Why small publishers are set for a big win as mass media implodes.

Advertisers blindly buying an audience has gone out of fashion.

By Tim Burrowes

A version of this story first ran in Tim Burrowes’ weekly newsletter. It’s republished here with permission from the author.


I’ve always liked the point of view that there are two types of communications planners—lumpers and slicers—those who want to lump together as much of the population together as possible, and those who want to slice it as thinly as possible.

What’s emerged in alternative strategies for digital media publishers is similar. And in Australia, at least, the lumping is what now threatens the magazine industry.

There are those who have gone for selling to mass audiences, and those who have gone for targeting specific audiences.

In Australia the pendulum swung firmly over the last decade or two toward the portal approach of building big audiences, treating them all the same, and selling those aggregated masses to advertisers.

That left little room for the craft beloved of print magazines, which thrives when nurturing small but passionate audiences who have a lot in common.

A ton of new evidence has emerged that simply chasing mass audiences without a specific monetization plan does not work.

Mashable’s move three or four years ago from being a site about what’s new and interesting in social media to a bit of everything appears to have failed.

The three-year-old Australian edition of Mashable rarely makes a splash. Even its upwards blip in this week’s Nielsen digital news rankings only served to emphasize its lack of reach. An audience of 284,000 is untenable for a mainstream site.

The decision to sell to Ziff Davis for a reported $50 million suggests a site whose value (and momentum) has declined drastically over the last 12 months.

The end of reach

Then there’s BuzzFeed, the ultimate champion of native advertising. Yet there’s increasing evidence that it has struggled to build a native advertising model at sufficient scale to support its offering. The Wall Street Journal reported in the last few days that it may miss its revenue targets by 20%.

Locally, HuffPost doesn’t seem to be working, certainly not as a joint venture with Fairfax Media. I can’t remember the last time I saw a local HuffPo article shared on social media by anyone I know.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see the two partners go their separate ways in the coming days.

The smoke and mirrors of Lisa Wilkinson as an editor-at-large for HuffPo who barely files an article for the site (just 15 in the last two years) gained a few headlines early on, but didn’t help find a committed audience.

The arrival of the New York Times Australia has also been a fizzler. While it’s a magnificent title in print and online for those interested in US and wider international coverage, its Aussie output still feels like it’s being mainly written to explain those wacky Australian larrikins to a US audience.

When it comes to global brands creating credible local operations, the exception that proves the rule is The Guardian Australia, which has at least developed its own personality.

But of course, The Guardian is almost certainly still losing a shedload of money locally. Plus, it’s only here because of the seed funding of philanthropist Graeme Wood.

And what all the international brands I’ve just mentioned have in common is that they have deep pockets.

They’ve disrupted the existing media models without being expected to turn an immediate profit. Reach and mass have been the priority.

But it feels like the easy venture capital that gave the likes of BuzzFeed and Mashable the ability to chase audiences without making a short-term profit is coming to an end.

Building on small

A tiny audience can be a valuable, and monetizable, one.

The pendulum is swinging away from aggregated audiences.

But with so much renewed focus on the murkiness of the programmatic-tainted digital supply chain, advertisers blindly buying an audience has gone out of fashion.

If Australia’s magazine publishers have a future beyond managing decline by closing more titles every few months, it will come from refocusing on the powerful brands and putting resource behind serving those individual audiences.

Tim Burrowes

Tim Burrowes is Founder & Content Director of Mumbrella, Australia's media & marketing umbrella. Follow Tim Burrowes on Twitter.

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