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The New Relationship Between Physical and Digital

I come from a media background, where arguments about “the future of newspapers” were frequent, and often led to spats about how to measure the effectiveness of banner ads. What a depressing avenue of conversation. Luckily, after working at Zeus Jones for a couple years, I’ve started to think about the relationship between the digital world, the physical world and monetization in a whole new way.

Here’s what I’ve observed in as clean a sentence as I can conjure: The media companies that are succeeding are relying on physical merchandise and the brands that are considered most innovative are relying on digital media.

First, let’s talk about publications.
People are very cynical when it comes to how newspapers, blogs and magazines are supposed to make money online. “Yes, I will deal with pop-up ads, floating ‘Take Our Survey!’ widgets and constant prods to ‘Subscribe to the Print Edition, Dammit!’ if it means that I can help keep a publication alive,” people implicitly think. But that’s not the future – that’s narrow thinking.

Basically, publications have something very valuable – a reputation. The New York Times, Vice, [cool blog] – all of those have social cachet, which is invaluable and highly coveted by brands. What many don’t realize is that they can use their reputation and “coolness” to help sell physical products, whether that’s cheesy mugs and shirts (College Humor), books (McSweeney’s) or hand-selected objects sold in a shop (Monocle).

The companies that are leading the way right now are the ones who are leveraging their brand and acting like your average Disney movie by selling as much merchandise as possible. This frees them from relying on the less-than-profitable, unexciting world of online advertisements, which actually destroy a company’s reputation if used too egregiously.

Now, let’s talk about brands
This Fortune Magazine article points out something interesting – Nike is becoming more profitable and more socially relevant than ever, and they’ve had an interesting strategy. Instead of blowing tons of money on TV commercials featuring [famous sports guy of right now], they’re creating useful online platforms and technologies that help them connect to their customers.

Nike+ is the main example, but if you look at their mobile efforts, you’ll find lots of useful stuff. Their Nike Training App is something I personally love – it’s a pocket-sized personal trainer that is far less annoying than -ahem- some class leaders at your local gym.

The brand has figured out that the digital space is not only valuable but necessary, and what goes there isn’t just more content related to your TV/print campaign, but actually useful media and services.

Similarly, many retail sites have started hiring ex-editors from major publications, and becoming magazines online. People don’t just want to shop, they want to be entertained, and that can lead them to spend even more.

The Moral of the Story – Digital is a Place to Build Reputation

What I’m saying is that struggling ventures, whether publications or businesses, don’t need to give up hope – they just need to learn from one another. Brands need to learn from the way publications use editorial to gain a following, and publications need to learn from the way brands constantly invent creative merchandise, and come up with interesting ways to sell it. What that starts with is throwing out the idea that you should be using the digital space as a primary way to make money. Instead, it’s where you build your reputation, and it’s in finding new ways to create physical objects that you can make a profit.

By using digital as a place to provide (free) engaging content and services for customers, it can be a more powerful tool than ever at selling a product, even if that product is a publication.

-Becky Lang

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