Audience engagement, innovation and enterprise; there were many excellent qualities on display among the shortlisted entries for this year’s AOP Digital Publishing, but perhaps the most striking was boldness.
Across all the categories the judges saw examples of publishers responding to changing market conditions by taking risks, making big bets and branching out into new areas.
This boldness, which one judge described as “the refusal to hunker down and cut costs” manifested itself in different ways. Some titles expanded their operations into new areas of business, as shown by PC Gamer’s decision not only to move into events, but to do so in the very heart of gaming, the E3 show in Las Vegas. Some, such as Business Insider, launched ambitious expansions into new geographical regions. And some changed their business model entirely. NME went from paid-for to free with impressive results, while Nursing Times changed from a subs and recruitment-based title to become an e-learning and professional development resource, in what the judges called a must-be-seen example of a publisher redefining itself.
Other publishers were less obviously radical, but were equally prepared to take dramatic action, investing and restructuring to cope with changing conditions. One of the reasons that Dennis took the prize for Consumer Publisher of the Year while Incisive won B2B Publisher of the year was the way both rethought their businesses to meet new challenges such as ad-blocking.
And bravery wasn’t limited to business decisions. The judges were also impressed by the courage and tenacity shown by the shortlisted journalists and editors in their reporting. Mirror Online’s Steve Robson went toe-to-toe with much bigger competitors; Architects’ Journal’s Will Hurst followed in the best traditions of dogged investigative journalism; while award-winner Anthony Cuthbertson of Newsweek turned to social tools to crowdsource his stories.
Another thread that ran through the winning entries was the desire to engage with audiences, to learn from them and to deliver better products as a result. We saw this in the success of MadeForMums and its editor, Susie Boone, which was built on a deep understanding of the needs of its readers; and in the way that PC Gamer “used its community to drive engagement” in the words of one judge. And what marked out the winner of the Best Native Advertising Campaign award was the understanding shown by Netflix and Radio Times of exactly what the audience wanted in that situation, which allowed them to create what one judge described as “advertising as a service”.
This desire for better understanding of the audience also showed in the way data underpinned almost every entry on the shortlists. It was seen in MadeforMums’ use of analytics to direct editorial strategy, in the collaborative approach that drove Trinity Mirror’s radical transformation of its activities, and in the innovative partnership between Bluekai and The Economist that increased subscription levels and drove bottom line growth. And Jessica Arnold, winner of Digital Sales Person of the Year, built her success on insights derived from company data, and on the value of the data that Dennis could provide to clients.
The AOP Awards have always recognised and celebrated the best work of the UK’s online publishing industry. With their boldness and enterprise, based on deep, data-based understanding of their audiences, this year’s winners show that the industry is well-placed not just to cope with changing circumstances, but to capitalise on them.