In the early 2000s, I worked with a tech company that serviced magazine publishers with advertisement and content solutions. Then, before the rise of web content and digital editions, magazine publishers were very competitive when selling advertising space in print and each obsessed with getting market share over their competitors.

They achieved this by trying to understand their readership: who their readers were, what they were interested in and what their buying patterns looked like to present their audience as the desired user for any of their advertisers. When the digital evolution started to take hold, this understanding gave them greater reach into their reader base and they were able to exploit this information in new ways.

The rise of behavioural tracking

Thirty years ago, in order for magazines to paint a picture of who their readers were, they sent a print survey out to subscribers and hoped that they were returned.  With the rise of digital, magazines attempted to better understand their readers using behavioural tracking. They started tracking their activity on the web; what they were browsing for, what they were interacting with, how long they read articles for, what types of articles those were, etc. They conducted systematic enrichment, which included automated semantic techniques as well as manual enrichment, categorising them carefully using certain criteria, such as by genre, in the case of music, to better group and classify their audience.

In addition, by overlaying known data with predicted data, magazines were much more easily able to harvest important information about their readers, including demographic data (age, gender, income bracket), as well as education, interests, etc. Having access to this information became a very powerful tool for magazines in targeting their content and their advertising.

By contrast, many newspapers were late in adopting behavioural tracking. Due to their ability – mainly in UK – to demand high advertising fees, some big brand newspapers duly received and processed orders for ad space readily.

But this all began to change when some of the larger newspapers started to exploit what they had learned from the magazine space in terms of needing to understand its readership.

They achieved this through building individual profiles for readers. Previously, many news sites didn’t ask their readers to register, but they quickly began to tokenise readership; dropping a tracking cookie on the reader’s computer and building up a profile using that tracker. If the reader subsequently registered, the tracker was then attached to the registration data, thus granting further insights, and validation of the profile.

So how do newspapers and magazines use this profile data? They use it to determine what advertising to show their readers. The advertising sales desk has changed in recent years to become much more targeted. Previously, if a website had a sport section with a football page, then a supplier of football merchandise would simply use that space to advertise directly to that readership. Still, it would be impossible to tell whether a reader was a football player or just a fan. With the behavioural model, we know much more about the reader, such as whether they’re interested in football because they’ve navigated to that page, their age and gender, and, based on those demographics or criterial, whether they are therefore more likely to play football or be looking to buy football equipment.

Another well-applied strategy that newspapers tend to adopt is to recommend content, driven not only by what someone is reading on a given page (which is the more traditional mode academic publishers adopt on their sites) but also through a deep understanding of the individual’s profile and their historical interactions on the website.

The value of breaking down content

During this critical stage of change, newspapers were lagging behind magazines in another area too. Newspapers first published their content online in a flat format, predominantly on PDF files. They didn’t realise the value of breaking down the content, adding data to it and providing different user experiences based on the understanding of who the reader is and what device they use.

Whilst PDF downloads are still very common today in academic publishing, in order to improve user experience, underlying data should be utilised to target content based on the search for information at the very start of the user’s journey. Search on a website can be enhanced by being tuned into the understanding of what the reader might be interested in and therefore rank search results accordingly.

Content aside, one should focus on usability, information architecture and tailoring the user experience to the individual. Sadly, it is all too common in the scholarly space to come across websites that have not been touched for several years. As users’ habits and expectations change, the platforms that deliver content must also harness new technology too.

From Local Newspapers to Global Publishers

‘Hyperlocal’ newspapers, publications – that cover events in a local context, set a great example for academic publishers. Typically, there are three ways they make money. The first is by monetising their content in some way, shape or form, secondly, by selling advertising space to hungry retailers, and/or thirdly, through encouraging their user base to generate content for them, which is still something of an emerging trend.

This mechanism represents the so-called “velvet rope” for content publishers. In this model, the publisher not only wants a reader to interact with its site but to also add value to it. The Milton Keynes Citizen is a good example of a hyperlocal newspaper in a small UK town adopting this approach.

Many newspapers, particularly these so-called hyperlocal newspapers, have been able to attract knowledgeable individuals to submit articles for publication a weekly basis.  They set out to cultivate high-quality user-generated content from a reliable readership base.

The academic space could take full advantage of this. Articles published online can be commented on and enriched by recognised experts within that same field, either on publishers’ own platforms or via services such as Mendeley. This is an opportunity that’s ready and waiting for publishers to take advantage of, but so far only a small number have put it into practice. Content delivery platforms can easily support this kind of activity, since it adds value, context and additional credibility to content, it’s an inevitable progression.

A Challenging Future

It’s worth keeping in mind that magazines, newspapers and scholarly publishers are all at different stages of their evolution. There are lessons to be learned – both positive and negative – from within other verticals and it’s important to think about user experience as much as we think about the value of the content itself.

The newspapers that understood this early on went on to learn those all-important lessons from magazine publishing and now own the most successful newspaper sites in the world. We’re now entering a similar phase in academic publishing where the academic publishers that learn the quickest from the past will become the most successful in the future.

David Montgomery
About David Montgomery

In September, 2015, David assumed the role of Ingenta’s CEO. He was previously Chief Technology Officer, where he was responsible for driving all aspects of the company’s IT strategy, including its vision, innovation and roadmap. In addition to defining the technical architecture and development of the company’s core products, David continues to manage their testing, rollout, and on-going support, working in close collaboration with the company’s customers to ensure that product strategy and development is aligned and with client requirements. Prior to Ingenta, David was Managing Director of Software Operations at Inspired Thinking Group (ITG), a Tech Track 100 company, where he was responsible for overseeing software hosting, application management, software development and customer services. Prior to that, he held various senior positions, including Chief Innovation Officer, at software company Atex, 10 years as Director of Technology at 5 Fifteen and spent 9 years as Director of Technology at Anite plc (previously Autofile).