If you’re not #digitalfirst, don’t be digital at all

Last week Private Eye claimed its highest circulation since 1986, with a 4.6 percent increase year-on-year to 228,264. The news prompted its Editor, Ian Hislop to remark: “These figures are completely unbelievable. Are they from the Treasury?”.

What makes this success particularly impressive is the fact that Private Eye does not produce a digital issue, thereby bucking the trend for print journalism in seemingly terminal decline. Yet ironically, this story of offline success stands testament to the power of the digital world.

In June 1995, a Private Eye reader wrote in as follows: “Sir – I was wondering if you had any plans to put further sections of the Eye on the net?” The reply was short and to the point: “…No. Go and buy the mag.

As Hislop explained in an interview for InPublishing in 2014: “I looked at newspapers and magazines giving away what they had for free, not gaining any readers through it, but actually losing them. It seemed to me that was madness.”

When newspapers first began to make the move online, I always perceived a certain lunacy in them publishing online for free while still charging for the printed copy. There you had the newsagents on the High Street: walk in through the front door and your daily rag cost you a quid-fifty or whatever. But nip round the back via a little alley called the “information superhighway” and it was all yours free and gratis. Bonkers!

The whole thing reflected a towering hubris for the invincibility of the status quo; a real failure to grasp the potential of the online space, both as a threat and as an opportunity. Even now, when you look at many online editions, there’s very little effort to fully adapt or repackage the offering and make it more appealing and digestible for the online audience.

While the loyal and the reactionary have remained, newspapers have effectively invited new readers to consume a sub-standard online offering, whose only appeal was that it was free. No wonder those people discovered other news outlets whose product (and business model) was more suited to the digital marketplace. Or stuck with those who, like private Eye, stayed out of it altogether.

What private Eye realised early on was that the online world was not to be trifled with. And that it would be a bigger mistake to approach digital half-heartedly than not at all.

The move to digital isn't a silver bullet that solves all commercial problems unless your business model is properly geared to it. Many “born digital” news providers adopted a more discursive approach, gauging, monitoring and including audience opinion and behaviour in real time. Traditional newspapers were slow to catch on.

If digital isn't a commercial utopia, neither is traditional media a barren wasteland - as Private Eye has proved. This may seem like a curious point for a “digital first” agency to concede. But notice again, we're digital first, not digital only. We never said all other channels were dead. But we do believe that digital should be the mainstay of marketing communication. It's where we think the biggest opportunities lie. But getting digital right can be complex (as Private Eye understood).

Whether you're using digital as a shop window, a sales channel or your entire product experience, you have to really analyse and understand how your audience will interact with your offering. You can't just throw stuff out there simply because it worked elsewhere and hope for the great results.

We apply our “FIRST” acronym: Focus on behaviour; Incite reaction with content and ideas; Reach through the appropriate channels; Shape through optimisation; and Track the results for success.

We applaud Private Eye's commercial success, achieved without the application of any of this thinking - and maintain that even greater opportunities beckon if the magazine ever does want to take up the digital challenge. (And we're here to help: call Sam Rowlands on 016 839 6289 for some no nonsense strategic insights on how to make the shift to a #digitalfirst position).

But it's not an endeavour to be embarked upon lightly. As regular Private Eye readers will agree, the image above beautifully illustrates the perils that await an aged veteran of print journalism hoping to gain penetration for its organ within a fresh, young channel.