DMA Hong Kong: Change paying off, but it's not small change

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If Digital Media Asia's opening day was all about change, it wasn't about the few small coins I needed to get from the airport link to my hotel.

Indeed, the change mentioned in two of the keynote addresses were of the big budget variety, with Gary Liu updating on the wholesale transformation of the South China Morning Post - underwritten by its owner, Alibaba founder Jack Ma - and Schibsted's Torry Pedersen explaining what can be achieved if you have "a rich daddy".

In his newly-adopted home town, the SCMP chief executive was the star from start to finish, even posing for me with Abacus executive producer Ravi Hiranand when the new China-focussed digital site was a top winner in the evening's Asian Digital Awards.

WAN-Ifra conference attendees have heard from Liu before, but this time he was able to present some of the achievements of a transformation which has so far taken less than two years. They include a fourfold increase in global reach (increased by more than six times outside Hong Kong), 5.6 times as many social followers and a 22-fold increase in the number of views.

Curiously - and as it happens, like our own GXpress.net website - SCMP's biggest online audience has become the US, with a new website and "a brand new Asia edition" coming shortly.

"We're well on our way," he said.

The story of the transformation of the historic brand - with new offices, new culture, new recruits and a mass of training - has been told before. Deputy executive editor Zuraidah Ibrahim added a further perspective to it by describing the "eye rolling" which greeted plans for change and "unusual activities".

"It has empowered us to be better journalists, with content enjoyed in more places around the world. This is where the future is," she said.

A refreshing aspect was to see print veterans make the change to digital: "Anyone who tells you that you can't teach old dogs new tricks is dead wrong," she said.

There's a seemingly endless appetite for the stories of European transformation, and Schibsted Media head of editorial Torry Pedersen - would he mind being described as an "old dog"? - did not disappoint.

Theirs is a story of a couple of Norwegian newspapers transformed into an HK$18 billion (about US2.3 billion) operation striving to be - if not already - Europe's leading digital media group, cross-pollinating data, and with digital user payments, lots of its own inhouse tech and a host of adjacent businesses. "Every time we want to do something, we do it with a new company," he said. Startups knew they were well-funded, but had to perform. Overall, he told delegates that the KPI was engagement, adding that "speed of delivery trumps content".

The focus on transformation started even before the conference had begun, with WoodWing's John Fong putting it in context at a breakfast presentation during which he explained how his own company had transformed, responding to changes in its traditional publishing marketplace. "In 2010, 90 per cent of our customers were publishers," he said. "Now 70 per cent are brands."

It was one of several sponsored 'breakouts' during the Hong Kong event, but with value included in the package, and Fong sharing the stages of change in their own "rollercoaster ride" with delegates.

Later attention moved to hyperlocal publishing, with Singapore Press Holdings chief product officer Gaurav Sachdeva explaining how meeting the needs of a community in which there are four official languages has become "daily bread and butter" for the publisher.

The story of how a regional newspaper publisher became New Zealand's top digital brand (after outsiders Google and Facebook) has also been told before, but is one of my favourites.

For Sinead Boucher, a former FT digital journalist and chief executive of Fairfax Media subsidiary Stuff, it was also a significant day to be presenting, with her employer's acquisition by Nine Entertainment having been approved by the Australian competition watchdog earlier this morning.

Years before, the company had determined to "stop seeing ourselves as victim" and turn from disrupted to disruptor, thinking instead as a platform and aggregator. Stuff has now expanded to be internet service provider, energy retailer and neighbourhood marketplace to its highly engaged audience. Through people-power and crowd funding, they had also saved (and bought) a pristine beach threatened by development, and helped eradicate wasps.

You'd just wish that instead of operating in a country of less than five million, Stuff had the opportunities which next speaker Dahlan Dahi - director of Indonesia's Tribunnews.com - related. Hyperlocal digital publishing at scale in a country of more than 130 million internet users and (as is the way there) almost 178 million mobile users.

And much, much more, as the conference split into breakouts, some of them sponsored, to expand on blockchain opportunities, learn more about Instagram storytelling, and share insights into data-based business intelligence.

I stayed with the session on non-traditional partnerships to hear how Reuters is working with clients who have unusual needs for their video - such as training robots to translate, for example - and how publishers such as the Wall Street Journal and New York Times are using custom studios to "hold the line" on native advertising, aware that their commitment to subscribers outweighs the demands of advertisers. You can't be everywhere, however, and I missed regular award-winner Ian Yee of Star Malaysia's R.AGE youth portal was making money through it approach to investigative journalism, and lessons from VanMedia's Glenn van Zutphen.

The conference continues tomorrow with digital trends, engagement and personalisation from Daraj Media and Fairfax, more ideas on becoming a platform from workshop leader Grig Davovitz, a focus on product development and digital subscriptions.

Peter Coleman

Pictured: Gary Liu presents the SCMP's transformation scorecard and (above) with Ravi Hiranand

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