The Dandy and Desperate Dan get a dose of digital disruption

The last printed edition of one of the world’s longest-running comics has gone on sale this week. The Dandy, which features characters such as Desperate Dan and Korky the Kat, was first published 75 years ago, but circulation plummeted to 8,000 copies a week in recent years from a peak of two million in the 1950s. Publisher DC Thomson has launched the comic online, as a smartphone app, with a Facebook and Twitter presence too. The final print edition coincided with the title’s 75th anniversary, and included a pullout reprint of the first edition of the comic from 4 December 1937.

Like the demise of household name businesses that dominated my childhood such as Woolworths, this is a poignant moment. I read The Dandy as a kid, and there is a huge nostalgia thing going on here. In making the transition into cyberspace, the website will feature old characters in new animated strips, with voice-overs and sound effects. Readers (Users?) will also be able to play interactive games, watch videos and create and care for their very own virtual pet, the Dandy Dollop.

Throughout its 75 years, The Dandy’s artists and writers have always strived to keep the comic’s characters and plot lines relevant. During World War II, Desperate Dan used his peashooter to bring down German aircraft and sink U-boats. A strip called Addie and Hermythe Nasty Nazis was a satire on Hitler and Goering. There was an outcry from fans in 1997 when Desperate Dan was supposedly to be retired after heading off into the sunset with the Spice Girls. He caused more controversy when he gave up eating cow pies during the BSE outbreak.

So The Dandy is alive and well, and it’s going to continue as usual it’s just as of next week it’s only available online with all the famous characters and story lines, as well as new life with online games and reader interactivity. It’s almost a deliberately naive venture into the digital unknown for a publisher that’s been cutting down trees for 75 years, squishing them flat and smearing ink all over them. Check it out:

From printed comics, to printed newspapers, nowadays people have also ceased buying daily newspapers, and instead, are purchasing a subscription to the various types of newspapers directly from their digital devices. A recent survey conducted among 2,518 online newspaper viewers revealed that newspapers have a wide digital reach, with 60% of respondents saying they looked at an online version from a laptop or desktop in the last week, and 26% did so using a smartphone. So, there looks to be the opportunity to move brand loyalty to the new platform. However, the likelihood is that at some point in the future, printed newspapers in the UK will be going digital only.

The constancy of a daily paper and the tactile experience, plus the noisy rustle of the pages and ink smudges on your fingers, is something we’ve all grown up with. You have to wonder whether it will still have the same impact when it doesn’t land day after day on doorsteps or left on the bus seat for someone else to read. Undoubtedly there is a value to newspapers that are handed around or read in local coffee shops that the web can’t duplicate. The local paper was published for its local audience, a digital edition serves a significantly wider audience, but in doing so does it lose impact and power as a local newspaper around local news, local advertising and campaigning on local issues?

The Guardian seems set to be the first UK daily national newspaper that is likely to turn off the printing presses. They’re losing money hand over fist, and when they installed their most recent presses (only a few years ago) they indicated at the time that they thought they might be the last set they ever bought. Of course if you identify what their customer offering is, then they are not in the business of selling print in the first place, that just happened to be the best medium they could use back in the disconnected world for telling stories and bringing the news. It’s really about the platform and the real question is whether The Guardian has a sustainable business as a digital only publication. If they do axe the print edition, they will follow Newsweek, the eighty-year-old news magazine that is to go digital-only from the new-year. It currently has 15 million unique visitors a month to its web site, a 70% uplift on last year, so it’s a transition to a new business model has some traction.

As I see it, there are four reasons why print won’t survive:

  • Costs: cost of distribution and cost of production.
  • Time to market: In a connected world, it makes no sense to focus on a news product that doesn’t deliver news as it happens.
  • Convenience: While a printed newspaper is a simple to use media, with digital you can stay in touch anytime, anywhere, on any device and it’s the flexibility and utility, which is key.
  • Limitations of format: While text and images will always be a powerful way to communicate, we are not limited to columns of text and static images online – videos convey richness of content.

Digital is not a ‘brand extension’, it’s the future platform, and will enable The Guardian to be more relevant – here’s how they could reposition themselves: if you get our app or use our website, you get the best content, the most exciting stories, amazing pictures and videos, audio, interactive guides, and you can follow us where you like, be a part of the experience, discuss topics with other users, see live updates and much more.  It’s not about the format, it’s about giving you the best stories, the best moments, and make you part of the best personalised experience.

The current position of newspapers seems to reflect how successful companies tend to fall into three traps that make the glory days fleeting:

  • The physical trap – big investments in old systems or equipment prevent the pursuit of fresher, more relevant investments – the ‘fixed’ asset of printing presses fixes mindsets.
  • The psychological trap – companies fixate on what made them successful and fail to notice when something new displaces it – the Kindle shows the change in appetite from print consumption.
  • The strategic trap – a company focuses purely on the customer of today and fails to anticipate the future – the pace of mobile and social computing, and dynamic content adoption.

Some unlucky companies manage a trifecta and fall into all three traps. Of course, with today’s rapid technological change, companies rise and fall faster than ever before. It’s no Hall of Shame, rather they illustrate the way missed opportunities and tunnel vision without sensitive external radar can send even a mighty enterprise off-course. As The Dandy and The Guardian’s situations show, customer preferences change and your product needs to reinvent and re-engage to make it relevant.

There are many examples of companies where previous success was followed by an unenviable stumble, then they stalled, then collapsed:

  • Blockbuster. The video-rental chain survived the stumble from VHS to DVD but then failed to adapt to the next big changes – Blockbuster remained flat-footed when Netflix started sending videos via mail order, phone companies started offering video-on-demand, and people started renting videos for the night through vending machines. Now that video streams through computers and phones, Blockbuster’s conventional retail outlets seem hopelessly outdated. The firm is closing hundreds of stores and chasing its industry instead of leading it.
  • Dell. Back when IBM and Hewlett-Packard sold most of their products through stores, Dell had a different idea: cut out the middleman and sell directly to consumers. When the Internet arrived, Dell took off and competitors got whiplash trying to keep up. But a decade later, Dell faltered as mobile devices began to displace PCs and customers began to demand end-to-end service, not just hardware. Dell has countered with mini-laptops, smartphones, and other products, but it’s now following the pack whereas it was once the leader.
  • Eastman Kodak. For nearly a century, no company commercialised the camera as successfully as Kodak, whose breakthroughs included the Brownie camera in 1900, colour film, the handheld movie camera, and the easy-load Instamatic camera. But Kodak’s run began to end with the advent of digital photography and they missed out on all the printers, software, file sharing, and third-party apps. From having a 90% market share of photographic film sales in 1976, 2012 saw Kodak file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, and cease making digital cameras – gone in a flash after over 100 years.
  • Motorola. Its first big success came with car radios, which led to two-way radios, which eventually led Motorola to build and sell the world’s first mobile phone. Motorola dominated that business as recently as 2003, when it introduced the trendy Razr, the biggest-selling mobile phone ever at the time. But Motorola failed to focus on smartphones that handle email and data, and rapidly lost share to newcomers like RIM, Apple, LG, and Samsung.

Kodak collapsed from a dominant, monopolistic market position as it did not move into the digital world from the analog well enough and fast enough. Kodak faced the technological discontinuities challenge: a new technology has fierce competitors, low margins and cannibalises your core business. Kodak did not take decisive action to combat the inevitable challenges from a seismic shift in the customer demand profile – and we’re back to The Dandy and The Guardian.

Behind the glass screen of your device, there is a sharper definition of text and image, but does the digital incarnation deliver the same user experience of handling the printed comic or newspaper? While I’ll happily read e-books on my Kindle, digital music downloads make me similarly sad about the decline of physical format recorded music. It’s lost the tactile and visual impact of the vinyl, but more especially the visceral imagery and text of the album sleeve and notes. The CD inserts and now digital book you get with an iTunes download have lost some of the experience – I don’t read them.

I used to enjoy sitting at the kitchen table on a Sunday morning, mug of tea in hand and spending an indulgent hour or more reading the Sunday papers from front to back page. Ok, kids came along to disrupt the tranquillity of that, but I don’t spend as much time reading online, it’s just not the same immersive experience.

The digital Dandy will find its new home very crowded, it will have to fight for attention. Digital media threw the music industry into chaos, streaming and downloading were new concepts and the music industry was forced into entirely new business models as nimble, tenacious DIY start-ups were just better equipped to grab the attention of the customer in a new technology paradigm, now its the turn of the publishing sector.

Similarly, the emergence of blogs, and latterly apps, continues to reshape the curation of content and self-publishing. Some industries don’t seem to move that quickly – but that’s because they’re looking in the wrong direction. The costs of inaction in the face of an uncertain future is clear with the examples above, that left them floundering and distracted. When I was a kid, the only thing that could distract me from reading The Dandy was the shout from my mum to say tea was on the table. How times change.