This article was first published on InPublishing on the 17th September 2020.
The way in which publishers deliver value has been in a state of flux for some years. But a surge in digital adoption in the last few months means that audiences are primed for brands they trust to create digital spaces, in which to learn, connect and engage – niche communities that unite authors, readers and partners and facilitate meaningful conversations that shape their industry.
Time online spent well
With people remaining at home for most of the day, digital connections became essential. We have vaulted five years ahead in consumer and business digital adoption, and 75% of those who used digital channels for the first time during lockdown, say they will continue to use them when things return to ‘normal’.
We are also becoming more discerning with attention online. People feel that they’re wasting an average of 2 hours 45 minutes a week viewing low-quality content, many reporting feeling like it is frequently non-specific and targets the widest possible audience instead of matching their specific interests.
As Forbes contributor Benjamin Vaughan explains, “Among the many revelations we’ve had in the last couple of months, this is clear: people want to spend their time online well. People like belonging to communities. They want to help others and be prosocial. The specific platform doesn’t even matter too much, what’s more important is the quality of the interactions and the sense of belonging to a community.”
A move away from social giants
The key here is trust. Social media once had a monopoly on connecting with followers, but today, trust in these platforms is at an all-time low. Instead, people are actively seeking credible experts as their news sources.
Many trusted brands spent years building followings on these platforms, which, increasingly, they must pay for the privilege of reaching. Both audiences and organisations, therefore, are crying out for a new way of connecting with one another. Niche, owned online communities are answering this call.
Publishers already have audiences that trust them, via the brands they own. These brands can be authors, imprints, series, journals, even the publisher brand itself. Brands are powerful drivers of trust, and each one, from Harry Potter, to the Economic Journal, to Slate.com has a community which trusts and follows it.
Niche communities stand out against broad social followings, because they focus on bringing together people that are united by shared interests.
Niche communities stand out against broad social followings, because they focus on bringing together people that are united by shared interests. And they’re in rising demand. Half of people say they’ll join a community built for their personal passions, over a third would like to see new communities from their favourite brands.
In his article, ‘The Future of Publishing is about connections’, Mark Allin, chairman of William Reed Business Media and former CEO of Wiley explains, “Publishers need to find ways to harness what they already do well – content, trusted brands – and turn it into something more connected. That’s where niche communities can be transformative. There are many examples of communities being used effectively already - from The Guardian’s ground-breaking use of the strength of their brand community to create a new funding model, to Springer Nature’s communities of practice.”
Springer Nature is an example of how niche communities foster loyalty. Their ‘Behind The Paper’ feature invites authors to tell the personal story behind their research, providing a less formal space for authors to connect and share experiences, in a way that journals cannot. This additional value means that authors are more likely to submit future research with Springer Nature.
Publishers need to become a go-to destination for expertise, learning, sharing and discussion on a particular topic (or topics).
The content trap
It is easy for publishers to fall into ‘The Content Trap’ - a term coined by Harvard Professor Bharat Anand. As he explains, “Content businesses everywhere tend to define themselves by their content. This is the trap. The power of content is increasingly overwhelmed by the power of user connections, of which network effects are perhaps the most potent form.”
Having premium content and expertise only gets you halfway. Publishers need to become a go-to destination for expertise, learning, sharing and discussion on a particular topic (or topics). The value lies both in that content and in the meaningful connections made around it. Content becomes social, dynamic and lives in real time. This is not about big numbers, but about niche communities that generate meaningful conversations and insightful data.
Everyone benefits from niche communities
Niche communities ultimately give publishers a new way to connect with audiences, at a time where meaningful connections are needed more than ever. It builds resilience into business operations, providing multiple options for engaging authors and readers, additional brand value, and offers new revenue streams through membership, events and sponsorship opportunities. Members gain a safe space to discuss subjects they’re interested in, to access and learn from experts, and easily find the information they’re looking for in one place.
Many publishers are sitting on high-value, trusted content, as well as meaningful networks who want to connect and engage, but few are integrating the two. Those that achieve this will reap the benefits of an engaged and loyal community of readers, authors and partners, and relationships that build and grow for many years to come.