Collectif Top Stories
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Reasons to be cheerful: Four areas digital publishing is positively thriving

There’s no question digital publishing is confronted by enormous challenges and deep, continuous disruption (here’s looking at you, AI). But commensurate with this are the huge opportunities available to forward thinking media organisations. In this piece for our Collectif series, Richard Reeves of the Association for Online Publishing discusses four reasons that are cause for celebration as we close out 2023.

As a voice for the digital publishing industry, my blog is often a place where I highlight what isn’t working, particularly this past year where I’ve spoken out about issues from data scraping to bloated creative file sizes. But as we find ourselves nearing the end of 2023, I want to take a moment to reflect on the brilliant work undertaken by our community of digital publishers to build a more resilient, collaborative, and valuable industry.

So, let’s put aside any doom and gloom and celebrate four reasons why we can be cheerful about digital publishing today.

Reason #1: Revenue diversification has curbed reliance on advertising

Year after year and quarter after quarter, our Digital Publisher Revenue Index (DPRI) continues to show growth in subscription revenues. It seems there is no end in sight to the queue of people willing to pay for high quality content, quelling fears that subscription numbers would soon hit a ceiling. The revenue diversification provided by subscription models has helped publishers move away from being solely reliant on advertising, and the inherent risk of having all their eggs in one basket.

As with many of our reasons to celebrate, revenue diversification has been bolstered by digital transformation and data maturity which, over the years, has allowed publishers to create detailed insights into audience behaviour and subsequently build deeper relationships with their readers. These insights can steer product development, opening new opportunities to establish a range of meaningful value exchanges with various audience segments, perhaps best demonstrated by the proliferation of newsletter subscriptions.

Let’s say a third of a publisher’s visitors go straight to the theatre section and skip the rest of the site. Instead of presenting these visitors with the same subscription offer as everyone else, the publisher could suggest a theatre-specific newsletter subscription at a fraction of the price. Now, a reader who might have bounced off a paywall, has become a recurring paying customer.

The recently announced Google Offer Wall provides a preview of how paywalls themselves are diversifying. This tool (which is sure to spawn similar solutions from other tech providers) allows publishers to present visitors with a range of options to access content — such as a one-off payment, a survey, or a standard subscription — to serve a broader spectrum of visitors and capture more valuable data.

Reason #2: Where we are advertising, we’re delivering cutting edge platforms

Though many publishers are diversifying their monetisation strategies, advertising remains a vital revenue stream for the industry. But here, too, publishers are deploying data to enhance their offering to advertisers, taking advantage of the loss of commodified behavioural signals in the post-GDPR and soon to be post-cookie era.

Publishers such as Future, DMG Media, and News UK have showcased how they are deploying their first-party assets to develop digital advertising planning tools and proprietary data platforms to create a quality advertising environment. By leveraging attention metrics, detailed audience segments, and high-impact formats such as full-page takeovers, these publishers are delivering advertising platforms that present a valuable proposition for advertisers frustrated by the lack of transparency and addressability of open programmatic.

Such platforms are a new breed of hybrid, which combine established performance metrics with the much-requested brand metrics that enrich insights around spend and performance that advertisers have struggled to ascertain in a digital world. Hopefully, these proprietary tools will accelerate the trend for direct dialogue between brands and publishers. The days of media owners being disintermediated, and their inventory value diluted by the digital ecosystem seem to be coming to an end.

Reason #3: Emphasis on audience building has uplifted user experience and commercial relationships

Intrinsic to the success of both subscription and advertising strategies has been the switch in focus from trying to monetise every fly-by-night visitor to cultivating loyal and engaged audiences. Though scale and reach remain valuable, publishers have realised their platforms can serve as a conduit to build deep and meaningful relationships with their users.

First-party data is both acquired through, and leveraged to understand, user behaviour. This creates a virtuous cycle where the content consumed, how it is consumed, when it is consumed, and the interactions this consumption triggers are used to steer the direction of a property and its content to foster greater engagement. This data is also extraordinarily powerful in commercial dialogues with advertisers.

Layered on top of the audiences that publishers have cultivated themselves are new avenues for audience expansion thanks to data collaboration technologies such as clean rooms. These have allowed publishers to privately share audiences and find matches with partners, unlocking greater scale without sacrificing the exclusivity of first-party data.

We’re also seeing fantastic innovations in audience experience, with particular emphasis on overcoming the persistent issue of news avoidance. PinkNews has introduced a positive news filter that allows visitors to control whether they are exposed to potentially distressing stories, while nascent news platform RocaNews presents users with a gamified, social media style feed of curated news stories, capped to a limited number per day that can be “completed” for rewards.

Reason #4: A spirit of collaboration has spread internally and externally

No recent development in the digital publishing world has been more encouraging than the spirit of collaboration that has spread both within and between organisations. Commercial and editorial teams that were once kept very church and state are now singing from the same hymn sheet. This has been facilitated, once again, by data — more specifically, the unified pools of data that all departments are now able to work from.

At this year’s Publishing Tech Talk, The Independent rolled out leads from its analytics, editorial, marketing, and data insights teams who spoke on the alignment of their data strategy and how it allowed each department to support the others. Immediate Media, meanwhile, shared a similar cross-departmental presentation on the topic of sustainability, and how each wing of the company uplifts the wider organisation in its net-zero ambitions.

Sustainability has also spurred cross-organisational collaboration at a scale that I have never seen before, as media owners recognise the need for industry-wide standardisation in how carbon emissions are measured and reported, as well as the benefits of sharing the approaches we can take to eliminating them.

Beyond sustainability, this collaborative spirit has been evident within our steering groups at AOP where members can candidly share their challenges; networks such as Ozone that allow smaller publishers to band together to achieve greater scale; and cross-industry initiatives such as the All In Census which provide a shared resource for addressing barriers to diversity, equity, and inclusivity across media, publishing, and advertising.

It’s wonderful to think that, for the new crop of talent entering the digital publishing world, this collaborative atmosphere will be normal. This is a massive change for industry veterans like me, who come from an era where we all had blinders on when it came to what other departments and our competitors were doing.

Today, people working in digital publishing have a broader perspective on their organisations and the wider industry, how their work contributes to the success of both, and what they can do to affect change. This perspective will be vital as our industry navigates the existential disruption and opportunity presented by AI, which is sure to define the next 12 months in publishing.

Richard Reeves
Managing Director, AOP


The 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.


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