QUALITY article image EDIT 013

Building the foundations for quality digital publishing

Published: 03 Sep 2021

For the final week of our Celebrate the Finalists series, we wanted to home in on a topic that united all of our finalists: quality. In a sea of misinformation, disinformation, fake news, and clickbait, our finalists are leading the way in developing quality content and reader experiences.


But what do we mean by quality in digital publishing? We reached out to a select group of our 2021 AOP Awards finalists and partners to understand what the core pillars were to ensure a high-quality environment – and ask how that is delivering long-term growth for digital publishers. From journalism, to advertising, to data management, here’s how publishers can commit to delivering quality products to their readers and advertisers.


Defining quality journalism and content

It goes without saying that one of the main hallmarks of a quality publisher is quality content. “It’s really important from our perspective that, as a news provider, we have that curation and care and originality when we put our stories together,” stated Jo Holdaway, Chief Data & Marketing Officer at ESI Media.


Quality publishing has to be about ensuring that your content meets a need that your reader has – whether that’s trusted information on a breaking news item, or just the faith that your website will help them find the perfect recipe: “We’ll only create recipes where we know there’s a strong user demand for them,” explained bbcgoodfood.com’s Digital Group Editor, Lily Barclay, “which is why we will only ever work with brands where we actually genuinely feel like they are the best in the market.”


However, perhaps it is worth revisiting the definition of quality journalism. “It seems too many people who should know better are confusing concepts of quality journalism with that of journalism which only expresses their own opinion,” stated David McMurtrie, Head of UK Publishers – Partner Solutions at Google. In the echo-chamber that is the internet, too often people search for information that reconfirms their existing ideologies. And in return, publishers who are wary of losing an already loyal audience could shy away from covering potentially controversial opinions. “I think it’s incredibly important that we in the UK working in the news industry continue to have a broad range of journalism that expresses different viewpoints,” David continued, “And not to follow the dangerous precedents that we’re seeing in countries like Turkey, Hungary, and in Hong Kong as well.”


Quality publishing should deliver accurate, fact-checked information, but we also have to continue to deliver a range of perspectives and challenge out-dated preconceptions in order to build towards a better future.


Creating a quality reader experience

Of course, quality content also requires quality context. Roberto Sanha, Account Manager at Red Ventures, firmly linked quality to the user experience, and encouraged publishers to think about “what kind of content we put out, what that quality looks like, what sort of quality the users are getting from that, [and] what is the overall experience.”


Sam Tomlinson, Partner at PwC, agreed, pointing out that as a consumer, the overall experience is critical: “You want quick page load times, you don’t want pop-up advertising, you want the ads to be within context rather than being intrusive.” We’ve all opened up a web page and been spammed with pop-ups at some point – or worst of all, opened a page to find that a video has automatically started playing and you just can’t find it.


However, that doesn’t mean that a digital publisher needs to be ad-free to ensure a high-quality experience. “Everyone assumes that the presence of advertising equals a blocker to enjoyment or experience, but it’s not necessarily the case,” stressed Ian Dowds, CEO at UKOM.


Google’s David McMurtrie also stressed the importance of keeping the user experience at the front of mind: “The ad industry is frequently blamed for poorly targeted re-marketing campaigns. But I’d argue that publishers too often just look at pure revenue goals and ignore the user experience.”


Working with advertisers to create quality branded content

“I think publishers are embracing the fact that monetisation isn’t a bad thing,” mused Alex Khan, Group MD, International, at Unruly. But how, then, can publishers work with advertisers to monetise their content without detracting from the reading, watching, or listening experience? Creating unobtrusive ad placements and putting the focus on context and placement of the ads is obviously one solution, but branded content is rapidly becoming a key channel to meet the needs of both advertisers and readers.


“From an editorial perspective, we still jealously – fervently – protect the editorial integrity of what we do,” explained Bryan Glick, Editor-in-Chief at Computer Weekly, “but we do also work with clients to help them produce branded content for themselves as well.”


ESI Media’s Jo Holdaway agreed, declaring that “gone are the days when readers perceive branded content as lower-grade content,” citing the example of the Future London channel, which initially grew from a branded content idea. “That was paid for by our branded content partners, and actually resonated so well with the audience that it was getting more engagement than most other areas of the website!”


Ensuring quality data sources

Data is also critical to success in branded content – and allows publishers to guarantee that they’re holding their branded and editorial content to the same rigorous standards. “We applied the same high-quality metrics to both our editorial, and our branded content,” highlighted Jonathan Kitchen, Revenue Officer at Dennis, “because our audience comes to us to be informed and be educated.”


Data contributes in any number of ways to creating a quality publishing environment. As David McMurtrie at Google stressed, “the best journalism won’t reach an audience without investment in data and in web development.”


Analysis of data sources is also improving within quality digital publishers, with more publishers interrogating their engagement metrics beyond click through; instead, a more detailed picture is being created around reader engagement by understanding what content encourages most time spent, who visits most frequently, and more. And as well as providing a pool of potential consumers for your advertisers, it is critical to developing and refining a great subscriber experience. With the demise of the cookie imminent, investing in your first-party data is more critical than ever for long-term success: “you can take the money that you earn [from incremental revenue streams] and invest it in continuing and perpetuating that data,” suggested Alex Khan, Group MD, International, at Unruly, “so that you’re continually feeding that cookie jar.”


Earning trust and building a reputation for quality

Finally, it goes without saying that a quality digital publisher’s greatest asset is their reputation for quality and the trust readers place in them. “Registration from a user means ‘I trust you,’ and now post GDPR, “I also trust you with my data,”” ESI Media’s Jo Holdaway reminded us. “You have to be very respectful to your audience to get them to come back.”


Trust is a given, but what is so interesting to see is how our finalists are continually demonstrating that this trust is well-placed. “The escalation of fake news, peer-to-peer news sharing on social platforms, and faster communications, are all contributions to audiences seeking reassurance that editorial is fact-checked and of a high journalistic quality,” shared Sophie Hanbury, Director, Syndication and Licensing Partnerships at The Independent. “Quality publishers like The Independent are implementing more methods to ensure they can stand behind their journalism.”


As well as trusted and reliable information, many quality publishers are also demonstrating that their values are more than just box-ticking lip service. Jennifer Savin, Senior Features Writer at Cosmopolitan UK, highlighted the Cosmopolitan Homemade campaign, which grew from a series of articles around the inaccessibility of jobs for young people who couldn’t afford to rent in London. “Cosmo partnered with a property guardianship company, and we created two different homes for women who could live there super cheap,” Jennifer detailed as she explained that the success of the campaign, which is now being bought to Manchester. “At the crux of it all, it’s true to an editorial foundation, which is about tackling issues your readers care about.”


With a wealth of media sources to choose between, more and more consumers are looking for publishing brands that stand by their values and work to make a positive impact in the world. It was wonderful to see such evidence of this in the finalists for the AOP Awards, and we look forward to celebrating with our finalists – and our winners! – at the AOP Awards presentation next Thursday 16 September.