Digital Publishing Reader Revenue
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A publishing wishlist for 2023

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I’m so happy that publishing’s prediction season is over. Don’t get me wrong, I love reading predictions. Making them? Not so much.

It’s a thankless task. Life comes at you fast in the publishing game and I’m way better at saying what I would like to happen than what is going to happen.

In that spirit, and safely on the other side of January, here’s my publishing wishlist for what’s already shaping up to be an interesting, if testing, 2023.

Pivot to value

This is my big wish for this year because it lies at the heart of everything we do. Ultimately, delivering real value will be the difference between an industry that survives and thrives and one that declines slowly into mediocrity, or worse, mendacity.

Too many of publishing’s pivots end in tears. Video is the worst example I can think of, but there are many examples, where everyone with half a budget chases after a shiny new concept like primary-school football players chasing a ball. There’s no real aim, no plan B, just ‘get that damn ball’.

A pivot to value, in contrast, places audiences at the centre of the chase and it will bring significant gains if it ever catches on.

To be fair, we’re starting to see the first signs of a value pivot playing out. From leading UK newspapers reducing the ad counts on their web pages to the subscription bundling introduced by the New York Times, and Semafor’s new, more considered approach to news and opinion.

There are still loads of publishers out there forcing their readers to play whack-a-mole with their web ads, taking money from subscriptions that are all but impossible to cancel and shoveling out newsletters that are just conduits for web traffic. But I’m hopeful that this is one wish that will come true: the drivers of relationships, first-party data, subscriber retention and upselling are all at play. 

Sustainable subscriptions

Subscriptions have become the second string for many publishers, the first for some. The problem, as Jack Marshall pointed out in a May 2022 Media Voices interview, is that too many rushed reader revenue without really thinking through a sustainable offering.

I hope 2023 sees some of these publishers create subscription products that are worth renewing.

My Media Voices colleague Esther and I disagree on what that looks like. For her, selective subscriptions that salami slice existing paid-for content are the answer. The objective is to draw in readers that only want to pay for subject coverage they care about, monetising more than just brand’s superfans. I don’t agree: I think giving people more for their money is the answer to both customer satisfaction and maintaining the broadest coverage possible.

Actually, what we’re both saying is, find out what people want and deliver it. Ultimately, that’s what will decide the long-term success of any subscription offer.

Newsletters and podcasts too

I’m old enough to remember every ‘year of mobile’ ever predicted and maybe that’s the root of my aversion to predictions. The closest I’ll get in this article to suggesting what might actually happen in the remainder of 2023 is to suggest that newsletters and podcasts will continue evolving.

We have been reading for some time about the rise of podcasts; Adweek’s Mark Stenberg told us that 2022 was the year of normalization for newsletters, when every serious publisher really started to pay attention to what they were delivering to people’s inboxes. My wish for 2023 is that the focus shifts to monetization for both podcasts and newsletters.

This isn’t a crass plea for cash (although I do know a daily industry newsletter and a weekly podcast that would love your support). Again, it’s about financial sustainability. 

Podcasts are too often an add on, with low listener numbers used as an excuse for ignoring revenue potential. But publishers need to realize small numbers can deliver decent revenue. And with newsletters have been seen solely as traffic drivers and relationship builders, publishers have ignored revenue potential. A recent INMA report found just 48% of publishers made any money from their newsletters, but if your newsletter is engaging readers, why would you not sell that engagement to a sponsor?

As podcast and newsletter formats become more sophisticated and investment grows, publishers are going to need revenue that can be directly attributed to these erstwhile bolt-ons. Without cash coming in, both will be seen as a cost that sooner or later will get cut back and that would be such a lost opportunity.

The mix of six

This year looks like it will be a tough one; advertising growth is slowing and the subscription boom has hit the skids. That means revenue diversification has to be a priority.

At Media Voices, we’ve long talked about the importance of the mix of six in revenue make up, harking back to a line delivered by then Hearst chairman David Carey a decade ago. This year more than ever, diversified revenues will be crucial for publishers.

Of course, the exact mix is yours to decide. Does your audience want events, live or virtual? Can you leverage your subject matter expertise into deep-dive reports or consultancy? Will your audience pay for training? Can you do affiliate ecommerce? And are you leaving money on the table with your newsletters and podcasts?

Please don’t be a one-trick pony in 2023.

User-first advertising

It was good to see the end of the ‘all ads are bad’ discourse in 2022. Sky-high numbers at the beginning of the year combined with the subscription slowdown to get advertising back on the agenda where it always belonged. 

But that doesn’t mean the way we do advertising doesn’t need to change. Some difficult commercial conversations will have to be had, but the whack-a-mole websites that I mentioned earlier need to go away. Google’s cookie cull might have been postponed until 2024 (or forever) but that is no reason for publishers not to adopt more responsible, privacy-friendly online advertising strategies.

Yes, it’s a longer-term play, but improving ad quality as the Telegraph, The Independent and more recently Bloomberg has done will deliver more value to individual advertisers and help build long-term commercial relationships. And your site visitors will be happier.

All this, and you can start to build out your first-party data and get back to delivering targeted advertising in context. You might even avoid the rise in ad blocking that peaked again in 2022.

More of the good stuff 

I’m also wishing for more responsible journalism in 2023.

Climate coverage began to move into the mainstream in 2022 and I hope that continues. Hopefully, we’ll leave behind the ‘Fun in the Sun’ narratives peddled by some outlets and accept that everyone is a climate reporter now.

There were improvements in diversity and inclusion last year, but  speaking to Richard Reeves of the AOP for our first interview of 2023, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Publishers need to get beyond the box ticking phase and see the commercial benefits of having truly diverse and inclusive teams.

And in a landscape where trust has tanked again, I’d love to see more publishers heed Nic Newman’s advice for combatting news avoidance: creating accessible content in a variety of formats that point at solutions as well as problems.

If all of that is too hard, then at least stop making things worse by feeding the outrage engine with negative, over emotive, angry headlines.

There are many more things that I’d ask for in 2023 if I had unlimited wishes. A global print resurgence; to understand what the hell AI will mean for publishing; that Elon Musk just leaves Twitter alone. But I’ll guess I’ll stick with what’s possible for now.