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The Publishing Industry -- Where to Now?

Many of us have spent far more time at home looking at screens to keep up to date with the world than would have seemed possible at the start of the year. In the UK, as with many other countries, the lockdown rules and pandemic response were changing on a near-daily basis, and the 5 PM government briefing became a regular fixture of the evening news. Unsurprisingly, those media firms offering up this vital information -- and, of course, escapism from the grimness -- have seen huge increases in traffic ... but what now?

Surge in viewership, and its challenges

In many media industries, the digital channel has become the most important (if not only) means of reaching your consumers, and firms have seen record growth in readership and traffic. In fact, Akamai reported a global traffic increase of 30% on its network in March. Some firms, like The Atlantic and The New York Times, are seeing record growth in digital. But at the same time, many publishers that rely on advertising revenue have felt the squeeze as major firms in travel, retail, auto, and entertainment slash their ad spend -- down by around 50% in some markets in April and May!

Thankfully, the ad market has started to show signs of recovery in the past couple of months: Publishers are reporting new advertisers entering the market (taking advantage of record-low CPM costs), and online entertainment and dating/relationship services have upped their spending as they receive record traffic. Retailers are also tentatively returning to advertising as stores and online retail offerings start to reopen or expand their service.

The publishing industry has had its fair share of highs and lows over the past three to four years, even before the pandemic. Whether it's competition from nontraditional players, ad-blocking, or the never-ending monetization struggle, the lockdown has further tested the industry's ability to innovate products and services, retain readers and revenues, and, just as importantly, protect sites and user data. 

Today, even as the first phase (hopefully only phase) of the pandemic seems to be burning out in many countries, publishers face three significant challenges as they plan for future profitability in a changing landscape: keeping sites up and running and optimized under the weight of record traffic, turning as many of those new readers/viewers into loyal repeat customers, and all the while not losing sight of important security considerations. 

Let's look at each of these in turn:

  • Reliability and performance. Record traffic levels mean even the most well-designed site can start straining at the seams. Site outages and slow performance, particularly on mobile devices, mean people click away to another source. Keeping things running smoothly is job No. 1 as failures not only damage a brand's reputation, they mean that casual visitors may never come back. More practically, failures also mean no ad impressions.
  • Consumer experience and personalization. Sites that differentiate by layout, content, flexibility, device, and even personalization are likely to stay longer in readers' minds (and bookmarks). By necessity, innovation has seen much more video content creation and consumption, citizen-based reporting, and a focus on driving more understanding. For example, several papers, including The Washington Post, have been applauded for investing heavily in crafting easy-to-understand data-driven graphics to track COVID-19.
  • Not losing sight of security. Security is a necessary overhead -- one that might be tempting to skimp on to improve performance, get fresh content live more quickly, or save some money -- but there is a lot more at stake here. From blocking malicious bots to ensuring proper protection for paywalled content to securing remote working communications and protecting user identities, keeping your digital properties secure is a must. We've seen a massive increase in DDoS attacks during the pandemic -- hackers, like many of the rest of us, seem to have more time on their hands at the moment!

What's the way forward?

Addressing these core challenges will enable publishers to squeeze as much out of the limited available ad spend as possible from their digital properties; properties that -- incidentally -- have become much more important and visible to the boardroom in mixed-media publishing groups as other outlets have effectively been put on hold. Smart digital publishing teams will use this opportunity to drive home the fact that they hold the keys to the publisher's future and need more resources to continue thriving. 

In the immediate term, they will also be focused on upcoming issues like the loss of third-party cookies (and whether to take a DMP or CDP path ... or both, which may be a whole other blog post!) and Google removing the AMP requirement for featuring in the Top Stories section.

In the long term, many publishers are going to need to look at revenue diversification; recent events have highlighted the fragility of the advertising market, and it's no coincidence that publications with a subscription service have fared much better. Now, not all publishers can pivot to subscriptions -- this typically suits business-focused or niche titles (think finance, politics, or campaigning newspapers), but most can do more to build reader communities (through user registration) and explore alternate media like podcasts or online retail affiliation. At the very least, registration increases the value of your audience to advertisers as you can more clearly demonstrate who they are.

Staying strong and investing in digital

Publishing has weathered many storms over the years -- like the print decline and the impact of digital in the late 2000s -- and for the most part, it's weathering this pandemic, too. As long as consumers continue to value objectivity, authoritative coverage, and quality journalism, publishers will continue to find an audience.

The remaining four months of 2020 will certainly be very tough, especially since no one really knows what the future holds. However, as an industry, we need to hunker down and emerge stronger than ever when things return to "normal." Digital is the best way to preserve and grow that link to readers. Most firms had already recognized this, but the pandemic may accelerate just how quickly this switch will happen.