their content free at the point of consumption as a means to gain consumer interest and create wider distribution. They then need to think creatively about revenue streams that replace subscriptions – bearing in mind that the cost of setting up and running a digital magazine is significantly lower than a print magazine, so profit ratios are different.

It’s similar to what has happened in the music industry. Around five years or so ago when free downloads and live streaming revolutionised how people accessed music, especially among certain generations.

However, instead of contracting, the music industry has shifted. While a great deal of music is accessed for free, the music industry has identified that people are happy to pay for different things, and at varying levels, depending on their interest. So limited collectors’ editions of CDs are sold at a premium; Spotify is growing as a useful way to access music from one place; live music is growing as festivals proliferate.

Publishers can learn a great deal from this and need to get creative. The new payment models need to enable consumers to participate at the level they want, with a pricing scale that reflects this. So guides could be written with helpful, in-depth advice, which consumers can buy as extras; posters and other merchandise can be created from images and themes in the magazine; special events such as ‘Meet the Specialists’ evenings, ‘how to’ classes and exhibitions provide huge potential for revenue.

Also, think about new commercial elements of the revenue stream that can be created, such as innovative platforms where content can be sponsored and shared by third parties (e.g. in-flight reading matter on planes), affiliate deals for sales made via your website, pay-per-click deals etc. Other types of partnerships around content and events are possible too.

In addition, I think publishers need to think bigger. For those digital magazines still focused on subscriptions, 7,000 subscribers is viewed as a success. However, with YouTubers often having subscribers in the millions, is this good enough? Especially when online audiences are international.

So what’s next for publishers, and for Evolved Media Solutions?

The digital publishers that are here today, and that will still be here in five years’ time, are those that take this thinking and redefine what publishing means. As well as being a content provider, a publisher is an entertainer, a source of inspiration, a retailer, a credible advisor, a manufacturer, event organiser and a portal to a world of connectivity around the area of interest it covers. At EMS, we want to help publishers in their reinvention and, in particular, to provide them with more open technology that will help them evolve. The challenge remains to show them that they need to change, before it’s too late…

Thank you.

8 St Thomas Street | London, SE1 9RR | T +44(0)208 669 1804 | info@evolvedmediasolutions.co.uk