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“Publishers that have served their audience well are now reaping the rewards”: Key trends in 2020 and beyond

What a year this has been. Packed with uncertainty, disruption, and innovation… a truly historic year. And how has it been for publishing? What’s New in Publishing’s latest edition of the annual Media Moments 2020 report delves into that. 

The report presents an overview of the key events and trends this year which have a direct impact on publishers’ businesses and strategic directions.

Here are the highlights:

“Stable and growing audience”

“2020 was the year of the audio renaissance,” writes Chris Sutcliffe. “Some of the largest acquisitions have been made in the audio and podcasting space, which has proven to be resilient despite an initial hit to listener numbers at the start of the pandemic.” 

Source: Media Moments 2020

“In fact, there were 133,171 new shows in Apple Podcasts in June,” he adds. “The highest amount of new shows ever to be added in just one month.” 

Now, with eyes turning to the opportunities around engaged listeners over the next decade or more, everyone’s trying to cash in on that stable and growing audience.

Chris Sutcliffe, Media Moments 2020

Publishers like The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others, are investing more and more in this space. The Times bought Serial Productions for around $50M in July. “It was an early sign that the larger media companies considered it prudent to start building up their podcast production capabilities,” comments Sutcliffe. “And made sense even then for The NYT, which has set the standard for daily news podcasts with The Daily.”

July also saw The Post launch audio versions of its print articles. The publisher later reported that it was surprised by the number of listeners who chose to consume the content at home, rather than while commuting. Audio articles helped Danish publisher Zetland gain 2000 new subscribers during lockdown.

Podcasting also fared well in terms of advertising revenues which were hit across the board. PwC’s amended predictions see the amount of advertising revenue entering the space rising to $814M – just only 6% less than what PwC and the IAB predicted for 2020 last year at this time. 

Source: Media Moments 2020

“Five years’ worth of transformation…in the space of just a few months”

Meanwhile, advertising as a revenue source for publishers is also undergoing significant transformation. It has been underway since much before Covid-19 with social media platforms taking the lion’s share of advertising revenue and increasing concerns around the use of readers’ data. 

The changes have been accelerated by the pandemic which caused substantial decline in advertising revenues. The report looks into how recent developments in data and advertising have affected publishers in 2020.

Many in the industry have pointed out that Covid-19 has brought five years’ worth of transformation to publishing businesses in the space of just a few months. 

Esther Kezia Thorpe, Media Moments 2020

Tech platforms have been instrumental in driving changes in this space with privacy measures that would make third party cookies obsolete. Firefox and Apple’s Safari browser had announced third party cookie-blocking measures in 2019. Google said at the beginning of the year that it was working towards phasing out third party cookie support in its Chrome browser within two years. 

The company also said that it is committed to finding alternatives. It announced an initiative called the Privacy Sandbox in late 2019 in order to develop a set of open standards to “fundamentally enhance privacy on the web,” reports Thorpe.

“Play much better to the strengths of publishing companies”

Meanwhile, publishers have been working at strengthening their own positions in the absence of a concrete alternative to third party cookies. 

Many have used this as an opportunity to establish or grow first party data strategies, which play much better to the strengths of publishing companies; namely a loyal audience with whom they have a trusted relationship.

Esther Kezia Thorpe, Media Moments 2020

The New York Times saw its ad sales plunge 44% in Q2 of this year. But the publisher “saw this as an opportunity to plan ahead for the future, investing in better ad experiences and developing contextual targeting as a substitute for third party cookies,” writes Thorpe.

Coronavirus has accelerated us moving into the ad business that we want to be in. There is something that happens when you can’t do a lot about your quarterly results and it requires that you focus on a year or two from now. For us it has ripped the Band-Aid on some hard decisions.

Allison Murphy, SVP of Ad Innovation, The New York Times

Contextual targeting paid off for Dutch public broadcaster Nederlandse Publieke Omroep. The publisher stopped using third party cookies and switched to contextual targeting at the start of 2020. It has since seen revenue grow each month, even during the pandemic. 

Other publishers are building their own tools. Vox Media launched Concert Ad Manager, a self-service tool to give brands – especially small and medium businesses – the ability to build and deploy advertising campaigns at scale across the Concert marketplace. “This is a particularly important step in making advertising on publisher sites accessible to smaller brands,” explains Thorpe.

Looking ahead she adds, “Those who have prepared in advance by strengthening their first-party data strategies and tools are going to be in a much stronger position going into the year than those who are still heavily reliant on traditional display.”

“Digital subscriptions are the headline act”

The year has also seen extraordinary growth in traffic and subscriptions. “Digital subscriptions are the headline act, with more than one news brand posting record gains in this otherwise awful year,” writes Peter Houston. This happened despite many publishers making their Covid-19 content free. In fact, The Atlantic gained record traffic and 36,000 new paying customers in just four weeks.

In the UK, digital publishers’ subscription revenues were up by almost 20% in the first three months of 2020, according to a study by the AOP and Deloitte. Even print did well with Condé Nast recording growth in subscriptions across the world. New subscription orders for the publisher’s UK titles were up 420% YoY.

Coming to the end of 2020, reader revenue has been firmly re-established as a major revenue line by publishers that once eschewed subscriptions for ad revenue sold off the back of free, controlled circulation.

Peter Houston, Media Moments 2020

“The challenge for 2021 will be retention,” comments Houston. “How will publishers keep hold of subscribers brought in by a crazy-fast news cycle, the challenges of home schooling and the claustrophobic boredom of being made to stay home?” 

“Developing reader routines will be central to the efforts of many; making ‘reading your content’ a habit,” he adds.

“We’ve invested in journalism; rather than firing journalists”

Quality content has been critical in driving traffic and subscriptions with users hungry for reliable sources of information. “There is evidence that publishing organizations are actually investing in content again to support their subscription development efforts,” says Houston. “Media leaders from the FT’s John Ridding to The Telegraph’s Nick Hugh have placed the secret of their subscription success at the feet of their journalism.” 

“It’s pretty much impossible to know, I think, whether we’ve got subscribers based purely on [our Covid-19 data] pieces,” The FT’s Senior Data-Visualization Journalist, John Burn-Murdoch told Media Voices. “But anecdotally, I can absolutely point to specific examples where people have emailed or tweeted to say, ‘I’ve subscribed to the FT because of this piece of work,’ or we’ve had people who’d let their subscription lapse and have re subscribed.”

The single biggest thing we did… was to invest in our newsroom and invest in our journalism. And I still think the reason we have had more luck than many other news organizations is because we’ve invested in journalism; rather than firing journalists. 

Mark Thomson, former CEO, The New York Times

The report also looks into how publishers are diversifying their revenue streams via eCommerce, events and other new products. 

“If 2020 has taught publishers just one thing, it’s this: diversified revenue streams are paramount,” writes Jeremy Walters, Editor, WNiP. “Those publishers that branched into at least four main revenue streams prior to 2020 were far better shielded from cratering ad rates, cancelled events and the other Covid-19 curve balls that no one could have possibly foreseen.” 

“Intertwined with this is the importance of putting audiences first. In fact, broader revenue streams can only exist if a publisher truly puts its focus on its audience, and those publishers that have served their audience well are now reaping the rewards.” 

Jeremy Walters, Editor, What’s New in Publishing

The full report can be downloaded here:
Media Moments 2020