FEATURE 

Launching Alphr.com

Dennis has long been at the forefront of technology publishing, with titles such as PC Pro, Computer Active and IT Pro. In June this year, Dennis unveiled Alphr.com - a new brand targeting a new type of tech audience. Paul Hood takes up the story.

By Paul Hood

Technology used to be something of a special-interest topic. In business, technology purchasing decisions were largely the preserve of IT directors, and tech-interested consumers were, until recently, categorised as hobbyists. Dennis had built a solid business out of catering well for both of these markets through our tech magazines, events and websites.

But as technology increasingly impacts all areas of our lives, we saw an opportunity to apply our expertise to address new audiences. It’s no longer just the IT director who makes IT purchasing decisions, but also other board-level decision makers.

Sales directors are the ones who now make the decision to buy IT services like Salesforce or Slack. CTOs are the ones specifying and buying CMS platforms and Google Apps for work. And CMOs are the people in big organisations who are specifying key infrastructure services like data management platforms.

Another key change is that business technology buying decisions are increasingly influenced by end-users too – the old clear dividing line between B2B and B2C publishing has begun to break down a little.

These end-users are no longer just the hobbyists who are interested in technology; there are now hoards of influential tech consumers - early adopters whose choices and voices carry a lot of weight.

These are the sort of people who bring their own devices to work, further dismantling the old status quo where business technology purchases were made exclusively through the IT department. They also use software and services which they either buy themselves (there’s a reason many services are priced at just under what you can categorise as “expenses” each month), or are free (at least at first).

Alphr.com was launched to address the new breed of decision makers in the world of business, and also be of interest and relevance to influential, early-adopter tech consumers.

The experience with our tech audiences is applicable to other publishers. Unless you’re publishing something for a set (and probably dwindling) number of people, you need to constantly look out for how they’re changing and be prepared to pivot everything you do in order to match what they want.

The Alphr approach

Alphr.com covers a much broader set of topics than the typical tech title. Of course, we still cover laptops, and smartphones, and devices of all kinds. The people we want to reach tend to enjoy reading about them as much as anyone else. But where we write about them, we’ve abandoned the old-style hobbyist-speak in favour of something which is exciting and personal. Chin-stroking not allowed.

We write about a much more diverse range of technology, but Alphr.com is much more than a technology site; it’s also a lifestyle site for people who are curious about the changes in the world around them. Whether it’s a new drone, an implant, or some amazing new engineering in a car, Alphr.com aims to go deeper into science and the future of technology than any other UK tech site. This enables us to reach a far wider, digital-native audience that advertisers want to associate their brands with. And so far, it’s worked for us: the first month of Alphr’s life saw it hit over one million uniques, as well as (importantly) getting spend commitment from some key advertisers.

Competition

One of the obvious things publishers have to consider – or rather, reconsider – in this fast-changing landscape is who they are up against. Who their competitors are.

Not that long ago, publishers like Dennis had relatively clear runs in the special-interest markets we serve, with just a handful of serious competitors; publishers whose organisation and products were similar to ours.

Of course, that has changed dramatically for most “traditional” publishers in recent years. The competition is now fierce and comes from all quarters. Dennis’ tech titles are up against well-funded competitors who have built powerful digital platforms from which they launch compelling content propositions that compete directly against us.

But whilst that might be a challenge, we see an opportunity too; an opportunity to exploit the provenance and trust that has been built by our long-standing technology brands. And the opportunity to work with other similar media brands to jointly capitalise on our established and loyal audiences.

Collaboration as a strategy

We know that many long-established print brands (and their accompanying websites) have engaged, valuable audiences and need content to serve up to them.

Local and national newspapers, for example, have always aimed to deliver a wide spectrum of content; not just news and sport but also business, motoring and property. Technology – largely – hasn’t featured, but without doubt, technology is the new broad-interest topic that is here to stay. It’s a topic that impacts all of us. That’s where content from respected tech titles can fill a gap.

Alphr.com and the other brands within the Dennis Tech Network – brands such as ExpertReviews and KnowYourMobile are offering traditional news brands the opportunity to pick some of our first-class content to use on their pages and in their websites to drive deeper engagement.

Here’s an example. Microsoft’s recent launch of the latest version of their operating system - Windows10 - was a huge launch; one that will affect millions of Britons.

Across our technology websites, we wrote more than 60 in-depth articles about this new product from a variety of perspectives. All of our writers had been beta testing the product for at least a month before launch. Our coverage of Windows10 comes with built-in authority. Is this the sort of content that is relevant to newspaper readers? Absolutely. Technology content is now applicable to wider audiences than ever before. So we are offering other premium publishers the opportunity to use content from our technology brands on their own sites.

Collaborating in this way offers traditional publishers – owners of some of the best-known and most respected media brands in the world – a way of fighting back against the well-funded, VC-backed new startups that have been aggressively taking audience and revenue away in recent years.

Fresh ways of working

If traditional publishers are going to compete and win, it’s vital to consider the process, the framework which allows journalists to bring their incredible talents to bear on awesome content. By comparison with cutting-edge design and editorial, it might sound dull, but without processes in place, your editorial team will produce some amazing stuff… and fail to promote it properly. Or write about the wrong topic. Or publish it at the wrong time.

A key part of our process is measurement. If you create a startup tech company, you need to know what’s working and what isn’t, and you need to know almost instantly. At Alphr.com, individual writers are expected to think about and discuss what’s worked and what hasn’t, all the time. There’s a constant stream of chatter on Slack about how to improve what we’re doing, what we should be doing next, what matters and what has worked. We are building a culture where measurement isn’t seen as a threat, or a way of bashing writers whose articles don’t attract the biggest audience, but as a way of working out what we’re doing right and wrong.

The second thing is to make sure your journalists don’t see ‘writing’ as the thing they do. Journalism, now, is so much more than that. We need journalists who understand that their work doesn’t start when they put their fingers on the keyboard and end when they hit ‘publish’ in the CMS. The work is a lot more than that – starting with the research, and finishing with the promotion of the content they create. We have a rule that if they’re spending more than half of their time actually writing, then they haven’t got the focus right.

The final lesson we’ve already learnt is the importance of continual iteration. Microsoft used to pump out new versions of its products every three years, with long gaps in between. Google came along and changed all that with constant updates, stealing a march on its way. It’s clear that Microsoft has recognised the value of this approach, with the recent Windows10 launch being a good example. At the time of its launch this summer, Microsoft announced that Windows10 would be the last Windows build. From here on, Microsoft will issue updates on a regular basis, meaning that users will always have the most up-to-date features and services. ‘Windows as a Service’ as Microsoft now call it.

Many traditional publishers have a cycle of magazine and paper redesigns that is measured in years.

That may still work for magazines, but for websites, we need to follow the Google (and now Microsoft) model and set up our businesses so that we’re positioned to iterate, measure, iterate and measure again. Keep building new features, keep looking for new ways to improve our technology platform and for tools which can help us do better stuff. And if some of the ideas we try don’t work out how we anticipated they might, we won’t just give up: we’ll work out a way to pivot what we do into something else.

Measuring and celebrating success

Three months in, Alphr.com has exceeded expectation in terms of audience, reaching 1.5m unique visitors in August. Big-name advertisers like HP, Dell, Panasonic and Hiscox have all embraced the new proposition and seen the opportunity to associate their brands with this fresh new proposition that celebrates technology.

The team continues to celebrate ‘traditional’ measurable successes like these in the traditional, time-honoured way – down at the pub.

But we also make a point of celebrating other, slightly less tangible indicators that Alphr.com is succeeding. For example, we allowed ourselves a few high fives when Huawei (China’s biggest mobile phone device manufacturer) recently invited Alphr.com to be one of only ten UK journalists to be invited on a factory tour in Hong Kong. When a huge tech company like Huawei has noticed and wants to engage with your new media brand within the first few weeks of its life, that’s a win.

We were also delighted that Alphr.com is the only UK technology brand to have had access to Volvo’s high-tech flagship XC90 ahead of its UK debut in October. It’s one of the most technologically advanced production cars in the world, and Volvo were keen for it to be reviewed not just by motoring sites, but by a fresh new technology site.

Likewise, when our content gets discovered and shared with a recommendation by key influencers like Piers Linney or Martha Lane Fox, we share that with the whole team.

Technology is changing everything – and continues to change itself. Whatever area of publishing you work in, one thing is for sure… if we don’t recognise and respond to it, we’ll end up embracing the wrong kind of future.