Interviewer: Chris Sutcliffe

What’s Readly’s pitch to publishers and how has it changed from when it first launched?

We’ve gone from being an unknown Swedish startup to a scale up, and from back in the day when the business was first launched, I was knocking on publishers doors, and now we’ve gone to being named the third fastest growing technology company in Sweden, and then listed in the top FTs fastest growing companies. So, I guess in answer to your question there it definitely has changed.

And I also think the reasons why publishers are joining Readly, have changed as well because, the second part of your question there is…that we’ve got three key reasons. The first one being strategic audience development. At the end of the day we are growing the brand’s footprint, we’re growing our own brand footprint as well and we’re bringing new eyeballs and new audiences to the publishers brands. So, our route-to-market is very different from the publishers, and they can really jump on the bandwagon and take advantage of that.

The second reason would be for tactical subscription delivery. It’s all about volume, and bearing in mind that we’ve been we’ve been really focusing on expansion and marketing over the last couple of years. We are pushing out, say for instance the UK magazines to the German market and vice versa so, for the expat community and where people want to read content, and content on-the-go, we make that available for them.

And then I think the final reason, although this is what I say the main reason is, I’m sure my Swedish colleagues might object, it’s all reference to data and it’s all the audience insight. So, we can deliver on how our readers engage from both an editorial and advertising perspective as well. So, this is based around real data usage. We can see where people are actually coming in to read a magazine, where they’re dropping off, how long they’re spending on ads, what articles they’re reading. Basically what piques their interest. We have heat maps to prove that as well. And we share all of that data with our publishers.

See that data sharing seems like that’s a huge selling point. Particularly now when everyone’s transitioning into, well, completely changing their business models, knowing everything about that is absolutely vital.

I know. I mean Chris it’s so exciting, because it is so cool and exciting. I promise you I’m not a nerd in any which way or form, but when you actually look at a heat map and you can see that, Weight Watchers readers for instance stop reading on a Thursday afternoon because the diet goes out the window, and then they start again on a Monday, you can literally see the behavioral patterns through the heat map. We can see for instance, that 33 per cent of men read Cosmopolitan, we know that women are going in and reading Gay Times. There’s a real mishmash of people and it really does stimulate consumption.

So, the data part for me is the really exciting part, and our publishers love that, they really do love it.

And as that pitch to publishers has changed over the years, how has the pitch to audiences changed, or has that stayed mostly the same?

There’s a number of enhancements that we have released and will be released in the next coming months. I mean, obviously that’s going to improve the user experience and obviously differentiate us from the competition. I mean you’ve probably heard, there’s so much press about it, the daily newspapers that we’ve launched in Germany, as well. From that perspective that’s something new that we’re putting out there.

Things like the recommendation engine, favouriting titles, bookmarking articles, there’s a whole host of stuff. Little things to a consumer that are very very important. Customers like the idea of say, saving all their recipes to a folder so they can go back in and pull on that data when they want to. I like the idea when I’m looking for handbags or dining tables or whatever, that I’ve got everything in one folder. So, there’s a whole host of stuff that is in development and then also will be released shortly.

Do you find then that audiences are becoming more habituated to the idea of these kind of Digital Plus titles? They no longer think of magazine content as being something that is tied to a physical page.

The lines between a magazine and article reading, and reading digitally are becoming relatively blurred. On Readly, it is the magazine that you’re going in to read, and its long form, short form, whichever way you want to look at it. Trusted curated content.

There’s a mixture of customers really, in terms of what we have. People like to snack and they trust the content that they’ve got there, and obviously when they have more free time they want to go and read more long form trusted content as well.

I’m fascinated by the idea that now you have all this user data, you can see how people are… whether that’s dipping into new magazines or whether they’re staying with their perennial favorites. You mentioned this recommendation engine, are you really pushing that to get people to broaden their experiences within the app or try new types of magazine? What’s the ultimate aim of that?

It’s a combination of both really. I mean the bottom line is, of course, readers are going to go to their their favorite titles, and we make that easy for them. Because if you like Vogue, for instance, as soon as you go in you have the option of favouriting that. And then once the next edition is live, we’ll let you know that that’s live on the platform.

However, if Vogue were sat next to, say something like Newsweek, and you’re just about to tap and stream into that magazine, and you see a cover line that really appeals to you, there’s nothing to stop you from going into Newsweek and start reading that article.

So, really it is about stimulating consumption and we find, like I said earlier on the data side, we know for instance that Hello readers automatically, the first title that they go into will be Weight Watchers. But then Cosmo readers are also reading Swedish gossip magazines because we’re a global platform, so it’s bizarre.

I didn’t expect that.

Yeah absolutely. We find that that’s the Swedish customer base love reading British magazines. And again we will push that data over to our publishers.

So, I was told a couple of years ago by somebody who’d been in the publishing game for a while that there was a particular magazine, who if they wanted to increase their sales on a week by week basis, all they needed to do was put a wet dog on the cover. They were a country lifestyle magazine. And internally they called it the wet dog phenomenon because it would boost their sales. So, what advice would you have to publishers to make themselves more attractive to the Readly audience within the app, because there’s presumably not a similar wet dog phenomenon when it’s not in print?!

No. The reason why I’m laughing is because when we first launched Readly in the UK, I had a meeting with the publishing director of Psychologies Magazine, and I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing this with you. And there was a huge debate about covers and what covers sell, is it A-list celebrities, female A-list celebrities, or male A-list celebrities? And obviously we can track all of that because we track all the cover lines we can see, what percentage of your readership are reading the main cover line, as opposed to a teeny weeny little one in the bottom right hand corner.

So, we offered to do a cover analysis for them. And I remember at the time I think we must have had about 12 issues of Psychologies, and two of them had male A-listers on them. One was Brad Pitt and the other was Robert Downey Jr, and then the remainder of them were all A-listers from Hollywood, female.

When we did the research for them and we had had a look at the data, the publisher was right. It was an argument between the publisher and the editor. The publisher was right, it is female A-listers that pull in the punters, that actually pull them in and keep them engaged within the magazine.

However, the top read magazine, this was back in, I think it was 2014, the top read title for Psychologies was the Robert Downey Jr cover, which was the sex special. So, cover lines, celebrities on covers, whether it’s a wet dog or I don’t know, Robert Downey Jr, covers do matter. It’s super super important in terms of pulling in people, pulling in the customers, making it more attractive for people to read. And then obviously, what creates that stickiness is the content. It’s the articles that are in the magazine.

I used to work on the B2B sector and I remember there was a very very niche B2B title, I think it was something to do with buses, and the audience used to get really really annoyed if you would put a woman in front of the bus because…

Oh god.

See what I mean, that’s real nerd alert. So, yeah I think we all know this. I’m from a publishing background, covers really do matter. It’s important that what we have on the platform is really enticing. If you look at Readly exclusives, where publishers create content to go onto the Readly platform first, and then following on from that they might decide to put it out in print or put it on all the other various different platforms, we again share that data with them. And from there they’ll be able to see.

And so, you just mentioned Readly exclusives. How many publishers are actually trying that out, what proportion them do you think are experimenting with that?

We have about 40 titles globally, at the moment. We’ve got a few in the UK, I think we’ve got eight or nine in the UK. And it all sort of kicked off from Germany, initially with Axel Springer.

Initially it started off as being a little bit experimental, they wanted to see whether producing something that was purely for the Readly platform would generate revenue, and generate data insight, as we have said. And obviously that worked for them. And then we went back out to the publishers in the UK and then to Sweden.

What we try to do when we speak to these publishers is say to them, please don’t rehash your content, don’t regurgitate content. It’s got to be new. It’s got to be exciting and enticing for our customers to go in and read on subject matters that they love. So, if you look at the Readly exclusive titles, they are very very niche, and some of them are a little bit book-a-zine led.

We’re still looking at the the numbers on that. But more and more publishers are doing it. It’s an exciting project for them and definitely for us too.

You brought up another point there, which I think is what is the proportion of publishers you consider to be, I suppose the big mainstream titles that are on Readly, as opposed to the niche ones, because surely the smaller titles don’t necessarily have the resources to create bespoke content on there?

You’ll be surprised, because some of the ones that we have, if we’re comparing Axel Springer with say Black Dog Media in the UK, they’re not in terms of revenue and all the rest of it, they’re in a totally different league. But we have a mixture. So, some of the larger ones will try it out and then obviously some of the niche ones if they see that the big guns are giving it a shot, then they’ll come and speak to us about it.

But as long as the content is good and it gets approved, and we know that it will be engaging for our customers, we’re prepared to give it a shot. We’re relatively experimental with stuff like that.

You mentioned Germany then, and before you spoke about the fact that you actually have some news products that are on there now, which preempts a question that we were going to ask, which is to what extent do you feel that news and entertainment, so magazine content can fit on the same app like this, could fit on the same platform, because the economics of producing both is so very different?

Yeah, they are and I think it boils down to their own individual business models on the publishing side. There’s a definite distinction from the business side, but I think from consumers, definitely not. The lines I think, this is my personal opinion, are blurred and what we need to do is to make reading, whether it’s magazine reading or newspaper reading, easy for our consumers. And that’s one of the things that we’re working hard to do.

We’ve obviously put the dailies on there. It’s just a separate tab within the app so you can just go and click on there. There’s no separate price point or anything like that. It’s exactly the same format. So, it works. It’s down to the consumer as to whether they want to read a couple of magazines that day and then dip into, I don’t know, Bild, or to Expressen or whatever takes their fancy. Our job is to provide content on the go and to make it easy for them. And that’s what we’re aiming to do.

When publishers, particularly news publishers, talk about wanting to be in control of context now, obviously they’ve been burned by distributed publishing across platforms like Facebook. Do you understand why they are maybe reticent to hand over content and potentially risk that loss of control for how it appears?

Yeah, we had a lot of that when we first launched the business over here. There was a lot of talk about being disruptive, and cannibalisation, and ‘you’re going to destroy the industry’. But I think now, the client base, as in the publisher base, are very confident in our ability and they understand the numbers. They totally get the fact that we’re reaching out to a new audience. And the bottom line is, is that we’re not content curators. Our business is in essence the publishers. Without them we wouldn’t have any content to put on our platform, so we’re there to bring new audiences, bring new eyeballs to their brands.

That’s interesting that you say that because your product is the publishers effectively. That sets you aside from Facebook and Google, and even Apple, which we’ll get into in a second which almost has them as an incidental side or afterthought.

Absolutely. And I’ve said this from the get go. As I said literally at the start of this chat, that I am from the publishing side. Not everybody has the presence or the ability to produce apps like we do, or to produce the distribution platform to put their content out there. As far as Readly are concerned we are really assisting them and working in parallel with them, and complimenting what they’re doing already. We’re not taking over in any which way or form, we’re working as I say, even with our marketing, in parallel with what they’re doing.

And as a bit of a counterpoint, last week, we saw the launch of Apple News+, and from a news publisher perspective that was almost universally panned. I don’t think I saw a single positive response to what they’re doing for news at least. Why do you think it’s been so…people are more reticent about getting involved with it?

I think it’s the number of a number of things. I’m a massive fan of Apple. We use Macs and iPads and whatnot to demonstrate Readly on their products. And it looks really slick and it looks amazing.

I think from a publisher perspective, it’s already a very fast moving and disruptive marketplace. And for now it means more decisions to make, more choice, more confusion. And they’re having to do all of this while they’re thinking about audience reach, direct consumer relationships, reading data usage. There’s so many things that they have to think about. Their brand’s profiles.

I think they are worried because Apple can be perceived to be the frenemy as well just like the other three. There’s a lot of concern out there because of that. But it’s good for us. There’s just been so much press with reference to Apple News and I think from a Readly perspective, it’s actually really good for us. The publishers will need to make their own decisions as to which way they want to go. Just like they had to do with Readly.

You don’t necessarily see this as being an additive thing? This is potentially an either/or thing for a lot of publishers.

That’s really down to them and what sort of strategy they have in mind. We’ve been at the forefront of that. We’ve had a lot of publishers saying, ‘Well we focus on our own digital strategy, we don’t want to go to third party distribution platforms’. And I think Apple will have the same sort of curveballs thrown at them. That’s their battle to fight. I’m glad I’m not doing it now.

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