5 Ways Publishers Can Survive and Thrive in a Volatile Online Climate

graphic of cogs on a screen

By Steven Filler, UK Country Manager, ShowHeroes Group

It’s hard to imagine a more turbulent time for the digital media landscape than spring 2022. While traditional publishers have seen declining ad revenues for a number of years, the tech giants continue to consolidate their dominant positions. Alphabet, Meta and Amazon have doubled their share of ad revenue over the past five years and now hoover up more than half of the global market. Google’s plans for phasing out the third-party cookie could make the industry even more skewed in favour of the tech giants.

Add in an erratic news climate, just like Covid-19, some nervous brands are WM Inclusive is a good example of the level of ambition publishers should aim for. Launched earlier this month, WM Inclusive showcases the company’s equity and inclusion values via “a digital editorial hub, newsletters, exclusives, social media, events, partnerships, original content and more”. Not only is this a great example of content and revenue diversification in action, but also an example of a media brand playing to its core strengths of trust and integrity, not something that the tech giants can do with any credibility.

Another publishing business innovating in this space is Future Publishing which recently launched a new content hub in Atlanta focussed primarily on creating original video content for their editorial platforms. Future has a strong recent history of diversification as shown by their 2021 acquisition of GoCompare which has enabled them to “expand the company’s e-commerce offering beyond products and into financial services”.

Create a Strong Subscription Model

While microblogging website Tumblr is one of the latest publishers to introduce an ad-free subscription service, the Financial Times has had a digital paywall in place since 2002 and is currently on-track to reach one million digital-only subscribers. Similarly, The Telegraph recently surpassed its goal of 720,000 subscriptions following its 2018 transition to a paywall-led model; growth it credits with “creating a much deeper connection with our active subscribers”.

For many publishers a hybrid model seems most likely, with different levels of subscription required to access specific content areas — some open or free content, some higher value paid-for, and some requiring user registration and log-in. This approach will not only generate new revenue streams for publishers but also enhance their understanding of their audiences and provide valuable actionable data to elevate their advertising business.

Reclaim Control With First-Party Data

The demise of third party cookies is creating opportunities for publishers to take more control; in relation to revenue streams, but also data ownership. By harnessing their own first-party data pools, publishers can exert more power in the push-pull relationship they share with advertisers.

Savvy media brands can follow the lead of The New York Times, which recently built its own in-house data solution, in order to gain flexibility and control in a volatile digital ecosystem. Early results from the programme, which launched in June 2020, show that campaigns targeted on first-party data are just as successful as those that used third-party targeting methods.

UK national broadcaster, ITV, is also benefiting from an ambitious first-party data strategy. ITV’s on demand video service, ITV Hub, has grown its registered user base to 32 million people, generating massive volumes of rich attribute level data and allowing the broadcaster to provide advertisers with a huge addressable audience, without the need for third-party cookies.

Master the Power of Contextual Tech

The decline of third-party cookies combined with an increased focus on user-privacy has also led to a resurgence of contextual targeting as an essential component of any advertiser’s targeting strategy. This is an area which naturally plays to the strengths of publishers who have an abundance of contextual data, giving advertisers the ability to reach relevant audiences within premium and brand safe environments. Because contextual targeting is about leveraging a publisher’s content, it gives them an advantage over the Walled Gardens that for many years have been dominating ad spend.

Contextual is also much better for the user experience. While consumers often dislike behavioural ads, research has shown 73% of consumers find it more appealing when an ad is related to the content of the article itself.

At ShowHeroes, we use semantic-based targeting technologies to contextually match our video content library and ad placements to the publisher’s page. This approach helps to deliver 70% viewability, as well as doubling the standard VTR (View-Through-Rate) for video ads and tripling the rate for CTV video ads.

Embrace the Video Race

Broadcaster video-on-demand (BVOD) ad spend is predicted to grow by 26% in the UK this year, while CTV ad spend is up nearly 60% from 2020. But, while demand and opportunities are huge, supply of good-quality digital video is falling behind because publishers are still largely developing their content strategies for this changing media environment.

Publishers are also struggling to hold their own against video-first social platforms like TikTok and YouTube, both of which are enjoying meteoric growth.

Publishers can hit back, however, by investing in their own in-house video capabilities; or working with companies that specialise in providing premium video content and monetisation opportunities. By producing contextually relevant and brand-safe video packages for advertisers, publishers can capitalise on the video boom while making the most of their own unique editorial strengths.

At a time of unprecedented disruption, publishers face many challenges; but they also hold the trump card of storytelling par excellence. If they can wield this quality to craft a genuine scaled alternative to their big-tech rivals, they have the foundations of a lasting connection between brand and audience — and a means to withstand the uncertainties ahead.