Premier Accounts – The future of publishing?

It’s a bit of a long one this.. Sorry

Premier Accounts are our answer to the growing and rather worrying trend in the publishing industry for people to stop buying magazines and newspapers. It’s an odd phenomenon because if you ask people if they prefer a printed mag over an online version in the main they all vouch for paper. “You can’t take a pdf file to the bog, now can you!”. Which is very true, but it doesn’t alter the hard fact that the entire print/publishing industry is currently in a bit of a panic, and sales of magazines and newspapers in particular are in decline. The Murdoch Empire seems to have set the blame squarely on websites (including their own, in an ironic twist) and so the plan is to make everyone pay to access the news on their websites. Advertising revenues just aren’t covering the production costs of the papers and magazines anymore.

But here’s the kicker…

The simple business solution seems obvious. Printed publishing is becoming unprofitable, so don’t print. Doh! Isn’t that what the highly paid consultants would say? Look at your business and if parts of it are not making money then get rid of them until what you are left with are the parts that do make money. Simples!

Unfortunately publishing is a complicated thing and despite the falling sales, paper media still retains a huge kudos with both readers and advertisers that gives it an inflated sense of its own power. To see something in print, actually on paper, commands much more respect from the reader than the same words published on a website. After all, anyone can publish on the web and what you read on the web is free. Paper costs money and there is a psychological trick that goes along with the simple fact of handing over cash to read something – It instantly gains credibility and respect. If you paid for it, it must be better. Right? The same principal applies to reviews of products. If you paid for it you have to fight the natural urge to validate your purchase by saying nice things about it. To say it is crap is to admit you made a mistake in handing over money for it. It’s a principal to be born in mind when reading user generated reviews. It’s the ‘well you would say that wouldn’t you!’ syndrome. This is not to say that reviews from people who have been given things for free (us for example) are not subject to other pressures and psychological issues, but what I’m trying to illustrate here is that when you pay for something it aquires ‘value’ over and above something that is free. Currently you pay to read the magazine and the website content is free. This is why manufacturers place a higher value on products appearing in print even though their product will be much more widely viewed online. There’s even a rational hypothesis that a review in print is likely to be much more ‘respected’ than the very same review published online. It’s an odd state of affairs really. Funny how our minds work :-)

For this reason I firmly believe that PRINT IS NOT DEAD. Those that think it will die are probably related to the Tomorrow’s World inventors of the 70’s who reckoned on us all travelling to work on anti-grav skateboards by the nineties. Technology and how we use it, even in the short term, is notoriously hard to predict but it is rare that new technology completely replaces the long established methods. Print is clearly an enduring medium and it will live on for a long time to come (Has anyone really been attracted to the notion of reading a novel on a digital book?). New technology will compliment it and there will be ever increasing ways for us all to access it via technology, but for a long time to come I reckon you will find a tattered copy of Singletrack magazine stuffed down beside the toilet in most of your riding mates houses for many years to come.

So. That said. Why are we ploughing so much time, energy and money into getting you all to read Singletrack online? Well, we are simply using new technology to offer you new ways to access the mountain bike content that it has become our business to produce. You see that’s what we are fundamentally – We are a producer of mountain biking content and just like any producer of any product it has to be distributed to the consumer. Our new Premier Account system is simply a new method of distributing the content we produce. We distribute in print; via the website in the form of news stories; and now also via Flash and PDF. We are also currently about to start work on an iPhone app too.

But the beauty of all these new and interesting ways of delivering the words and pictures we come up with is that technology allows us to link them all together in interesting and clever ways. This means that if you are a subscriber to the mag and also a member of our website, we can now link both of these ‘accounts’ together into one single Premier Account. This allows us to let these account holders see new content exclusively for them. This Premier Account content has already started to appear with our first Premier story on our website. Issue 53 contains a travel feature, written by me, on the Basque region of Spain. Now one of the biggest perks of this job is the opportunity to travel and as you would expect we always come back from these trips with hundreds of shots. The printed mag can’t fit them all in and so Sim cherry picks the best dozen or so to be designed into the final feature destined for print. This leaves an awful lot of great images that have traditionally languished unseen in our images library. Like deleted scenes from a movie, our Premier system allows us to let you see this extra content. So you can think of a Premier Account as the extra features section from the DVD that is Singletrack magazine :-)

We’ve always tried to make sure that existing subscribers continue to get added benefit so they don’t lose out to the special offers we have to employ to entice new subscribers, so all existing subscribers can become Premier Print accounts for free. But we can only do that if you contact us by phone. You see you are the key to enabling us to link your web user account to your subscribers account. We need you to verify your username and also the details we have in our subscription database. Once you do that we can join the two accounts together into your single Premier Account.

We have lots of ideas for new content that we will provide exclusively for our Premier users and we are working on them right now – not all of the ideas will be related to content in the mag, so you don’t have to be a reader of the mag to benefit from a premier account. Sorting out the classifieds forum so that Premier Users get an enhanced service is high on our list for example. This is just the beginning, as they say, and we are open to ideas from you lot too.

Now for the money part. Apart from existing subscribers who just want to be able to read the extra features content on our website, we are charging everyone to become Premier Users. We have to. Print is expensive and despite the hardcore of loyal readers who subscribe or buy it regularly from their local shop, there are virtually no magazines that are currently increasing their sales on the Newstand. Any mag that says they are increasing sales is doing strange things to their numbers. This is a simple reality of the publishing industry at large. But we aren’t too worried about that. More and more people are prepared to read mags online. This also opens up the mag to a whole new range of readers who have never really bought magazines at all and for us at least this new online reader is replacing the one who isn’t buying it in WHSmiths. But that lost WHSmith reader is lost money. Money that we need in order to keep doing what we do and so we have to make sure our new online readers make up for it. But the great news is, as you have now heard, we can offer online readers so much more than just a printed mag. Online versions have extra stuff like video embedded in them so you certainly do get more for your money.

It’s important to make clear too that we are not taking anything away from the website and sticking it into our Premier area. Everything Premier is new content that we’ve never provided before. News stories will always be free. Forum access will stay free. If you have no interest at all in this new Premier stuff then your use of our website will be as free as it always has been. This is where I think Murdoch has it wrong. He’s taking content previously available for free and charging for it. A cynic may liken that strategy to giving a junky his first hit for free and then charging for more when they are hooked. I don’t think that’s the case here, even with the global money machine monstrosity that is the Murdoch publishing empire, but that sort of money model will certainly not win any friends amongst the readers. If you have offered something to your consumers for free for a long time, it will be a major struggle to convince them to pay for it in the future. That’s what we believe and so what we are providing now is simply the option to get more. If you want it. It does mean we are rather insanely, having to increase our own workflow here in the office to think up new ideas, and for us this is going to be the hardest part. So, you may notice a few more worry lines on the brows of Singletrack staff over the next few months, so be gentle. Please? :-)