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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The 8 biggest challenges digital publishers faced in 2019–and what lies ahead for 2020

December 23, 2019 | By Jon Fletcher, Content Editor – Marfeel @Marfeel

A year in the life of a digital publisher contains multitudes. Ups to some felt like downs to others. But there were challenges and news that publishers of any size and any vertical faced universally—news and events that defined the entire year.

At Marfeel, we work with 850 global publishing partners, reaching almost one billion sessions every month. That means that we deal with the issues and trends that impact publishers every day. With the knowledge we have in-house, we surveyed our team to collect a list of what we consider to be the biggest publisher trends of 2019 and what they mean for 2020.

Red tape and regulation

Ok, GDPR wasn’t strictly 2019… but it’s effects are still being felt. Users continued to tick pop-ups without reading them. However, in the UK, fines in excess of $300 million were handed out to British Airways and Marriott for failing to ensure information security. A small price, perhaps, to companies of that size. However, they offer a much-needed reminder that nobody is above the law when it comes to GDPR.

The most notable regulation news came from the US, with the passing of the CCPA. This California-wide user privacy policy, touted by some as GDPR-lite, comes into force on January 1st, 2020.

Even if you argue that it’s not effective in protecting user data, it seems more regulation is coming in 2020. And with 50 different states in the US alone, publishers are going to have to find a way to cope with different levels of regulation for different users in 2020.

The great paywall question

To gate, or not to gate, that is the question publishers struggled with for 2019. We saw every variety of paywall tried and tested.

Premium publishers like The New Yorker and The Atlantic opted for soft paywalls, hoping to build consumer loyalty. Others decided to shut out all but paying customers, cleaving their audiences but guaranteeing a source of revenue. Major media groups like The Guardian and The New York Times made news with the success of their subscription models. However, the majority of publishers won’t convert significant audiences into paying customers.

The 2019 headline is that paywalls work, to an extent. Concerns grew about ‘subscription fatigue’ as many worried that audiences would grow tired of paying separately for a variety of different online services. It will be interesting to see whether 2020 crosses that tipping point and, of course, if paywalls work as a long-term proposition.

Content aggregation

Given the booming market for premium content offerings, it seems inevitable that in 2020 a true Netflix for News will emerge. People want to browse around a series of headlines. They want to be able to read stories shared by others and pick based on the story, not the brand.

No one company has managed to crack it definitively yet. But In the United States, Apple News now reaches more iPhone users (27%) than the Washington Post (23%). This is a sign that aggregation is going to gain traction in 2020.

Trust and transparency

In 2019, we learned that people don’t trust the news as much as they used to. This is makes it harder for smaller publishers to break stories and build audiences. Consumers veer towards larger media brands, which are a known commodity. It can be difficult for less well-known entities to break through, or maintain their growth.

And trust runs both ways. Advertisers and publishers both still want more transparency from SSPs and ad networks. Google’s switch to first-price auctions earlier in the year reminded the industry of the long-held last-look advantage that walled-garden exchanges can provide.

The hunt for viewability

Viewability was the hottest term in the industry for advertisers in 2019. Some publishers reacted with surprise that advertisers wanted a guarantee that their ads were actually seen by someone (and not bots). 

They started to set minimum standards and refuse to buy space that couldn’t demonstrate their viewability. These standards now exceed the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) definition of a viewable impression, which says that at least 50% of pixels must be in view for at least a second. In 2020, publishers will have to offer as close to 100% viewability and find a way to prove it to advertisers.

The creeping growth of voice tech

Alexa, how do I advertise on you?

The use of smart speakers grew from 7% to 14% in the UK last year. And usage was up +3% (from 9% to 12%) in the United States.

With voice-assistants sprouting into more homes, more content is starting to be delivered by voice. Quick answers to once-Googled questions will possibly draw traffic away from news sites in 2020. This and the growth of podcasts as a content format gave advertisers a new concern in 2020: how to bring their programmatic tech to an audio format.

The rise of Gen Z

Move over Millennials. There’s a new generation here to casually pull apart the framework of the industry.

In addition to formulating the right content to reach them, publishers have struggled to find a payment model that appeals to the younger generation. Digital natives get their news from too many different sources to be tied to a single publisher. As Adweek explains, “52 percent of Gen Z consumers will transfer loyalty from brand to brand if they find product quality to be subpar.”

2020 will see diversified revenue generation models, segregated by the audience and content types.

Cookies crumble

Saving the most worrisome for last, 2019 may be the last year of free and unfettered access to user cookies to inform advertising.

Google confirmed proposals to overhaul targeting in Chrome. And Apple went further with its online tracking restrictions. ITP 2.1 reduces the accessibility and longevity of first-party cookies, allowing them to be stored for only seven days.

Ratko Vidakovic, founder of AdProfs summarized what the move meant, “Given Apple’s aggressive attitude towards this issue, it seems like the idea of persistent cookies in Safari, for cross-site tracking purposes, will eventually be a thing of the past.”

The uncharted territories of 2020

To help paint the picture of 2020’s publishing industry to come, Marfeel is putting together the big publisher trends of 2020 report, with the help of their publisher network. By sharing concerns and challenges, the digital publishing industry can unite to create a more informed industry as a whole and overcome the challenges of 2020 and beyond.

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