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Publishers focus on scalability and audience growth for 2022

January 18, 2022 | By Rande Price, Research VP – DCN @Randeloo

Most digital news publishers registered growth in subscription and advertising revenues in 2021 as compared to the prior year. And, according to Reuters’ Journalism, media, and technology trends and predictions 2022, close to three-quarters of publishers (73%) are optimistic about this year. To understand future trends in news publishing, Reuters surveyed 246 executives in 52 countries during November and December 2021. The participants were senior-level employees in digital media strategies at news publishers.

Building scale

As publishers look to the future, scale is essential for most. These companies see a future with a mix of models to grow revenue including subscription, advertising, ecommerce, and events.

  • Pure plays look to scale: Digital publishers are acquiring and merging to give them more leverage with advertisers and to compete with the dominant tech players of Facebook and Google. Buzzfeed’s purchase of Complex and Vox’s acquisition of Group Nine are recent examples of this strategy. Publishers expect more mergers and acquisitions in 2022.
  • Traditional media looks to digital acquisitions to drive growth: Large traditional media players have focused on the acquisition of digital brands to add value to their subscription bundles and target a growing digital audience. Axel Springer’s purchase of Politico and the New York Times’ plan to buy subscription-based sports site, The Athletic, are two prime examples. These acquisitions are solid plays to drive audience growth with digital audiences.
  • New models fuel local start-ups: At a local level, low-cost reader-focused start-ups are using newsletter platforms like Substack to attract audiences. Digital newsletter companies are also building local footprints. For example, Axios is expanding its newsletter-led model to 25 cities this year.

Audience strategies and innovation

Publisher efforts this year focus on podcasts and other digital audio (80%), building and improving newsletters (70%), and developing digital video formats (63%). Publishers are focusing on new audio formats such as audio articles, flash briefings, audio messages, and live formats such as social audio.

New audio initiatives (e.g., Clubhouse, Twitter Spaces, Facebook’s Live Audio Rooms, Reddit Talk) show audience interest in audio discussions. However, executives are unsure how engaged audiences are long-term in these pop-up, discussion-based experiences. More content also means more competition and a need for more content moderation.  

Still, publishers see audio as strategically important. It can deliver reach, loyalty, and revenue. Some publishers want to own the audio experience to control the full customer experience. The New York Times purchased Audm, an audio narration app, and they plan to launch a listening product this year.

Publishers also want to engage with younger audiences. They have a renewed interest in short-form video and look to native video formats to attract Gen Z. They are also using third-party mobile-friendly online video platforms to target Gen Z. Executives report that more effort is going to visual distribution and engagement platforms like Instagram (net score of +54), TikTok (+44), and YouTube (+43), and less effort into general-purpose networks like Twitter (-5) and Facebook (-8). Even with a renewed video interest, many news publishers still question the monetization strategy of short-form social video.  

News publishers need to develop deeper relationships with audiences. In particular, they must reengage the disaffected and target the young adults. This year, innovation is an important cornerstone to attract new readers, with publishers investing in new audio formats and short-form videos. Investment is essential to build the future Web 3.0 experience.

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