There are times when you wonder whether traditional publishers actually "get" digital at all. They embrace programmatic trading and then worry about falling CPMS, they extoll the virtues of native and then flood their pages with low-rent clickbait. And then they start to give away digital content again.
Our old friends at Future -- a company that not so long ago I thought was leading the pack in the UK, but now seemingly stumbles from one financial mess to the next -- has decided on a surprising policy. They are going to give a digital edition to anybody who buys a print edition of one of their titles. That’s right. Give away. Free. For no money. Let’s remember that Future were thought of as the leaders in this field. Media Conferences always had somebody from Future telling us how they were making millions on digital editions across the portfolio with everything from PDF page turners to fully blown bells-and-whistles productions. And the publishing world lapped it up as the silver bullet that would save them all. And as we know, the publishing world loves a silver bullet. I give you paywalls, mobile, etc..
I have read some media commentators who say Future's plan makes sense. Let’s face it -- giving away digital editions free with print is sadly unlikely to knock the sales of digital editions, and merely handing out extra digital versions won’t give the FD a heart attack.
All that being said, there's something that distinctly reeks of 2005 about using digital editions as a value-add for print on this sort of scale -- especially from a publisher like Future who have previously made much of their success of this part of the business. You only have to go back to November 2012 to see that they were talking about digital editions bringing in over £700k per month in gross revenue.
So what has gone wrong? Why give away your content? You don’t read of the old practice of bunging in a few banner ads as a value add on a print package, so why give away a digital edition to boost print sales?
It’s a harsh world, but if you have to give away digital content to make print sell then there is something wrong with your print product. Although I’m wondering if in this case it’s something much bigger.
You don’t have to be a media expert to understand that Future is not the happiest place to be right now. Consecutive years of declining profits spooked the shareholders, who in turn forced out CEO Mark Wood earlier this year. The new CEO, Zillah Byng-Maddick, has subsequently sold off large chunks of its portfolio. She has also closed the unit set up at the start of the year to develop new ways of making money from apps.
I’ve been in publishing a long time. I have lost count of the amount of times publishers have forsaken print to focus on digital. This is the first time I’ve seen a publisher take the opposite route. And I’m pretty sure it will be the only time.