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The essential ingredients for digital publishing resilience

Published: 09 Mar 2021

Amidst a year of pandemic, Brexit, and the US elections, the British Digital Publishing Industry has proven itself to be remarkably resilient.  In many cases, digital publishers have thrived. Organisations have adapted to become more flexible, more innovative, more creative, and the longtail success to that determination is beginning to emerge.

But how can publishers leverage the traits that made them resilient to help them prepare for the future? We reached out to our AOP Awards jury of advertising and publishing experts to discover what the hallmarks were of a resilient publisher, and what lessons we should carry with us to future-proof our organisations. 

Innovation around revenue streams

It’s unsurprising that the majority of our judges referred to flexibility or agility as a key definer of resilience for digital publishing. As the pandemic began to escalate in March last year and brands culled their advertising spend, publishers faced a drop in revenue. According to the Digital Publishers Revenue Index (created in partnership by the AOP and Deloitte), display advertising revenue declined by just over 25% in Q2 compared to the same period last year. 

However, despite that, the decline in overall digital publishing revenues was significantly less steep than had been anticipated for a period of such turmoil. In total, the DPRI reported a fall in revenue of 14.3% when compared to 2019. Subscription models were a large part of plugging this revenue shortfall for publishers, with a 19.3% increase in subs revenue. 

“The most resilient teams will have used this time as an opportunity to get even more creative and collaborative, and used the increase in digital footfall to their advantage in producing something that delighted and / or supported their audience,” shared Nisha Beerjeraz, Head of Digital Product at BBC Studios

As misinformation, disinformation, and straight-up lies began to flood our screens, readers around the world turned to quality digital publishers for the assurance of truth and journalistic integrity. In turn, many publishers were rewarded for their efforts in sharing urgent information around the virus; the Atlantic reported an additional 36,000 new subscribers over four weeks – even after they had removed the paywall from coronavirus coverage. “Publishers showed that although it was a very unstable time in the early Q2/Q3 2020, those who had already invested in diversifying their revenue streams were able to more quickly prioritise non-advertising growth,” stated Claire Norburn, UKI Ads Privacy Lead at Google. “Podcasts, audio and video have all come into their own in the last 12 months, helping to drive subscriptions. Publishers have fast tracked their understanding of the subscription funnel and know much more about subscriptions and retention models.” 

Fostering strong cultures despite the distance

This challenge to innovate, of course, has come at a time when teams have not been able to work together in the same office. Resilient publishers have fostered a strong culture of communication and support despite the impact of extended lockdowns and social distancing. Dave Randall, Head of Commercial Technology at Future Publishing, expressed the views of many of our judges on what has been learned from pandemic working practices that will continue to build stronger cultures, stating that “learning new forms of communication with both internal teams and clients has been an essential experience during the pandemic”. Nisha Beerjeraz of BBC Studios also emphasised that “the biggest thing may be that flexible working works! We’ve certainly missed working together in an office, but often the office bustle would sometimes mean going weeks without speaking to some colleagues who were out on a shoot or at a location. Ironically, [remote working] has allowed relationships to strengthen where they might not have otherwise, and in turn helped to create a stronger organisational culture that makes for better business.”

A sense of purpose

Dave Randall also shared the importance of supporting your colleagues: “This period of uncertainty should encourage companies to strive for better understanding of the mental health of their employees and use regular communications to do this.”  Redefining ways that we communicate and support each other internally has also influenced the ways in which digital publishers interact with their clients and with their readers – often taking the lead in national conversations around social issues.  Dave expects to see this celebrated in the AOP Awards: “I want to see how digital publishers have connected with wider social initiatives such as diversity and inclusion,” he explained. “I’m not interested in simple arguments or quick slogans, I want to see depth and purpose in the campaigns, and content that connects and resonates with audiences.”   

Leveraging technology partnerships to improve the publishing ecosystem

Publishers have also been challenged to achieve all this innovation and change with more limited resources and that, according to Alex Payne of Vice, has been where strong partnerships with tech suppliers has been crucial. “Our intentional cutbacks on production meant that we simply had to do more with less.  Leveraging trusted partners has been crucial to this, such as Oracle Data Cloud’s Contextual Intelligence, that allowed us to build a tool that checks an article’s brand safety score before we put an any marketing spend behind it or translate it into additional languages,” he explained. 

Much of the innovation achieved through working with tech partners could have a longer lasting impact on the industry.  “The last twelve months have seen impressive innovation across the identity space,” shared Jacqueline Boakye, Regional VP – Customer Success EMEA at PubMatic. “It is clear to me that this is an area of the ecosystem that will only continue to evolve, providing both publishers and advertisers enhanced methods of delivering advertising to the right audience at the right time.”

 Smarter data implementation will provide new assurances of privacy for readers, but also help to give publishers more control. With the rise in subscriptions, publishers have much clearer data about exactly who their audience are and what their reading habits or interests are. Finding ways to leverage this data intelligently will allow publishers to ensure their content is reaching its potential, keep readers engaged, and satisfy advertisers. 

Anne-Claire Chenu, Xandr, shared her interest in seeing improvements in this area in the AOP Awards entries. “This year is really about innovation with new formats such as CTV and OTT taking hold, and the demise of the third-party cookie approaching,” she explained. “Targeting and measurement is going to be a huge focus so I would be really excited to see examples where technology has been used to challenge the status quo or help develop human relationships between buyers and sellers to find new targeting capabilities or advertising KPIs to help solve this challenge.” 

The AOP Awards are currently open for entries. Find out more about the categories and how you can share your successes HERE. 


Thank you to our jurors who have shared their insight and experience with us for this article:

Alex Payne, VP Global Ad Operations, VICE

Anne Claire Chenu, Director – Tech Sales, Northern Europe, Xandr

Claire Norburn, UKI Ads Privacy Lead, Google

Dave Randall, Head of Commercial Technology, Future Publishing

Jacqueline Boakye, Regional VP, Customer Success EMEA, PubMatic

Nisha Beerjeraz, Head of Digital Product, BBC Studios