Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
4 mins read

Ensuring rising readerships stick, post-pandemic

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...


It’s no secret that news and current affairs publications have experienced a major spike in their online readerships during the pandemic, with people hungry for the latest information on the virus, and the lockdown reducing access to print editions. As the crisis has progressed, this behavior has manifested itself across more and more media, with subscriptions continuing to climb.

The downside is that advertising revenue hasn’t followed this upward trend with spend in the UK set to decline by 16.7% to £21.1 billion this year. Despite the ability to access larger audiences, brands have cut back, keen to save money where they can in the face of an uncertain future. With the jury out on when advertisers will return once the pandemic has subsided, retaining this newfound readership and continuing to develop a strong subscriber base is key for publishers to grow revenue for a secure and sustainable future.

Although subscriptions may be healthy now, the big question is how long this will last and whether it will continue beyond the crisis. A hint to the answer is already here in reports of consumers starting to suffer from Covid fatigue, resulting in a drop in readers of virus-related content. According to Havas Media Group research, after a spike in interest when the lockdown hit, late April saw a 7% decrease in readership. Meanwhile, 50% of Americans say they are “likely” or “very likely” to spend less time with media following the pandemic, compared to 41% who said they’ll spend more time, according to recent Mindshare research – and this is unlikely to be solely a US phenomenon. This makes it vital for publishers to retain as many of their new and existing readers as possible. Even more important is looking for ways to capitalize and build on this newfound connection with their audiences to further boost revenues in the future.

So where should publishers start?  

As media outlets battle to keep and grow subscribers during and post pandemic, those that make the deepest connections and the biggest impact will flourish when we have more distractions and our media appetite subsides. With fewer people online, publishers will need to search for other touch points. They will need to find different ways to leverage their brands and content off the printed page and digital screen. 

Just like other businesses pivoting in the face of falling revenues, publishers will need to overcome the drop in advertising by devising creative solutions to ensure they maintain the interest of their growing readerships and keep them on board. Right now, a good start would be to follow the ‘acts not ads’ approach cited as a key feature of the most effective promotional campaigns in the latest WARC Effective 100 report. This means not simply covering topics that interest your readers, but also taking action in the real world that will resonate with them. A great example is publishing platform Thrive Global’s #FirstResponderFirst initiative, raising money to support those in the pandemic frontline in the emergency services.

Other publishers, meanwhile, are looking at innovative ways to entertain and add value to their readers’ lives in the lockdown. Vogue, for example, took its postponed Met Gala, an iconic night of fashion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art raising funds for the Met’s Costume Institute, online. It looked back at highlights from previous years and concluded with ‘A Moment With the Met’, an intimate exclusive celebration. Country Living also got in on the act, creating an online experience for its readers by hosting a virtual 48-hour artisan pop-up market.

As the pandemic subsides and the lockdown eases, publishers then need to follow their readers, who will be gradually fleeing their homes and screens to experience all they’ve been starved of during the lockdown – closer social connections, physical shopping, eating and drinking out, even traveling to work – albeit within the restrictions of our post-pandemic world. Whether it be people’s playgrounds or workplaces, publishers will need to develop experiences that engage with their audiences to stake their claim as their medium of choice. Essentially, they will need to bring their brands, and just as importantly their content, to life in the real world.

A select number of publishers had already discovered the power of engaging with their audiences in this way before the pandemic struck. Aiming to humanize their brand and emphasize the breadth of their offering, The Financial Times held an event at The Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where its journalists and columnist performed pieces of original content adapted for the stage. Marie Claire launched its Next Big Thing concept shop giving shoppers a glimpse of the lifestyle and fashion of the future. Arguably, the most successful exponent of driving subscriptions by immersing people in its content has been The Economist. Its award-winning real-world campaign began as a tiny tactical test and developed into a new strategic global subscriber acquisition channel, generating over 150,000 subscriptions across eight countries. The activation brought the iconic business newspaper to life in high footfall locations in a way that attracted its core reader profile and secured immediate subscriptions.

Right now, even as the lockdowns start to lift, it may seem strange to think about engaging with people face to face. And, of course, activities that involve large gatherings are likely to be off-limits for the short and medium terms. But the crisis will pass. People will emerge from their screens desperate for experiences in the real world. Through careful thought, planning and creativity now, starting with actions that influence the real world, publishers can devise acceptable and effective ways to engage directly with their audiences. Then as the lockdown lifts, becoming a vibrant, relevant, authentic part of readers’ emergence experience will help publishers maintain and grow their subscribers, and build on the increased engagement that the lockdown has brought.

Sarah Norfolk
Senior Account Director, Sense

About: Sense is a strategically-driven brand experience agency that produces unique creative moments to capture the hearts and minds of any audience. With offices in New York and London, the company is passionate about creating thoughtful experiences that impact culture and reach communities in meaningful ways.