Click the image for the full series.  Photo illustration by wildfox76 via Flickr Creative Commons.

Click the image for the full series.
Photo illustration by wildfox76 via Flickr Creative Commons.

NOTE: The following is a guest op-ed from Pam Horan, the president of the Online Publishers Association. MediaShift’s Mark Glaser and Courtney Lowery Cowgill both work on the OPA Intelligence Report bi-weekly newsletter.

2013 was another fast-moving year full of exciting changes and innovations for digital content producers and consumers. Creating compelling and engaging content has become a top priority for brands and agencies as storytelling took center stage.

As the president of the Online Publishers Association, I spend a lot of time talking to our members and those in leadership roles across the industry— a unique vantage point to witness the evolution of digital content and to see what’s driving the industry forward. As we launch into 2014, now is the perfect time to look back at some big game changers and look ahead to think about what’s in store.

Mobile is a Behavior, Not a Platform

  • Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim  on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Photo by Eden, Janine and Jim on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

    Content and advertising must be created with a consumer-first strategy, which means producers must consider more than just what content is being consumed but also look at patterns like time, place and device. Understanding these habits and then shaping the content to serve these experiences will ensure deeper connections with audiences. There are no one-size-fits-all formulas for creating captivating digital content.

  • Smaller screens require even more compelling experiences. Regardless of whether a mobile strategy is centered on a native app or HTML 5, content has to align with what a consumer wants and how he or she wants it. For example, Turner created the Bleacher Report’s Team Stream App as a measure to capitalize on bite-sized sports stats and facts, which is optimal content for viewing and sharing on smartphones.

The pace of digital innovation shows no sign of slowing, and new devices like wearables introduce new ways for publishers and brands to deliver unique and engaging experiences.

Video, video and more video!

  • Content creators in all sectors, from television to magazines and pure plays, are creating and investing in digital video products and studios to serve consumers’ needs. For example, this year TheStreet launched TheStreetTV, and prior to that Condé Nast launched its digital video arm, Condé Nast Entertainment. They weren’t alone, however. Several other media companies — both new and established — rolled out major initiatives to meet the rising demand for video content. Scripps Ulive, Gawker Studio Showcase and Hearst are just a few more examples of media companies that have made an aggressive push into video production.
  • Media companies are expanding distribution and syndication out to a variety of partners and platforms to achieve the scale marketers require and began to take advantage of multi-platform apps. For instance, A&E and The History Channel are now available on Xbox, and PBS along with Scripps’ newest acquisition, Newsy, can be accessed on Roku.
  • Brand association and context remain a priority. Consider About‘s “Hero Unit,” which features how-to videos integrated into the content stream with helpful content-relevant tips from advertisers. It is digital technology that allows these forms of synergies, and we’ve only begun to scratch the surface.

Expect to see a lot more video and custom solutions for advertisers in 2014. And expect CPMs to remain strong.

Revenue Diversification

  • Paid subscription models are not only helping fuel revenue growth but are enabling publishers to develop deep customer insights from registration data, which can be leveraged for more effective custom marketing and advertising opportunities. This makes “Big Data” a reality, and it will only get bigger.
  • Publishers are continuing to explore more ways to extend their brands, develop deeper engagements with audiences and cultivate new revenue streams. Some notable brand extensions this year included Forbes Wine Club, Travel + Leisure’s T+L Cruise Finder and Real Simple’s partnership with FineStationary.com. Countless other publishers strengthened their models, and again digital technology was instrumental in fueling the growth.

Publishers’ brands are as valued as their content, and this provides a great opportunity for offering complementary products and services based on their brand.

Publishers Put the “Media” in Social Media

Original graphic by SalFalko and used here with Creative Commons license.

Original graphic by SalFalko and used here with Creative Commons license.

On December 2, Facebook announced that it was “paying closer attention to what makes for high quality” because it found that “people prefer links to high quality articles about current events, their favorite sports teams or shared events.” This means that digital media brands will continue to be the conversation starters on social media channels, literally putting the media in social media.

  • Marketers recognize that ads packaged with related content and distributed on social channels have stronger reach. Products like Time Inc.’s Amplify offer advertisers solutions to sponsor content across Time Inc.’s portfolio of brands and to targeted audiences throughout the Amplify Audience Network. The New York Times’ Ricochet social ad technology also allows ads to be packaged and distributed with specific pieces of previously published content offering advertisers contextually relevant experiences.
  • Publishers have both experience and an inherent ability to build and engage audiences, which naturally extends to social. Evidence for that surfaced in October when Facebook reported a 170% increase in referral traffic — almost triple when compared with 2012.
  • Great content drives consumer engagement. People are passionate about the content they love and about the sites they visit regularly to discover and share that content.

There is no reason to believe that the velocity of these trends will slow down in 2014.

Content-First Means Consumer-First

  • Content is the connective tissue across day parts and devices, and publishers will continue to mine data to understand how, where and when it’s consumed to gather additional insights about their readers and the content they desire.
  • The value of creativity and effective storytelling will continue to rise because commanding a consumer’s time and attention is at the heart of delivering great experiences.

As the year winds down we should look back and celebrate our successes – such as an increase in digital ad spending – but we also must recognize the many challenges lying ahead. Looking ahead, one thing is clear: It’s a pivotal time to be in the digital content industry.

Pam Horan is the president of the Online Publishers Assocation. Prior to joining the OPA, Pam worked at Zinio Systems Inc. where she was the Vice President of Marketing and oversaw the marketing and distribution partnerships for the digital magazine publishing system. Before her time at Zinio she served as the VP of Sales Marketing at Women.com Networks, a leading consumer website for women acquired by iVillage. Additionally, Pam has held numerous sales and marketing management positions for a variety of organizations including International Data Group (IDG), Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) and Symantec Corporation. Pam is a graduate of Boston College.