A partner in life: reflections on Twipe's 2021 Digital Growth Summit

Earlier this week I had the privilege of hosting Twipe’s 2021 Digital Growth Summit at their headquarters in Leuven, Belgium. 
Twipe is an innovative media technology company, headed by Danny Lein, its founder and ceo. It is celebrating its tenth anniversary and used the occasion to look forward to the next decade in digital news publishing. 
Here are my reflections on a thought-provoking couple of days.

“Survival to growth”

First, a glance backwards. I opened the summit remarking that the news industry feels like it is in a very different, more optimistic place than in 2011. Back then, attendees of an imaginary prior summit marking the foundation of Twipe would have been furiously debating the merits of a subscription versus a free model in the light of the worsening financial situation many were facing as they came to the realisation that print was emphatically not their future. 

Now, almost everyone is building some kind of direct relationship with readers, whether through subscriptions or not, and, as Kristin Skogen Lund, the ceo of Schibsted, said of her own business, they are moving from “survival to growth”. 

Many present will equally have been heartened by the analysis of Markus Schöberl of PV Digest, which suggested that there is no upper limit (apart from the total population, of course) to the number of profitable subscribers that news organisations might attract. 

He overlaid data around the willingness of people to pay in different countries, with the amounts they pay and the total revenues from subscriptions, to show a much more encouraging outlook, with the possibility of exponential growth. 

The subscription business is going to get tougher

Having said that, it is clear that the business is facing significant challenges. Gert Ysebaert, the ceo of Mediahaus, which is confident enough in the business to have announced yet another acquisition – in Germany –  this week, nevertheless said that “after the war for attention, there will be a subscription war”. 

The key point, he said, was that this “war” does not just involve your traditional competitors in the news industry. Instead, anyone who charges for their services on a recurring basis – and many others are intent on joining Netflix, Amazon and Apple in that market – will be your competitor. 

As Ysebaert pointed out, people are going to look at their bank accounts and think, “Hang on, I’m paying for how many subscriptions?!?”

I agree with his assessment that, as news media publications, “we must be one of the two or three that people want to pay for”.

Are our products good enough?

The word “want” is important in that sentence. News has to really prove its value to consumers where it has so many competitors. 

Thomas Baekdal, the Danish media analyst, was typically combative when he asserted that news is now a standalone product and that “for a standalone product, it’s not good enough”. 

What he meant was that our news coverage – in the broadest sense – must be more relevant and useful to readers now that digital discovery and delivery have eroded the value of the bundle of content that we used to provide in print and emulated in early digital offerings. 

In print days you sold your products on the quality of the front page and the general reputation of the brand. Today individual bits of content must compete for attention and engagement on their own. “We need to take it 10x higher,” he said, and it is hard to disagree with his sentiment.

Know your readers

Baekdal’s theme that publishers need to understand why exactly readers are paying for their services was taken up by Louise Story, the former chief news strategist and chief product and technology officer of the Wall Street Journal. She said the industry should stop talking about undertaking a “digital transformation” but instead an “audience transformation”. 

This was one of the encouraging themes of the summit: everyone was talking about how they were seeking to understand user needs. In the past, in a hangover from print days, I think we assumed too much that we knew what readers wanted because we had been giving it to them for hundreds of years.

How do you find out what they want? Easy. You ask them, you employ them (particularly in the case of the elusive Gen Z) and listen to them, and you see what they like through their user data. As I always used to say to data sceptics in the newsroom: “the data is your readers”. 

It was interesting to hear from Peter Soetens how Mediahaus is aligning its data with the user needs the journalists are trying to target. This is the start of a real revolution in journalism. 

It’s a challenge though. As Story pointed out, and I know from personal experience, it is hard to “tell top editors they are not tastemakers” – and that instead they should respond to the needs of their audiences (plural). That print legacy runs deep.

The herd of elephants

It is obvious that as an industry we need to move fast to address these issues because of the clear and present danger of the tech giants, who were mentioned in almost every presentation. 

In Leuven, they were not just the elephant in the room but a herd of elephants who look like they might trample our village.

It’s been clear to me for a while that they are increasingly shaping to become the primary point of interaction with the news for their users – aka most of the world’s population. They could become super-aggregators of all the world’s best content, and charge as such, even if they don’t undertake any journalism themselves. 

They may be sharing some of the financial spoils with some, but not all, publishers, but that’s not enough to support a viable news industry globally. 

As Ysebaert said: “They are our most important challenge. The digital ecosystem is under their control. If we don’t watch out they will take over our business.” 

A partner in life

How do we address this challenge, which at times can seem insuperable? Well, the keynote speaker at the conference, the customer experience expert Steven van Belleghem, had some positive thoughts.

He reflected on how the pandemic accelerated the digital transformation of the global economy and of our lives by years in the space of just a few months. In eight weeks from March 2020, for example, e-commerce in America grew by as much as it had done in the previous decade. As a result customers now have “zero tolerance for digital inconvenience”. They expect products to work – right away, and with no friction – and to know who and what their preferences are. 

So, of course, news products have to work straight away and provide personalised services as a matter of course, but what can differentiate them is the ability to be a “partner in life” to the user. 

This speaks to the audience focus described above: we have to know what stories people want, when they want them and how they want them (text, video, audio?) and deliver them in a frictionless fashion. 

Van Belleghem gave the charming example of the oxpecker birds that live on the back of rhinos. Their relationship is symbiotic: the birds alert the short-sighted beasts to the (dangerous) presence of humans and in exchange get a ride and a feed from the ticks that live on the rhinos. Van Belleghem said the news media should be like the oxpecker for our customers: “Always around, not intrusive, bringing value, with the right timing.”

How we do that is the challenge of the next decade.

For more reports on the individual sessions, try Twipe’s excellent assessment of the key takeaways. 

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