Digital Publishing: How To Focus Your Strategy To Create A Competitive Advantage

There is one key difference between amateurs and professionals: professionals have a clear understanding of what they are trying to accomplish and why they will win.

Do you?

If you think building a digital publishing business is simply a matter of hiring some writers or acquiring an existing website, you will be very disappointed. There are too many competitors, many of whom are either:

  • Entrenched in a niche where they have promoted their brand for years
  • Operating with insanely low cost structures that won’t fund your extravagant expectations of being able to afford rent, food, and healthcare…
  • Massively over-funded and can bet you off the table in a showdown over links or content

The good news? Nobody can be everything, everywhere, all the time.

Your job is to find gaps and exploit them.

You cannot survive in this industry without a clear plan and some operating discipline. Identify what you bring to the table and how you can leverage those advantages.

We’ve got a 4 point process to help you.

Point #1 – What is your “General” Strategy?

Digital publishing is many things. Simple is not one of them. Shiny objects abound, seducing you into wasting time, energy, and capital. I suspect more projects fail due to owner distraction and exhaustion than are lost to any true competitor actions.

You cannot be everywhere at once. Unless you are a large organization, you do not have the energy and capital. To succeed, you must pick a few things and execute well. In other words – you need to define strategy.

It is said that the art of strategy is defining what you don’t want to do. That works here.

To prevail against strong competitors, we must carefully pick our battles and stay focused despite distractions. This frequently means pursuing goals beyond money. A good strategy provides a litmus test for new opportunities, identifying which ones can help the business build long term competitive advantages vs. short term results. The rest should be ignored.

The strategy model below was inspired by the book “The Discipline of Market Leaders” and has been adapted to apply to digital publishers and website investors. It starts by defining how we wish to compete relative to everyone else publishing content in our space. Once we understand this, we can set appropriate priorities elsewhere in our operations so we’re focusing all of our efforts on things which will move the business forward.

The model itself lays out three basic ways to win:

  • Customer Intimacy
  • Product Leadership
  • Operational Excellence

Each of these three options can be applied to digital publishing and website investing.

Defining Strategies For Digital Publishers

We’re going to quickly walk through the three strategies and demonstrate how to apply them in a digital publishing business.

A “customer intimate” digital publisher is focused on delivering exceptional content that is targeted at very specific audiences. They’re not afraid to target small groups of readers – their objective is to become the leading authority to this little group and leverage this to deliver huge value to their advertisers and sponsors. Sites pursuing this strategy often have small (but very loyal) audiences which deliver very high lifetime values per reader.

A “product leadership” digital publisher is willing to invest heavily to develop innovative content, website designs, and technology platforms. Their goal is to find a breakthrough that amazes the audience and takes the topic to another level, creating massive brand authority in the process. Sites pursuing this strategy invest a high amount per piece of content, which generally needs to address a fairly broad audience to earn a high return. Unlike the other strategies, there is a lot of uncertainly in innovation: this approach is a high risk / high return strategy. You need to build a few WaterWorlds to get an Avatar…

The third path, operational excellence, is a “mass market” approach to digital publishing. Publishers in this space are focused on efficiently and flawlessly delivering large volumes of basic content on a topic to the audience. While an individual article likely won’t rise to the standards of the other two strategies, there are a very large number of them and they saturate the topic. This strategy can see huge benefits from investing in the publishing platform and advertising model; this can yield advantages in user experience and overall revenue per visitor which can be leveraged across your entire content library.

There are trade offs involved in each of the three sustainable strategies.

StrategyContent ExamplesAdvantagesDisadvantages
Super targeted and deep
articles for sub-niches
(ex: best food for a Pug)
Quickly build
Authority in
narrow niches
High Content Cost
at a % of revenue
(narrow articles)
Data & UX Awesomeness
(Survey dog owners, build
recommendation engine)
Small Chance
at a huge win
(viral brands)
Massive Cost Per
Piece of Content
(True Innovation)
Serve up basic information
using a standard template
(with all UX best practices)
Cost Efficient
Easily scaled
across topics
Limited Depth
Cannot compete
vs. quality content

In essence – HOW do you expect to win within your target niche? What sets you apart?

If you read a little deeper, you’ll notice that your “winning formula” has huge implications for where you invest and who you bring onto your team. More on that later.

Point #2 – Don’t Start with a Plan to Invest In A Website

If you completed the last exercise, you should have a vision in your mind of the level of content quality that you’re looking to fund. The goal of this next step is to take that down another level, identifying the specific slices of audience activity that you’re going after.

There are three fundamental building blocks to digital publishing:

  • You need an audience
  • You need something to show them
  • You need a way to get paid

Do you see the word “website” in there? Or AdSense? Or Articles?

Nope, I don’t either.

The best digital publishing businesses start with three fundamental set of questions:

  • Who are you trying to speak with?
  • What would engage their attention?
  • How does engagement turn into cash?

Yeah – most of us will go home, pull out our credit cards, and pay writers to create articles to rank websites on Google and show people AdSense to earn a return. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Thinking about it at this level will open your eyes to alternatives:

  • Why rank a website to get an audience? What if I rent one (advertising)?
  • What kind of articles? Or should we use another form of content?
  • How can I monetize the traffic outside of AdSense?

The biggest wins in this business happen when you find a way to color outside the lines while still fulfilling the three key needs above (traffic, content, revenue). Someone found that you could generate cheap traffic from social media and native advertising (content recommendations at the bottom of a page) – fortunes were made. Many publishers have found ways to cut out advertising and sell their own offers and products, at a far higher revenue per page. And the truly bold are engaging audiences off their site, using platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Same business, different platform.

Point #3 – Talent Strategy

Whoa there cowboy (or cowgirl)? You’re not done yet!

It isn’t enough to go cut deals and write checks. You need a plan to operate the website. Retaining your current level of traffic and earnings and hopefully growing it over time.

And this will require you to execute across multiple disciplines. You can either do this yourself or get some help (virtual assistants, process / automation, and outsourcing). Regardless, you will need to figure out how to handle the following:

  • Content Knowledge
  • Communications
  • Traffic Generation
  • Coding / Tech Support
  • Advertising Operations

I’ll throw in four other skills that may provide useful:

  • Sales / Influencing (asking people nicely)
  • Vendor Management (asking not so nicely)
  • Project Management (cat herding 101)
  • Analytics (work smarter, not harder)

In total, five to nine potential areas of expertise that you will need to have access to.

The good news? You don’t need all of it. Invest in areas which are critical to the reader or otherwise create unique competitive advantage. Aim to earn a C+ grade everywhere else. Outsourcing, “done for you”, and jury-rigged solutions can be an asset. Focus your talents.

If you don’t know an area, think about how you can cover the gap:

  • Content Knowledge => Hire a researcher or writers who know the topic
  • Communications => Pay more for higher level writers
  • Traffic Generation => consider hiring an SEO agency
  • Coding / Tech Support => pay more for a full service hosting company
  • Advertising Operations => keep it simple or outsource to someone like Ezoic

This is also a great time to compare your skills against your decisions from steps 1 & 2. Perhaps some course corrections are required. I’m stereotyping here, but consider:

  • Customer Intimacy => need to master content expertise and communications
  • Innovation => likely need coding expertise and project management
  • Operational Excellence => are you good at analytics and vendor management?

There’s a big Internet out there: pick niches which are a great fit with your capabilities.

Point # 4 – Build vs. Buy

By this point, you should have a very clear vision of the business you’re trying to build. How you’re going to win? Check. Where you intend to compete? Check. And a general idea of how you’re going to assemble the various talents required to make this happen.

Wonderful. Now put down the phone and don’t call that broker. Tear up the check.

Now Ask Yourself: What it would cost to build this website on our own?

The question every seller and broker genuinely hopes we never ask.

Your answer doesn’t need to be perfect. The typical article in this niche earns $ X. It costs $ Y to create and publish articles of acceptable quality in this niche. It takes Z months to rank fresh content for searches you want to target. Assuming there are weak keywords.

This is powerful stuff. It will keep you from getting carried away when the bidding heats up or someone finds your hot button.

When you buy a website, you’re buying a future revenue stream. $$ X thousand dollar per year of advertising revenue. Delivered instantly at closing. But If the seller said no, how long would it take for you to get this same amount of revenue through other means?

At a minimum, being able to complete this exercise is an objective self-test on how well you know the space. A “cooling off” period, if you will. It also grounds your expectations during the negotiation process. If you know you can get there in X months for Y dollars, you instantly have a grounded perspective on the seller’s offer to sell you a site for $Z. You’re trading cash for time. Are you really willing to pay more to grow revenue faster?

Digital Investments – Pulling It All Together

These four exercises will help you develop a list of yes/no questions you can use to screen prospective projects or acquisition targets to assess if there’s a fit or not. You will discover that there is no shortage of websites people want to sell you – but only a few of them are worth buying.

You will do your best thinking when you are not in the heat of “negotiations”.

The best way to buy a Great Dane is to decide to buy a Great Dane. Not show up at the pet store on a Saturday afternoon and “check out the puppies”. The same applies to websites.