Digital Publishing Guest Columns
3 mins read

Coronavirus: the catalyst for better collaboration


Pre-pandemic, publishers were reaping the rewards of collaboration. What began with the Pangaea Alliance quickly became a wider mission to boost joint success, with multiple global media players drawn into unity by the irresistible force of cooperation; with the Ozone Project an example of particular note. 

Fast forward only a short time, and much of the digital media conversation has turned to survival. But one thing remains constant: the publishers, vendors and advertisers I’m lucky enough to work with are still focused on community. Dedication to harnessing collective strength, sharing learnings, offering support and finding a way forward — together — is the key certainty that will pull us through the storm.

Without doubt, 2020 has been a fast-paced ride so far, with unforeseen hurdles and seismic shifts in all directions. As the representative trade body for UK premium publishers, we’ve been heartened to see media players showing their adaptability, pivoting and collaborating to meet ever-changing real-time demands. For instance, more than 30 leading publishers, including Taylor & Francis and The British Medical Journal, have made their coronavirus-related content publicly available to support healthcare efforts. 

Consumers too have affirmed their unwavering trust in high-quality publisher sites. As well as unprecedented interest in reliable, factual news – which has sent digital monthly readership for the UK’s premium news brands to a record-breaking 40 million plus —recent weeks have brought increased traffic to niche publications, as audiences turn to trusted sites for household essentials or new pastimes. Future Publishing, for example, saw reader growth contributing to a 135% uplift in gaming hardware transactions and a 100% rise in home and garden purchases compared to the previous month.

But hand-in-hand with the surge in numbers and positive engagement, comes a challenge. Advertisers have been quick to add coronavirus-associated phrases to their keyword blocklists amid brand safety concerns.

There is understandable frustration for publishers who see the massive disconnect between the growing number of eyeballs and opportunities for online advertising – particularly in a time where most news is about Covid-19 – and the decrease in investment. As a community, however, we are also sensitive to the issues facing brand marketers. Whether it’s tightened budgets, planned creative that’s not the right fit for the current climate, or difficulties with determining which digital placements are suitable for specific brands.

What we can say is that the virus has exacerbated previous symptoms. While it unfortunately places uncertainty around the future for some, it also continues to draw attention to familiar issues, albeit on a grander scale. Incidents with undesirable placements have driven rising calls for better protection, increased transparency into the digital advertising supply chain (especially for programmatic ads), and the need to review the uptake of imprecise brand safety tools, such as broad keyword blocking.

Yet we also know that a common enemy has an uncanny knack of bringing people together and prompting real innovation. I’m therefore not surprised by the increase in offers of free tools – such as Google waiving Google Ad Manager fees for news publishers – and a focus on providing greater guidance as we navigate our way through the crisis. Joint publication of advice on how advertisers can verify content suitability without blanket blocking keywords by multiple industry authorities —ISBA, IAB, IPA, Newsworks and AOP — is a prime example of the way solutions can be found with shared insight.

Those who know me will be aware that I am forever optimistic about digital publishing and its capacity to keep thriving. As the pandemic upends business as usual in all sectors, we may find ourselves forced to do things differently, and perhaps for the better. Although uncertainty is fuelling short-term challenges, this may be a catalyst for enhancing long-term collaboration and bringing attention back to what matters most: delivering real value for everyone, consumers, publishers and advertisers alike.

Richard Reeves
Managing Director, Association of Online Publishers (AOP)

AboutThe UK Association for Online Publishing (AOP) is an industry body representing digital publishing companies that create original, branded, quality content. AOP champions the interests of media owners from diverse backgrounds including newspaper and magazine publishing, TV and radio broadcasting, and pure online media.