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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Gannett’s Kelly Andresen talks revenue, regulations, and future growth

March 31, 2021 | By Kim Adcroft, Director, Publisher Success – Ogury@weareogury

Publishers and advertisers need to be proactive about engaging with their potential customers where they are. And where they are, regardless of age or income group, is consuming content on mobile devices. Advertising is normally viewed as the currency used to view content. But if the ad experience isn’t positive for the consumer, they may choose not to buy in.

Whether it’s through differentiated ad units, frequency caps, or less intrusive delivery, the advertising experience needs to enhance the content, not lessen its impact by competing with it. The increase in time consumers now spend online can be seen as a boon. However, in the wake of last year, it means they’re bringing more expectations – and more uncertainties – about what they interact with. The savvy publisher can offer what others cannot: quality curated content, editorial standards, a less-cluttered ad environment and a greater degree of premium brand safety. 

I spoke with Kelly Andresen, president of sales development at Gannett, to hear about the challenges they faced in an unprecedented year. We talked about where they still found opportunities for growth and where they are placing their bets in 2021 and beyond.

Kelly Andresen, president of sales development at Gannett

What are the challenges you are currently facing as a digital publisher? How have those challenges changed during the course of the pandemic?

Kelly Andresen: For years, news and media companies like Gannett have been very focused on advertiser-led revenue. Of course that’s still very important to us. But one of the things we’re focused on right now is putting more emphasis on growing our subscription business.

We have some aggressive goals to reach by 2025. So now we’re figuring out how that looks on the B2C side, growing subscriptions to our news products and other content we publish. On our B2B side we’re looking at building subscriptions directly with our advertising and marketing partners. The challenge is building solutions that really meet everyone’s needs.

Consumption habits have changed significantly in the last year. How have readership trends changed across devices? How has this shifted your thinking for next year?

KA: Content consumption in general has moved to mobile. That’s not a new trend, but it was certainly accelerated by Covid-19. The total amount of screen time and the amount of time people spend interacting with content have both increased. That’s a great thing for a publisher. However, we need to remain conscious of the demand and need for truthful, trusted content.

In addition to the pandemic there was a lot of political and social unrest last year, and consumers thirsted for content they could rely on. As we all work to transition out of survival mode, we know that for us to thrive as a news organization we need a laser focus on what our customers and other partners need during this time. That’s been a driving force behind our thinking for the year to come: to grow subscriptions by helping the local communities we serve find trusted content.

The last 18 months have brought significant changes to privacy with Google sunsetting Cookies, Apple doing away with IDFA, and stricter laws like CPRA. Publishers are now faced with an identity conundrum. What are you doing to rebuild the identity structure?

KA: There’s an opportunity with these changes for publishers to take back ownership of that audience relationship without using an intermediary. By providing more transparency we can build our own zero-party and first-party data in a way that provides people the choice about how, when and where they share their information within our ecosystem.

I think the larger question as an industry is then, how do we put all the pieces together? Is there an opportunity to share data and if so, what does that look like? We want to not only provide amazing content but also ensure people feel they’re in a safe and trusted environment. The goal then becomes educating the public so they can make informed choices and we can build a better experience together.

When it comes to identity, should the industry as a whole spend time re-evaluating the value exchange between publishers and advertisers? How will this benefit —or hurt — publishers?

This is an opportunity to take a less-than-optimal model and transform it into something where everybody benefits. Consumers opt in to share their information. Publishers share information with advertising partners. And advertising evolves from the early online days of pushing out a message and instead takes that data to create an experience that consumers value.

I think we can build something unique as long as we focus on maintaining that trusted environment and that transparency, and think about what’s effective beyond ad impression opportunities. There are a lot of unanswered questions. That means there’s a lot to explore and chances to innovate and test for the future.

What are you doing to re-imagine the way you nurture the coveted publishers-reader relationship when it comes to advertising experiences, devices and targeting?

KA: The focus has to be on the overall experience. Now that we’re asking our audience for their data, we have to deliver something that makes sense and makes it worth their while. There should always be a choice around data, but I think we have more work to do for that choice to work in our favor.

We’ve conditioned our audience to consume content in one area and see ads in another area when we need to look at how to be beneficial to the overall content experience. And that extends to technology and knowing that people are consuming in different places on different devices. How do we encourage people to seek out and spend more time with a specific outlet because it’s a good experience for them?

Let’s talk about brand safety. What does brand safety mean for publishers now? How has the conversation around safety and suitability changed during the pandemic?

The story is no longer about “click here and buy my product,” it’s about how a brand is helping individuals, communities, society as a whole, move forward. It’s also broadening beyond immediate health and safety concerns to create a top-of-mind support system, reminding consumers that when they’re ready, brands will be waiting to accommodate them. I suspect this approach will continue, but only as long as it’s still viewed as a partnership.

What advice would you give to publishers looking to withstand the lure of the walled gardens and compete with that model?

KA: I think this is something that all of us are thinking about and trying to innovate around. What can we do to continue to focus on that trusted experience and then how do we build scale together? I think there are opportunities for brands to work together again.

For example, we recently announced our partnership with McClatchy, one of the other very large U.S. newspaper publishers. Even though we’re in the same space, we’re coming together to build something that pushes our own standards and brings more value to publishers, advertisers, and audiences. We actively have national advertisers telling us they want to be more relevant. They want to speak to a local audience in a trusted space. I think the fact that they want to help shape that consumer experience with us is perhaps an early example of  things to come.

What new — or carryover — challenges and opportunities will 2021 bring for the digital publisher industry?

KA: First, there isn’t one leader in the privacy space. So, this is a great opportunity for trusted brands to come together and develop a new standard. Second, the new normal will probably not look like 2019 or 2020. In this next iteration, how do we remain relevant and provide an experience that people are truly seeking out in the 10, 12, 14+ hours they’re spending in front of screens or subscribing to audio streaming or other services?

Our current situation is pushing publishers to think about their audience in a much different way – not in a vacuum where it’s enough that they come to consume our content – more of a holistic view of how we can be even better and complementary to the other things our audience is consuming.

KA: As a publisher in the news category we know sometimes the news is not positive. In the past, brands often told us they didn’t want their messages to appear in the news category. But those kinds of blanket refusals are changing. I spoke earlier about changes in consumption, and how we’re all looking for trusted sources to help make sense of the world we’re in today. Brands and advertisers now recognize the audience demand for news and information content. We saw a large increase in advertisers aligning with social justice messaging in a way we didn’t see prior to the pandemic.

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