How to Survive in the Digital Future

Digital is upending industry after industry. But in a time of change, consumer trust is your guiding star

Written by Bruce Philp

Dear Editor,
First, heartfelt congratulations on your transition to being an all-digital publication. Since the web’s earliest days—which I recall with gauzy nostalgia—this has been the certain destiny of media. That what we write can reach more people, more quickly, when and how they want to read it is inarguably a good thing. So, too, for advertisers, who get speed to market and message relevance undreamt of a generation ago. Grumpy old editors, redolent of ink and bourbon, like to joke that Gutenberg’s second book was about the death of publishing, but it was MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte who called it right. “Words aren’t going away,” he told Wired in 1995, “all we’re talking about is variations in display technology.”

Not that these changes don’t make your humble scribe a little wistful. The thrill of seeing one’s words on paper never quite goes away. A magazine remains one of humanity’s better pieces of user-experience design, one upon which mobile devices have only marginally improved. And it’s still somehow more impressive to show Mom my work on a newsstand than to do so by poking at my iWhatever. But mostly, if I’m honest, the best thing about print was that not every writer could get there. Magazines have only so many pages. To occupy one has always felt like an honour, and with that came an implied responsibility.

This last point is worth dwelling on, even if it adds a certain awkward sobriety to the occasion. Because, as you are doubtless aware, being digital-only puts a publication in company that is not always entirely savory. Out there in what Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt once called the “cesspool” of the Internet, there are a lot of digital media platforms that look legitimate, but aren’t. America’s recent election brought this problem into stark relief, with even titans like Facebook and Google worrying in the aftermath that making publishing so easy may have made information too cheap. With more than 100 bogus websites for U.S. political news emanating from a single Macedonian village alone last fall, they were right to be concerned.

I ought to mention, here, that when Schmidt said that awful thing about the Internet, he was talking to magazine publishers. In a presentation he gave to publishing executives in 2009, he said, “the Internet is fast becoming a cesspool where false information thrives”—a bravura display of Silicon Valley prescience. He then gave his audience a surprising admonition: Their brands, he told them, are signals that their content can be trusted. “Brands are the solution…brands are how [people] sort out the cesspool.” And he would know, what with Google’s almighty search algorithm relying so heavily on source credibility.

It was good advice for any marketer, and being digital means it’s your brand’s turn to take it. This magazine is about to join the war about which it has been writing for almost 90 years. Like its readers, it will be fighting every day for attention in a universe that gives everyone the same chance to be heard whether they deserve it or not, and for an audience both overwhelmed by the din and hungry for a perspective they can trust. Now, as much as it is a medium, this magazine is a marketer, too. You may have always thought this to be the case, but, respectfully, what lies ahead is a whole new level.

My advice to you, then, is the same as I would offer to any marketer: Guard your brand with your life. It will be a shining constant in a permanent storm of twaddle, and therein will lie its value to readers. And it will be a conscience, the only thing that now separates journalism from mere content, apparently available in such abundance in Macedonia there probably isn’t any money in it anyway. In most marketplaces, there are only three things worth being: the cheapest, the best, or the most interesting. Taking the digital plunge narrows your options in the most exciting way imaginable. Go get ’em.


Bruce Philp is a brand strategy consultant and author of Consumer Republic, winner of the 2012 National Business Book Award.

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