It is fashionable for media companies to paint themselves as victims of an increasingly Google-dominated planet. Desperate publishers are happy to collude or play ball with anyone who offers them a straw. Instead, they should be looking at various opportunities offered by technology to find a brighter future.
To learn a trick or two, they should look at Lonely Planet, an Australian publisher of travel books. It is one of the few traditional publishers that has turned new technologies such as social networks, online video, location-based services and smartphones into engines of growth. Started in 1972 by Englishman Tony Wheeler and his wife Maureen, the Melbourne-based travel guide company for most of its life made money by selling specialist books and guides to travelers around the world. In 2007, the Wheelers sold 75 percent of the company to BBC Worldwide for an undisclosed amount of money. The deal was rumored to be over $150 million.
New Wine, New Bottle.
“We want to (offer) not just books, but we wanted to provide travel tools and become a travel platform,” said Matt Goldberg, who took over as the chief executive of Lonely Planet. He was previously the senior vice president, Digital Strategy & Operations, at Wall Street Journal Digital. Goldberg contends that in order to succeed in the new digital and mobile world, one can’t approach these new opportunities as a publisher. “We have to think and behave like a digital media company,” he added, and not like a traditional publisher.
For instance, instead of simply repurposing its travel guides for the iPhone, the company took all the content, made it searchable, and enhanced it by embedding maps. It also made all the information geo-aware so as to capitalize on the GPS capabilities of the iPhone, Google phones, and soon the Palm Pre. In less than a month, Goldberg said, Lonely Planet has seen “hundreds of thousands” of downloads of its 20 city guides and several other products. The company is working with Palm and Nokia to develop special offerings for those devices.
The company tries to tailor its offerings so that they capitalize on a platform’s special hardware capabilities. “On Android-based devices, we can leverage the built-in compass to help you find things pretty quickly and help you get somewhere fast,” said Matthew Cashmore, who has a very dot-com title of Innovation Ecosystem Manager at Lonely Planet.”The information just pops up on your screen.”
Traffic, What Is It Good For?
I have often maintained that large portals and publishers have one asset that micropublishers and new web destinations seek — the eyeballs. The trouble is that with the destination web slowly crumbling, over the next few years, we are going to see eyeballs shift from the traditional destinations, further weakening the traditional media brands. Lonely Planet recognizes that.
In addition to its mobile efforts, Lonely Planet has built a blogging platform that allows folks to blog about their travels. The bloggers get to keep the advertising revenues, along with traffic that is funneled from the Lonely Planet web site.
“We get interesting, deeper and rich content on our sites from our community,” says Goldberg, “making the Lonely Planet web site more useful for visitors.” In other words, the company is sharing its traffic with its community.
In addition, it has launched Groups, which uses Google-backed Open Social to help travelers create micro social networks, depending on destinations and topics. The company has also helped foster a traveler community called Thorn Tree, which attracts nearly half a million visitors every month. And it has developed a trip traveler tool.
What next? I wouldn’t be surprised by an emphasis on transactions. Along with Web, Mobile and Books, Lonely Planet has launched a magazine and is producing television shows along with its parent, BBC.
The way I look at it — these guys are doing a good job of embracing change, and evolving with that change. I wish more publishers would think along these lines.