Digital Innovation Digital Publishing Top Stories
8 mins read

“Preparing itself for a radically different future”: How publishers are emerging from the Covid-19 crisis

“The impact of Covid-19 on publishing has brought with it an existential crisis for many. It has also brought innovation and resilience.”

FIPP’s first Covid-19 report, ‘Publishing during a pandemic: mapping a path through the coronavirus crisis,’ looked into how publishers around the world were initially affected by, and responded to the COVID-19 crisis. 

It has now published an update subtitled ‘Emerging from the Covid-19 crisis.’ This version “looks beyond the immediate doom and gloom to how the industry stood up to the challenge and is preparing itself for a radically different future.”  

The way industries respond to a crisis determines how they will respond to a disaster in the future. The impact of Covid-19 on publishing has brought with it an existential crisis for many. It has also brought innovation and resilience.

Publishing during a pandemic: Emerging from the Covid-19 crisis

Many publishers have been affected by declining ad revenues and print sales. However, these trends had been present before the crisis, and appear to have been accelerated by it.

What the pandemic did was, suddenly and without planning, force the media industry to lurch five years down the road in terms of remote working, virtual events and reconsideration of print, says John Wilpers, Co-author of FIPP’s ‘Innovation in Media 2020-2021 World Report.’

Here’s how certain publishers have identified the opportunities in the crisis, and responded effectively.

“Altering what they want to read”

Wired recognized early on during the crisis that it was vital to cover the pandemic and its impact comprehensively. The magazine started doubling down on science, politics and business reporting from January itself. This strategy was based on the editorial team’s prediction that people would want to read more of these sections if the epidemic turned into a pandemic.   

As the Covid-19 outbreak continues to change people’s lives, it’s also altering what they want to read. For publishers, assessing what your readers now need – and striking the right balance between informing and entertaining – is a crucial part of forging a way forward.

FIPP’s Publishing during a pandemic, June update

The planning paid off, according to Wired UK’s Editor-in-chief, Greg Williams. He told Press Gazette that the website’s digital audience has since “exploded.” By March, year-on-year traffic had tripled.

Wired had the advantage of being prepared well-in-advance. In the past three years, the title had “repositioned itself from a magazine about gadgets to one competing with the likes of Bloomberg, The Economist, the Financial Times and The Washington Post.”

“The spike in traffic since the coronavirus outbreak has created an opportunity to show audiences the scope of Wired content,” the authors write. “Especially to those who still held the view that it was only a gadgets magazine.”

If you do quality journalism, if you have authority, which I think we have in this space, and there is integrity and quality to what you’re doing, then fortunately there is a big audience for that. 

Greg Williams, Editor-in-chief, Wired UK

“People are interacting where they can”

What’s more, the company is forecasting revenue growth of up to 10% this year, despite the crisis. It expects some decline as people have not been able to go out and buy the product due to the lockdown. However, web traffic has shot up. “Our views of our webinars have gone up and our video views are rising. So people are interacting where they can.” says Wired’s Publishing Director, Nick Sargent. 

If there is a slight drop [in circulation], which we don’t know as yet, I’m in no doubt it’ll pick up to a pre-Covid or if not higher after all this because we’ll see some migration from the website…to people buying the magazine because it’s the first time a lot of people have really interacted with it.

Nick Sargent, Publishing Director, Wired

Other specialist brands have reported a similar experience. Trusted Media Brands’ Taste of Home and Family Handyman have seen a surge in both digital traffic and print subscriptions during the pandemic.

Quite like Wired, these publications quickly pivoted to their readers’ changing needs. The report shares the example of Taste of Home which started focusing its content strategy around the crisis in early March, when it became clear more people would be staying home. 

The authors write, “Taste of Home’s editorial team identified the content categories and topics they could organize around in a way that was true to the brand and its audience during the pandemic lockdown.” 

“Where we need to go next”

Jeanne Sidner, Content Director, Taste of Home, assembled a task force of stakeholders from distribution channels, including search, social, newsletters and partners. “The goal was to meet daily to look at real-time content performance data, share ideas and use our learnings to boost visits and engagement across all channels,” said Beth Tomkiw, Chief Content Officer, Trusted Media Brands. 

We have forward thinking brainstorms and discussions about where we need to go next. Being a journalist is fantastic these days because you have data to help inform decisions and data to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t. 

Beth Tomkiw, Chief Content Officer, Trusted Media Brands 

The team meets weekly to understand where the brand is vis-à-vis the content. They create and promote relevant content around arising issues and move away from topics that are slowing down. This approach has led to record boosts in traffic. For example, the brand’s Basic Homemade Bread recipe has notched up 4.4M visits since 1 March. 

This was achieved through a cross-team collaboration in which the newsletter team produced content around bread, and the social team created a Homemade Bread Challenge. The culinary team members created “Cooking from Home” videos. These repurposed the basic recipe to create mini breakfast pizzas, apple dumpling pull-apart bread and cinnamon rolls.

The team also created a My Bakeable Challenge around banana bread, when the data revealed that it was among the most popular recipes in the US. It went to achieve the highest engagement for any Bakeable challenge ever (figures not shared). 

TasteofHome.com recorded a 66% increase of monthly unique visitors year-over-year at 32.2M in April. 

“A staggering 87% conversion from March to May”

The surge in traffic has also led to meaningful gains in subscription for various publishers. Matt Lindsay, President of Mather Economics, says they have observed a “49% increase in subscription conversions from February to March this year, and a staggering 87% conversion from March to May.”

Martha Williams, CEO of the World Newsmedia Network, says that this global surge in subscriptions indicates that the industry must now prioritize optimizing its subscription pricing structures to offset advertising losses.

Pricing strategy continues to be vital despite the positive numbers, comments Lindsay. Targeted pricing strategies as opposed to across-the-board strategies “will yield a tremendous amount of incremental revenue from price increases and renewals,” he explains. It will also help them reduce their dependence on advertising revenue. 

It’s never been more important for content to have a purpose within a business and be tied into the subscription strategy. “It’s something we talk about a lot,” says Nancy Gauss, Executive Director of Video at The New York Times. 

“When we’re thinking about a premium subscription product that’s worth paying for that’s differentiated in the competitive landscape…it’s about creating a differentiated, unique product that’s worth paying for,” she adds.

The Sacramento Bee recently started analyzing audience data to find potential communities. The publisher used criteria like whether a group has a connection to the region, and whether there is a team or a reporter with a track record for attracting a readership. 

Its editorial team then creates stories around the content relevant to each group to find what drives paid subscriptions. The strategy has helped The Bee achieve a 4% growth in digital-only subscribers. The targeted stories also grew subscriber page views by 95%.

“Lucrative option for publishers willing to innovate”

Virtual events are another avenue for building engagement and generating profit brought to the forefront by the pandemic. Condé Nast Britain’s report, ‘Looking Beyond Lockdown – Changing Consumer Behaviour in Response to Covid-19’, released in early June, states that although a “pivot to virtual events has impacted ticket prices and revenue, consumer uptake is high and sponsorship opportunities abound.”

The report, based on responses from 2,500 consumers and online interviews with proprietary communities, also found that at-home theatre and cinema screenings, as well as conferences, seminars and workshops, were the most consumed virtual experiences in the six weeks leading up to the last week of May.

Virtual is now a reality. This presents a lucrative option for publishers willing to innovate.

FIPP’s Publishing during a pandemic, June update

The report references the Met Gala, Vogue magazine’s annual fundraising event, which was postponed (the physical event) until next year. The virtual event held in early May reportedly generated €22.79M in earned media value. 

Among its other findings, 92% respondents say that they have already engaged with a virtual seminar and/or performance in the last weeks of May. And 75% plan to maintain or increase their spending on in-home entertainment in the next 12 months.

“Most media companies already possess the right tools to move into events (live or virtual) — and turn a profit while they’re at it,” the FIPP report suggests. “Most publishers already have a well-defined target audience, existing channels for promotion, a loyal following and bags of relevant content as well as expertise.”

“A different – and exciting – set of opportunities”

And while the value proposition for both participants and sponsors of a virtual event is different from a physical event, it is not of lower value. “Physical events have their obvious merits, but virtual events have their own,” says Cobus Heyl, Chief Content Officer at FIPP.

There are a different – and exciting – set of opportunities presented by online events and we should explore this to its full potential. To equate a virtual event to a physical event is daft, much like equating a printed magazine to its social media channel. 

Cobus Heyl, Chief Content Officer at FIPP

Some of the strengths of virtual events over physical include: 

  • The ability to create multiple touch points online.
  • Break down the program into more consumable chunks spread over a longer period.
  • The choice of whether to watch something live or on-demand.
  • Availability of data that offers on-the-go feedback.
  • The opportunity to include more participants as they do not need to travel and be accommodated in hotels.

“A clear understanding of the reader’s need”

As publishers build upon these new (or invigorated) opportunities brought by COVID-19, their primary challenge, in the long run, will be to capitalize on and retain the gains made during this period. The report quotes Colin Morrison, founder of Flashes & Flames, saying that the most durable brands will be those with unique content. And that the long-term expansion of specialist or lifestyle media must therefore increasingly be based on: 

  • A direct relationship with the audience as members or subscribers. 
  • Providing services “for enthusiasts, by enthusiasts” and being authentic. 
  • A truly “platform-agnostic” approach to the provision of products, services and platforms. 
  • Interactive services which encourage the “glue” of intra-membership community relationships.
  • Ownership of exclusive information for and about the market.
  • Collaborations, alliances and partnerships to enhance versatility and expertise.

The journey to convert users from visiting a website to becoming an active and continued subscriber is most critical, according to York Walterscheid, MD, CeleraOne. He told FIPP President and CEO, James Hewes that publishers need to build segments and target readers with these (content) segments as individually as possible to improve conversion and retention. And all of this needs to happen in real time. “It’s not about building a paywall and asking for payment. 

“It’s about interacting and engagement. A clear understanding of the reader’s need.”

The full report can be downloaded from FIPP
Publishing during a pandemic: Emerging from the Covid-19 crisis

Related posts

What's New In Publishing articles suggested by Bibblio
Helping publishers increase engagement, improve monetization and drive new audiences. Read more