Just did this interview with Marketing Mix on the (yawn) print vs online debate…

What is your opinion on the general attitude of the newspaper industry towards the merging of online and print?

I think there are sceptics and believers. There will be a measure of merging, but I believe that online and print will also continue to co-exist as distinct products, offering similar or the same content — at least in the forseeable future. Even in developed countries, newspapers in their traditional form will continue far into the forseeable future as a niche, serving those who want their news in paper format. I think cries that online will “replace” newspapers have been overdone. In the future, media companies will also begin offering their newspapers on cheap, re-usable, flexible, digital paper that can be rolled up and are always connected to the net — that is, these newspapers will become websites. So eventually newspapers and websites will become the same thing. But they will also continue to offer their newspapers in paper format, for those who want it in this format.

How far is SA behind (in general) when it comes to combining online and print?

I think there are some very savvy companies that are converging their print and online entities successfully. It doesn’t always make sense for a company to do this — it really depends on a given company’s strategic objectives, what target market they serve, and how far down the road they are with their online and print strategies — timing is critical.

What ‘cool’ things do you have on the M&G site that no one else does, and how are the ‘cool’ things working out – are people using RSS feeds etc, for example?

“Cool”…hmmm… let me see… We offer a link via a blog search engine, Technorati, below each M&G Online article that shows readers who is blogging any given article on the site or who is blogging our site in general. The idea is to recognise bloggers who blog the M&G Online and give them back a bit of “link love” (linking to them, because they linked to us) — this reciprocity is key to understanding how the blogosphere works. We have further added a link below our articles that makes it easier to publicly bookmark M&G Online articles on the successful social bookmarking website http://del.icio.us, where users can create “linkblogs”. We offer a basic multi-user blog platform, which is actually a hybrid of a blog and a forum, called Blogmark at www.blogmark.co.za. It’s really basic at the moment and we have plans to expand it. We also managed to get political party leaders to blog a “behind-the-scenes” view of their respective campaign trails during the local elections, seen at http://electionblogs.mg.co.za. Watch out for the M&G podcast, which we will be launching soon.

What are the problems/challenges facing publishers that actually want to embrace online?

The key challenges is that online in South Africa is still niche as a result of high connectivity charges and the socio-economic disparities in our country. That said, South Africa’s online population accounts for more than half of that of the whole of Africa and allows advertisers to tap into a high LSM and access people while at work using the internet. The internet is emerging as the key daytime, weekday channel for advertisers wanting to reach consumers. As new broadband services roll out such as 3G, HSDPA and their is increasing pressure to lower other broadband services such as ADSL and DSL, we expect the country’s online population to increase. But, unfortunately, the internet in South Africa will remain out of reach of lower income and poor South Africans — a sector of the population that newspaper tabloids have been able to serve. This will only change unless over time there is massive socio-economic change in South Africa.

Should SA publishers be worried about online? Is it a threat?

Online is an opportunity more than a threat. If there are people out there that still think online is a “threat”, then they should should get out their typewriters and starting typing.

What is hampering the real growth of online at the moment?

Answered above.

How long do you think we have until online starts eating into circulation/ad revenue the way it has in the US and UK?

On a relative scale, online in South Africa is starting to show growth rates in online advertising revenues similar to that in the US. However the market here is obviously exponentially smaller. But growth in the local online advertising has been promising and¬†advertisers are beginning to allocate bigger budgets towards online. Whether this is at the expense of other mediums, I really can’t say.

What are the next steps in terms of technology and integrating print and online that publishers need to embrace and use?

Editorially, online and print can work well together to enhance journalism, by using the innate features the online medium can bring such as its interactivity, many-to-many publishing model, user participation, unlimited space and searchability. From an advertising perspective, there is an opportunity to cross-sell both online and print as a package, again using the innate advantages of online such being able to measure and target campaigns or collect opt-in email addresses for the advertiser.

How can an online presence be using for success brand-building both for the newspaper itself as well as advertising clients?

answered above

Has online revenue started to make a positive impact on the overall bottom line?

Some online operations are reporting profitability in South Africa for the first time, but many are also embarking on expansion plans to take advantage of favourable market conditions and future growth prospects, which would put pressure on the bottom line.

Are clients and ad agencies geared for an online presence? If no, what needs to be done (by all parties) to ensure online ad revenue success?

Some clients and agencies are very geared towards the online presence and have made strong businesses out of it. Unfortunately, many advertising agencies have been slow to recogise the benefits of the online medium as part of the overall media mix. I think responsibility also lies with the online publishing industry to lobby and market the benefits of the online medium, something which we do via the Online Publishers Association (OPA). As the online advertising industry grows its share of the advertising pie, so it will increasingly move on to the radar screens of traditional ad agencies as a viable medium that can produce return on investment for advertisers.

What are the differences between having a print publication and an online site – ie what do publishers/journalists need to learn and understand about online in order to meet consumer expectations?

Answered above?

What is your opinion on citizen journalism and its part?

I think citizen media is a revolutionary phenomenon that is taking the world by storm. It’s early days and we are still in the formative stages of this burgeoning media. Citizen media is growing into a successful form of journalism in its own right, with its own value proposition. I don’t buy the hype that it will “replace” mainstream media and I find statements of this ilk increasingly boring. Citizen media and mainstream media (including online media sites which practice traditional journalism), have a co-dependent, symbiotic relationship. Mainstream media’s offerings are often bolstered by citizen journalists’ offerings. We are in the hype phase of the citizen journalism phenomenon, which means we are probably dwelling too much on the positives and not facing the hard questions about limitations in citizen journalism — such as the fact that citizen media is generally not edited, there is no set of uniform ethics, standards or industry bodies to promote and enforce best practice that exist in the mainstream media, such as balance, the strive for objectivity, use of multiple sources, fair comment, accuracy checks, and accountability.

What do you do about premium news (subscribing mostly?) as most people won’t pay for the privilege esp as they can normally find the stories elsewhere on the internet? But how viable is free content?

In certain instances, I think the paid content model can work if the information is highly niched, completely unique and compelling enough for someone to pay for it. It may work for a publication’s archives and should always be part of a package that also includes free content. In the online news sector however, I think paid content is failing and many publishers are reviewing the model in the light of worldwide online advertising increases and the rise of blogs and other citizen media that only link to free media. Publishers underestimate the traffic impact from the blogosphere at their peril.

Is there a threat yet to classifieds (print and online) from sites such as craigslist, and how do you combat this?

As a result of the innate searchability of the web, jobs and classifieds naturally works better online than print. I think Craigslist is an excellent and important offering. I don’t think any one online publication has a monopoly over classifieds. Each will run their own classifieds, with their own unique offering, suitable to their audience. Some publishers may whitelabel other classifieds.

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