Top 8 takeaways from Mumbrella Publish 2017

This year’s Mumbrella Publish was stacked with some of the publishing and content marketing industry’s most switched-on, sharp-sighted players. Over the one-day event, stories, insights and a dual sense of creeping malaise and invigorating hope gave audiences much food for thought. While we can’t recreate the feast here, we serve up for you here a few substantive bites.

Last Thursday at The Westin Sydney, Mumbrella’s Publish conference returned for its fourth year. Bringing together industry leaders from Australia and overseas, with big wheel reps from VICE, Fairfax Media, Bupa, Pacific Magazines, The Betoota Advocate and (small cough) Mahlab, the issues of the day were declared and debated by those deep in the thick of it. Survivability hacks were shared alongside killer podcasting tips, and new advertising options were mixed in with sessions on how content marketing is coming up big. Over everything, the spectre of the tech titans cast a long, murky shadow.

To refresh the memories of those who came and to enlighten those that couldn’t, we bring you here our curated selection of the day’s top eight takeaways.

1. Content marketing is gaining industry cred

Not too long ago, if you entered ‘content marketing’ into search, Google would toss out a sad few scraps of semi-relevant returns. How things have changed. Content marketing was hot on the topics list at Publish 2017, weaving in and out of sessions as a compass point to a more user-centric world.

As Pacific Magazines’ Chief Executive Officer Gereurd Roberts said, somewhat amazed himself, “Before getting to valuation, metrics outcomes – clients now value content in the first place. That’s an incredible shift over the last 12 months”.

VICE gave kudos to the industry, but from a different angle entirely. “Content marketing is forcing us as a business to evolve,” said Alice Kimberley, Head of Strategy & Insights. If they hadn’t had the backing, the brawn and the creative frisson that brand partnerships provide, VICE wouldn’t have been as able to experiment with new formats and tools, she said, giving the Google collaboration with City Guides as a case in point.

Creating and rejuvenating evergreen content – the stuff that’s built to endure frenetic news cycles and answer those perennial consumer questions – was given particular emphasis across the day. Tickled Media Founder Roshni Mahtani professed that 30-40% of her platform’s content is this “pure SEO play” evergreen kind.

‘Content’ isn’t content marketing though – a mixup of terms about which our own Founder Bobbi Mahlab set everyone straight. “Content marketing is an always-on strategy that develops an owned audience,” she explained. It is a practice and approach that is both fundamentally user-centric and aligned to your business’s long-term goals. In other words, if you’re pushing out content without aligning your program to a committed, long-term strategy, then you’re not doing content marketing. You’re just making stuff. That’s not going to move the needle for you.

Content marketing means more than just creation too, said Bobbi. It’s also figuring out a distribution and amplification strategy. How else are you going to get that cracking content in front of the people you want to reach?

2. Make content worth seeking out

“Don’t be crap.” This call-to-arms was to sound like a gong of rather noble urgency throughout the Westin’s underground chambers. Under different circumstances, it might’ve come across patronising. Instead, it was just bloody vital for all of us to hear.

The economics of the digital ecosystem can make it incredibly hard to remember and hold true to what we’re in it for in the first place. For the most part, that’d be to nourish communities with integrity-driven stories to help people understand the world better, and their relation to it. But the number of Faustian pacts and pressure points publishers are confronted with now is intense.

You have the content churn making us all feel like mincemeat grinders, for one. Then there’s Facebook’s surfacing the inane and outright false at the expense of quality content as an added tension too. And while audiences have never been so easy to reach, they’ve never been so ready or so able to tune us all out. Yet, in a world where lies are surfaced, realities get warped, mundane content festers and Donald Trump is actually actually President of the most powerful nation in the world, it’s imperative that our industry doesn’t go AWOL from its mission to deliver value.

President at Roy Morgan Research Michele Levine was adamant here. Recalling a story where she heard ‘truth’ being first named a currency, and then devalued to a penny at a major corporate event, she noticeably bristled. Serving the public and earning their loyalty is still important, she argued. “We shouldn’t feel old and boring for spruiking the importance of trust.”

And even if you’re not too worried about an ailing democracy or keeping your audiences informed (which you should be), it’s in our commercial interests to create not-crap stuff too. “Readers are putting their money where their mouth is and subscribing to quality content,” pointed out Chris Janz, Managing Director at Australian Metro Publishing. We could do better to trust our audiences a little more on that front ourselves.

One last point here, to clear any misunderstanding and to pay full-hearted due to speaker Simon Crerar, Buzzfeed’s Editor-in-Chief. ‘Crap content’ is not code for GIFs. GIFs can be swell. In truth they can be downright beautiful. No – crap content is content that has no purpose behind it, no intelligence elevating it, no production values shaping it and no motive to enrich the lives of those it’s trying to reach– in whatever minute or momentous way.

3. We’re right to be obsessed with the digital duopoly

“The tech titans are waking up slowly to the fact they are part of the publishing ecosystem,” said Nicholas Gray, CEO of the Australian. Yet the general consensus among speakers was that for all their professions of goodwill, the likes of Google and (in particular) Facebook are far from the allies of integrity-focused content creators. Their recurrent surfacing of fake news, shirking of responsibility and lack of transparency were chief concerns.  

Put this up against the fact that 90% of ad growth last year was pocketed by the digital duopoly, as the Iani Group’s Tim Lovitt was so kind to remind us, and there’s good reason to gulp.  

The thing is – and as you’d expect from a business – the tech titans are fundamentally selfish. Take Facebook’s championing of video, said ABC’s Social Media Strategist Flip Prior. A few years ago, Facebook decreed that it was in love with the format and that its algorithm would love any native video that brands plied it with. Yet so far, Prior noted dryly, we’ve seen “video efforts pay scant dividends”. Yes, it’s engaging. But on the other hand, Facebook is making suckers of us all – coordinating an expensive, en masse pivot which does very little to deliver its users off-platform to any other web terrain.

4. Timidity means death

Playing it safe is a dangerous thing in the age of juggernauts. The ABC’s Prior, who had just returned from a tour of the United States, appeared genuinely depressed that we were not in their league when it comes to digital innovation. American publishers “don’t let commercial pressures get in the way of experimentation,” she said.

She spoke of the Bezos effect, describing how one of the first things the Amazon King did when he came to the Washington Post in 2013 was to hire a small platoon of digital natives. Not only did they transform the paper from a creaky newsroom to a cutting-edge player, but it started selling its own software products to competitors. She gestured towards the Economist on Snapchat, and unlikely successful with engaging millennials. The ABC’s own messenger bot has itself seen enormous traction with users, despite having no advertising behind it outside word-of-mouth, and despite being unable to answer one user’s reported question: “what does Antony Green smell like?”

5. Don’t make assumptions about what your audience wants

So, innovation good, stagnation bad. But ‘innovation’ can cause mayhem if it’s predicated on some unfounded assumption about what your audience wants.

“Try new stuff,” nodded Nicholas Gray. “But don’t bet the ranch on any one thing.” Gray explained his own paper’s strategy when launching something new was more ‘softly, softly’ than ‘big, messy splash’. “If [ideas] don’t take off, we kill them,” he said. Because while audiences might not always know what new thing they want (here comes that Henry Ford quote again: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”), they are the adjudicators of valuable content after the fact.

6. Print is still kicking

Consumers can and do unstick themselves from digital screens every now and again. Even members from the millennials tribe are taking a break or renouncing Facebook entirely (hi, yes, I’m one of them).

Print, it turns out, remains an incredibly engaging medium to connect with audiences. Readers spend over an hour with magazines and on average, we heard, 82% of readers find time spent with a magazine a “welcome break”.

Do we feel vindicated? Yes we do.

7. The Australian podcast industry is ripe

Going from sort of geekily naff to effortlessly cool, 17% of Australians now listen to podcasts – on average, six a week. And most are listening too for a full 30 minutes each time. That’s a blessed half hour for breathing intimately into your audience’s ears.

Less could be more though, said Ralph van Dijk, Founder of Eardrum, who has our vote for the most wry, inventive and chuckle-worthy talk at the event. (We may be biased here though – we interviewed him the week prior.) Apparently, “if your podcast is one hour long, less than 50% make it past 15 minutes”.

Just, you know, if you are going to make a podcast “don’t suck”, said van Dijk. If you don’t have an original idea, an audience to target, solid production values or a good host (à la Marc Maron), then don’t bother. The likes of This American Life and Under the Skin have set the bar too high. You just wouldn’t make it.

Want proof podcasts actually bring returns? It wasn’t in the conference, but Digiday just dropped this little nugget: “The Los Angeles Times used interest in its Dirty John podcast and editorial series to amass an additional 21,000 email subscribers to its Essential California newsletter.”

8. Everyone is getting excited about voice

Is it a fad? Are people using it? Will our voice tech get a sexy hologram to go with it, you know, like Bladerunner 2049? More pressingly: is voice going to weaken the bonds of audience loyalty even more, as Mark Ritson recently warned?

We honestly couldn’t say. But at Publish, voice-activated technology was a phrase often used, and when it was, little shivers of excitement were seen to run about the room in waves. Admittedly, it is pretty hard to pass over the chance to chirrup at our audience in that most sacrosanct, intimate of consumer places, the home.

Alexa, book me a ticket to Bladerunner 2049.

Were you at Mumbrella Publish? Reckon we’ve neglected to mention some other vital point? Let us know by emailing scurvy author at kprendergast@mahlab.co.

Articles you may also be interested in:
Talking podcasts with Eardrum Founder Ralph van Dijk
Talking new publishing eras with The Urban List Founder Susannah George
Top 6 takeaways from the 2017 ADMA Global Forum

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About Kate Prendergast: Kate Prendergast is a Content Producer at Mahlab. She strategically smashes out insights and case studies for the company website, and does her insuperable best to make the most of free pens, coffee and calamari at marketing conferences. In her down time, she reads Nabakov, watches BoJack Horseman and Werner Herzog, and creates mildly disturbing art under the alias Tenderhooks. She has renounced all social media except – to her overwhelming horror – LinkedIn. Redemptively, her network remains small.

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