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The essential ingredients for successful growth in digital publishing

Published: 05 Jul 2021


According to the latest Digital Publisher Revenue Index [DPRI], digital publishing revenues increased 13.1% from Q4 of 2019 to Q4 of 2020. For an industry that was looking down the barrel of the gun in early March of 2020, that’s a staggering achievement – and a testament to the innovation and resilience of digital publishing businesses. But what are the essential ingredients for continued growth?


“If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic in the last year, it’s got to be that any business which relies on a single revenue stream or a single business model can have challenges,” mused Pete Wootton, Chief Product & Data Officer at Dennis. “I really think the key to growth is about diversifying.”


To understand how publishers are laying the foundations for future growth, we reached out to our AOP Awards finalists to understand what strategies they were putting in place to diversify and grow their brands.


Promoting quality journalism, earning trust, growing audiences

Creating brand safe environments has always been a top priority for publishers, but Anthony Crocker, Head of Campaign Innovation & Commercial Innovations at The Telegraph, highlighted the importance of rethinking how quality publishing is recognised, valued, and measured within the industry – and what this means for consumers as well. “We knew fake news had an impact on politics and the environment,” Anthony expanded, “but I think we always saw it as a slow burn – [the pandemic] showed that there’s a real need to have regulated, valid news from brands that people can trust.”


Geri Scott, one of our Local Hero Award finalists for her work at the Yorkshire Post, touched upon a similar sentiment: “There’s a misconception that digital publishers always deal in clicks – and cheap clicks sometimes. I think moving away from that stereotype of just publishing anything that will get clicks is really important in restoring that trust in digital publishing.”


One way to restore trust and grow audiences in publishing could be to have clear, authentic values which you act upon. Consumers are increasingly looking at the values and CSR strategies of the organisations they engage with. edie’s Content Director, Luke Nicholls, emphasised the importance of maintaining and heightening the sense of purpose over the pandemic. Moving beyond knowledge dissemination and taking a clear stand on issues that are relevant to your organisation can help publishers to re-engage with their existing members and potentially reach a whole new readership with shared values.


Growing reader revenues

Chris Mooney, Head of Digital Publishing and Product (UK Publishing) at BBC Studios, highlighted the importance of “trying to move away from one ad-funded model and into opportunities elsewhere,” although he also acknowledged that subscriptions – an increasingly important aspect of growth strategies for many of our finalists – were perhaps trickier for the BBC to implement.


Subscriptions models do more than just add a new revenue stream however, and they can help reemphasise the quality of your journalism. “I think it’s really important that more publications consider subscriber paywalls,” shared Caroline Wilson, Journalist at the Herald. “I do believe that journalism is worth paying for.”


The findings of the past two DPRIs suggest that the wider public would agree with Caroline, with subscriptions growing over 44% between Q4 2019 and Q4 2020. When accurate information became critical – and in the face of the veritable explosion of fake news and misinformation – readers turned to quality journalism. If readers trust you, it’s clear that many will consider subscribing and this offers new opportunities for publishers to create valuable, informative spaces for both their readers and their suppliers.


“If you have the right vendors in talking to these people in the right way and not just giving them the hard sell all the time, then you tend to actually have richer conversations,” explained Luke Nicholls of edie at Faversham House. “We spend a lot of time working with our vendors to ensure that – for their best interest as well – they’re having the right conversations with their audience.”


Tapping into the true potential of your data

Google may have delayed the demise of the cookie until 2023, but first-party audience data remains the path forwards for digital publishers. “What we saw was a complete lift in impressions, but it was valuable impressions.” explained Jacqueline Boakye, RVP Customer Success, EMEA at PubMatic. “The data part became really important on the audience side of things, and I think having the data strategies is really what’s allowed this growth to continue.”


Ryan Afshar, Head of Publishers, UK, at LiveRamp, concurred, saying, “how do publishers combat the walled gardens for that digital investment? It’s going to be through first-party data where they can attract more of those ad dollars or pounds to their own portfolio as opposed to always losing out to Google and Facebook.”


Shifting to subscription models is one way to build your first-party data and to ensure that the data you’re collecting is engaged and relevant. And it also gives you a number of far more valuable audience insights that you can leverage to develop your future strategies. Of course, there’s also a wealth of data that can be tapped into off-platform that can also allow you to shape and refine your reader engagement strategy. “The Licensing team has sought to holistically grow our audience ‘off-platform,” shared Sophie Hanbury, Director of Syndication and Licensing Partnerships for Independent News and Digital Media, “and in turn feedback data on ‘most read’ articles to our Audience, Data, and Editorial teams to ensure we continue to deliver the right content at the right time to build a strong relationship with new and existing readers.”


David Gosen, Chief Revenue Officer at Piano, similarly highlighted the opportunities of shifting to logged in experiences to develop your reader profile and drive greater engagement, but he also emphasised the role of leadership: “Having a data-driven mindset in the organisation is fundamental, but it has to come from the top. The C-Suite has to really embrace this and see it flow through the organisation.”


Putting your data to work

Creating a data-first culture is key to developing agile strategies that respond rapidly to changes in reader behaviour, but while data is critical, it’s also good to be aware that too much data is its own challenge: “If you cannot add value, then there’s no point in collecting [data],” shared Helen Fish, Group Chief Executive at Executive Grapevine. “If you can’t do something with the trends, if it doesn’t mean that you change a business decision[…] then there’s no point in collecting it.”


Instead, digital publishers should challenge themselves to think more innovatively about how they collect, manage, and interpret data. Ask yourself: what purpose does this data serve? Can we use this to meet the needs of both our readers and our advertisers? To be able to meet the needs of both readers and advertisers, it will be critical to find new and innovative ways of managing and interpreting our data. Andy Roughton, Managing Director, GMAC Media Solutions, at BusinessBecause, said it was key to continue to “find new ways to prove out the ROI for our clients who are continuing to spend on our range of marketing and advertising opportunities.” Duncan Chater, Head of Sales – Europe at Bloomberg Media, likewise agreed that one of the priorities for digital publishers is to use data as a foundation for creating new partnerships: “Everyone is looking for new forms to attract and engage with clients in an impactful way and continue to AB test to find the most efficient and effective ways to drive core advertising messages to work with our partners.”


Lauren Dick, Director of Business Development at Mail Metro Media, went even further, and pressed for a need to create a single measurement approach that could be used across a range of media channels. “The real opportunity is to ask how do we measure every single part of that media mix,” she enthused, “and in a way that is tied back to a single identifier and gives me a single customer view, that allows me to see them across all those touch points.”


Collaboration is critical to success

Ultimately, however, working in isolation will never be able to produce the results that we could create together.


“If [publishers] think about themselves in isolation, then they’re capping what they could do,” declared Mail Metro Media’s Lauren Dick, “Whereas I’ve seen more collaboration across different publishers and everyone getting together to ask, ‘What does this look like across a couple of different medial channels or different media titles?’ Or ‘What’s the portfolio piece on this?’ It really lends itself to how first-party data will hopefully be transacted across the market.”


And of course, while there are still a number of big questions to be answered around the future of audience data, innovation has to permeate every aspect of your organisation to ensure that your taking advantage of new opportunities.


Take the user experience, for example. “The majority of people don’t watch for 90 minutes in the lounge on the big TV anymore,” Rob Jones, Managing Editor at BT Sport, stressed when we asked him about the importance of finding new ways of engaging audiences who have a plethora of entertainment sources competing for their attention. “Polls, quizzes, and social media really embedded into the live viewing experience[…] really add gamification into the equation, where people can not only watch live, but they can play along with what’s happening live against their friends.”


There are huge opportunities for publishers to think more innovatively in their organisation – more than we could cover in just this one blog, so make sure to keep an eye out for next week’s blog which will focus on how you can promote innovation and create a culture that supports out-of-the-box thinking.


As an industry, we have an opportunity to rethink our business models and strategies to drive growth. We look forward to seeing more collaborative initiatives from digital publishers in the future – and to celebrating with our finalists at the AOP Awards Ceremony on September 16, 2021.



This is part of our ‘Celebrate the Finalists’ series, a four-part celebration of the world-class growth, innovation, culture, and quality evident in the finalists for the 2021 AOP Awards. You can find our more around our discussions on GROWTH here:

Looking back to look forwards: Growth in digital publishing
What’s the secret to successful growth for publishers?
Or check out everything from our week’s exploration of INNOVATION here.