In conversation with Digital Content Next’s Michelle Manafy, Flipboard founder and CEO Mike McCue and Washington Post managing editor Kat Downs Mulder explore the evolution of digital media, serving the audience “where they are,” and leveraging emerging technologies to better meet their needs. Their talk, which was part of Collision Conference 2021, covers the challenges and opportunities of social media news distribution and consumption and the rise of Substack. They also talk about the challenges facing local news in particular. Their discussion explores AI and other technologies that increasingly impact news creation, delivery, consumption, and user experiences.
Last Friday marked 100 days since Donald Trump officially left the White House as U.S. president. His departure ended a chapter crammed with chaos and controversy for hundreds of millions of Americans, and many more around the world.
As the pandemic enters a second year, a deafening lack of Trump has been coupled with a general public malaise from too much news. As a result, the historic ratings bump enjoyed during the Trump administration quickly turned into a slump. Few outlets have been spared.
The Washington Post reported that of the three largest cable news networks, only Fox News has held relatively steady. Its three prime-time opinion shows fell just 6% in viewership since the first weeks of the year. MSNBC and CNN, meanwhile, declined 26% and 45% in the 8-10 p.m. ET time slot, respectively.
But it’s not just cable networks that have been affected. The Washington Post itself saw a 26% fall in the number of unique visitors to its website from January to February. The New York Times experienced a 17% decline in the same period.
A slump by any other name
While the “Trump Slump” is a legitimate reason for the downward trend, it’s not the only cause. Nor is it a universal experience.
At The Atlantic, SVP of growth Sam Rosen says that, “We’ve found even in just the past five or six months, what has really changed is that the motivation to understand this historic moment has decreased and the desire for personal intellectual growth has increased.”
As he points out, “It’s been an exhausting five years for many people and especially the past year. So, it kind of makes sense that the core desire to just understand what’s happening in the world still exists. But people want to invest in their own growth.” And the company is banking on that willingness to invest.
After a decade of open access, The Atlantic relaunched its paywall 20 months ago. The 163-year-old organization now boasts more than 750,000 subscribers. It is well on its way to eclipsing one million paying members by the end of 2022. Rosen says that ensuring the outlet’s retention and acquisition efforts are equally strong is critical for achieving this goal.
Fundamentals and experimentation
On the retention side, The Atlantic focuses on the fundamentals. For example they’re migrating as many subscribers to auto-renew as possible. Targeted email campaigns are also reawakening dormant subscribers.
Acquiring new subscribers has been more colorful. For example, experimenting with new slogans such as “Read. Think. Grow.,” which are a change from more newsier lines of messaging in the past. Rosen said The Atlantic thinks of its audience in terms of psychographics: people that are curious, interested in the world, willing to consider multiple perspectives, and open to new ideas.
“Looking at the vanguard of marketing technology is one of our biggest priorities right now,” Rosen said. “We’re evaluating a slew of technology partners that do customer journey orchestration, dynamic paywalls, personalization, and content recommendations. So that is where we’re doubling down.”
Not content with the content
Another newsroom building value not reliant on Trump’s hoopla is Axios, which was launched in January 2017. The well positioned itself strategically for a post-Trump world. Though the fall in traffic is unmistakable, Axios’ director of audience and growth, Neal Rothschild, believes this could actually be a good thing.
“I think if you were going to ask the founders of the company [Axios] whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, they would say it’s 100 percent a good thing,” Rothschild said. “Jim VandeHei, our CEO, has maintained that people needed to wean themselves off of politics during the Trump years. It was like fast food and it became very unhealthy. So, we’re starting to see the news landscape kind of clear out and make way for the topics that were core to the founding of Axios. Though it may not have seemed like it just because Trump sucked up so much oxygen.”
Those other topics include the rise of China, climate change, and the gaming industry. For the latter, Axios hired Stephen Totilo and Megan Farokhmanesh from Kotaku and The Verge, respectively, to write Axios Gaming. Their newsletter launched this week and will focus on the multi-billion dollar gaming industry. Rothschild added that the company isn’t limiting its expansion to specific topics. Its strategy of hiring experts to build readership extends to local journalism in news deserts, where just a single outlet currently operates, or where no community newspaper exists at all.
Perspectives and connections
Centralized business units have been crucial for Axios. It’s technology, sales, audience, and marketing teams have allowed it to fill local voids without the vast capital needed to build startups from scratch, like The Texas Tribune in Austin and Seattle’s InvestigateWest. Axios currently has five local newsletters. It also recently announced plans for a sixth in Northwest Arkansas.
“To stand up a newsletter in each city, we try to hire two experts that can helm that newsletter so that we can speak to the city and have it growing quickly. I think that’s a departure from previous models for supporting local news. Usually, you need more of a physical presence in that city or at least need to invest more on the ground,” Rothschild said. “That’s not a huge site traffic audience strategy. But it is a pretty good growth and revenue strategy. And it is increasing our footprint around the country.”
As important as local news has been to CBS, Trump was an international story. Significantly, the international audience it gained over the past four years remains. While many U.S. outlets have cut their international presence in recent years, CBSN — CBS’ 24/7 streaming news service — last year expanded to almost 100 countries. That global presence was critical in CBSN delivering 291 million streams in the first quarter of 2021, up 30% from the same period a year ago.
Christy Tanner, EVP and general manager of CBS News Digital said her team has only just scratched the surface of its global potential. Through Network 10 in Australia, which ViacomCBS owns, its partner the BBC and its own international bureaus, it’s creating even more international programming.
“With streaming audiences, we do not see what was at one point conventional wisdom in the news business: Allegedly, U.S. audiences are not interested in international news. That’s simply not true from our perspective.” In fact, Tanner said, “We think it’s an important differentiator. It’s important to tell the stories. We at CBS News digital have been extremely fortunate that CBS has continued to invest in international coverage.”
The local news
That said, Trump was as much a local story as he was a national and international one. So, CBS is also taking advantage of the dearth of local newsrooms. It now offers 14 total live streams including 10 in local markets such as the Bay Area, Pittsburgh, and Minnesota.
One new feature Tanner is especially excited about are video push alerts. Launched last fall, the proactive alerts nudge CBSN viewers whenever news is breaking across the U.S. Instead of only watching that day’s White House news conference on the national live stream, viewers could easily toggle over to CBSN Minnesota to watch Minneapolis’ police chief providing an update to the George Floyd case.
Tanner says her team sends out alerts dozens of times a day. This means that viewers are engaged in numerous stories, as opposed to any one story such as Trump or Covid-19.
Fail to prepare, prepare to fail
The past four years certainly provided newsrooms across the country with a welcome surge in readership. However, the smartest strategists were planning for Trump’s inevitable departure well in advance. As a result, the fall in traffic hasn’t been enough to hurt their bottom lines too much.
For Tanner, who entered journalism as an editor at the AP in 1991, the Trump presidency was just another wild cycle. And she’s experienced many. Tanner says to work in digital media, one always has to be ready for what’s next, and make intelligent fact-based decisions.
“Things are constantly changing and those who don’t adapt fall by the wayside.”
In the publishing world, Substack has grown into a bit of a phenomenon. It’s a somewhat low-tech, self-publishing newsletter platform. However, it’s gotten outsized media coverage from top brands, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. Substack has also managed to attract a number of high-profile journalists from the industry.
So why does this relatively no-frills newcomer – along with its emerging competitors like Buttondown, TinyLetter, and Revue – get so much buzz? Substack and others like it offer a bit of a twist on the typical software offering: They encourage writers to monetize their newsletters through a revenue share agreement. The company is poaching top writers with upfront incentives in order to build their footprint. This is nerve wracking for premier editors and publishers. Will their own star writers get the bug and make the switch?
The rise in popularity of self-publish newsletter platforms is now forcing media brands to consider whether they’re keeping star writers and reporters happy. It is also forcing them to reckon with their own email programs.
Newsletters are often an under-developed product. However, they have major potential to give writers a platform on which they can build a profile for themselves. They can also drive a lot of revenue. In traditional terms, it’s not much different than a writer having her own “FOB” column. These days, it’s not much different than a reporter’s active Twitter or Instagram profile. Rather than fear these emerging players, publishers should think about how to tap into their ability to retain top talent and make money doing so.
Publishers, make writers and readers happy…
First and foremost, the problem isn’t Substack. Email is a channel with enormous potential for many publishers. Substack, however, is a blaring wake-up call.
Some writers may leave for the big advance that they were promised. But many others are leaving because they want more creative control and a more direct connection to their readers. They also want the ability to directly profit from that connection.
There are publishers who have newsletters written by individual reporters, creating a more personal voice and a lighter touch in editing. CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” run by Brian Stelter, is a great example of this. Often writing late at night, Stelter confides in his readers and shares a bit about his personal life in a way that wouldn’t make sense on the website. He has a huge following. And it’s not just for a faceless roundup of the day’s headlines.
Email is an intimate, low-risk channel with which publishers can experiment to give key reporters a more visible persona. Axios has built a loyal readership by allowing reporters to publish emails under their name, encouraging them to create a human connection. Axios’ Sara Fischer is just one example.
Often, newsletters are templates that provide a list of links. Or they recycle content based on verticals of interest like travel or automotive, but with very little personality. Instead, give your travel editor the chance to write an intro paragraph. Or allow a field reporter to provide real-life snippets of what life is like on the job. These elements create more engaged readers and more differentiation from generic pubs.
Despite this proven approach, publishers are likely worried about giving it a go. They have successfully built reputable names for themselves by holding their identity close and in doing so, ensuring brand integrity and quality. Loosening the grip on the brand by allowing individuals to forge direct relationship with audiences sounds risky.
However, not doing so also creates risk. Stifle the creative potential of individuals who attract loyal followings and suddenly, publishing your own newsletter becomes enticing. Empower those same individuals to help grow the brand and tap into new revenue potential.
…And earn revenue doing it
Speaking of improving email performance, newsletters like Morning Brew, The Hustle, and The Skimm show that entire media businesses can be launched and expanded within the channel with a lot of revenue potential. Individual writers see that. They read these titles and want that same opportunity. The good news is that publishers can give it to them.
Revenue comes from a combination of factors. The first is to create a product that attracts brands. This requires scale, quality content and an engaged audience. Then, the publisher needs to have the tools to optimize advertising with flexible templates, reliable data collection, and good testing capabilities. To maximize engagement and conversion, publishers must incorporate elements like personalization and dynamic content.
Across all of these components, publishers already have major advantages over the upstart platforms. First is the benefit of scale. Even the worst newsletter program at a major publisher is competitive against the entire volume of the independent platforms. (Substack was recently estimated at only 250k total readers.) That scale means that audiences can be segmented. Content can be targeted for more relevance, which provides another major advantage with higher chances of success.
Publishers also tend to have key software capabilities in email like personalization (often tied to customer data from the website, subscriptions, events, and the like). This allows writers to get creative with their content development, offering different elements to readers based on past behavior and content preference, for example. They also probably have tools to create dynamic elements in email. Not every writer wants to pen 1,000 words of prose. Some may be talented producers and want to share videos, TikToks, or snippets of a podcast they recently hosted. Publishers have the tools for them to play with these capabilities, and more.
Substack isn’t a threat if publishers commit to improving their newsletter program. And writers will stay if given the chance. Not only do newsletters provide writers with a relatively low-risk venue for building connections between a brand and its audience, but it’s a revenue machine in the making.
Providing the incentive for writers to make their newsletters successful doesn’t require a jump to a self-publishing platform. In fact, most publishers can provide a much more robust set of email tools for writers with what they already have. This approach just takes a publisher that’s willing to ease up on creative control and allow their reporters’ personalities and names to become a part of the product.
About the author
Allison Mezzafonte has worked in the media and publishing industry for 20 years and is currently a growth consultant, as well as a Media Advisor to Sailthru. A former publishing executive for Bauer Media, Dotdash, and Hearst Digital, Allison serves as a strategic partner to media clients.
Launching a new product during a global pandemic could be classed as a bold move. However, given its customer-centric approach, The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) team knew the time was right. “The feedback from our clients was they didn’t want things at EIU to change. But they wanted to navigate our products more easily, so that they can compare information at speed,” EIU’s Chief Digital Officer, Sharon Cooper told DCN.
Launched this month, EIU Viewpoint integrates EIU’s subscription-based services into a unified digital platform. It combines the EIU’s expert insights and analysis with forecasts and proprietary data to offer clients a 360-degree view of the world, encompassing politics, policy, and economics. “Before, these were separated, so clients might only have one aspect,” says Cooper. Now EIU has integrated them under one umbrella product. This allows them to provide “a more nuanced perspective of the world and the forces shaping it.”
However, EIU Viewpoint wasn’t launched in response to Covid-19. It launched in spite of it. “We had to deliver Viewpoint remotely, with every single person working for home. We didn’t miss a beat.” She says that “It’s testament to the global nature of our business, as we have over 650 analysts in 130 countries. It was also our ability to pivot quickly, but not lose sight of the thing we needed to deliver for the client. We stayed focused on our end goal. But were flexible to the changes brought about by Covid.”
A customer-focused approach is at the heart of EIU, which was created back in 1946, in response to the needs of The Economist’s readers. They wanted to know how to better run their business in a challenging and changing post-war environment. Today its team of economists, industry specialists, policy analysts, and consultants help businesses, financial firms, academics, and governments understand the shifting global landscape.
It’s a business model that clearly works. EIU revenue increased by 1% for the six months ending 30 March 2020. And The Economist’s circulation revenues rose by 6%. EIU Viewpoint hopes to build on these figures by combining EIU’s award-winning political insights, policy analysis and economic outlooks, with curated forecasts and proprietary data.
This global view includes forecasts for the global economy, daily insights, and country economics. It also incorporates political analysis, medium- and long-term forecasts, macroeconomic datasets, and proprietary ratings and rankings. But what makes Viewpoint’s offering unique is the editorial team.
“Anyone can access the data we produce. But our key differentiator is our analysis. It’s a critical part of what we do” says Cooper. “EIU Viewpoint isn’t a news business, it’s a forecasting business. We are saying what will happen as a result of the news. EIU Viewpoint allows clients access to our editorial team’s thinking. We try and contextualize the news for each of our clients.”
Creating a platform that offers such a tailored user experience had it challenges, as their clients range from industry experts to total amateurs. “Bringing this context to life and making it simple to navigate was the toughest part of the build,” says Cooper. “We had to ensure lots of different types of users could navigate the same system and get all their questions answered in a consistent way.”
Preparing for opportunities
The product is a great example of how listening to your audience and responding to their needs adds value to a brand. The Economist is a well-respected title that offers news. EIU is a trusted resource that explores the impact of that news. The two go hand in hand to offer an independent and authoritative voice, which has resulted in loyalty and high levels of engagement with some of the biggest brands in business.
“Our content is about looking forward and thinking ‘what does this mean for our clients?’” explains Cooper. “There might be 101 things that happen in a day. Rather than just giving a bunch of facts, we weave them together to make a comprehensive overview of a country and how its changing.”
As a result, EIU has been able to guide their customers during the toughest times over the past 12 months. This includes providing a “huge amount” of additional data, to help with risk management and forecasting. The EIU also built its own Covid tracker, which looks at when the global economy will get back to pre-pandemic levels. It also reports on vaccine rollouts and how they impact the economy.
“It’s all about preparing for opportunities and helping our clients understand the whole market” says Cooper. “There are different models for different countries. We think about each one, in terms of what is happening today, what this will look like tomorrow, and what this means for our clients.”
EIU Viewpoint manages to hit that sweet spot that all media are trying to achieve: identifying opportunities for customers that translate into revenue opportunities for their own business. By working closely with their clients, EIU has become an integral part of their business. Thus, its clients have a “strong commitment” to the brand.
“If you look at most big banks, NGO organizations and governments around the world, you will find EIU at the heart of them,” Cooper says. “We believe Viewpoint will consolidate this relationship. It will help both our clients and the Economist Group plan for the future in order to operate effectively and profitably.”
Compared with the automotive industry’s “teenage years” when it dallied with radical interfaces for how to drive a car – including levers and pullies for steering, acceleration, and brakes – the TV world settled down quickly in terms of accessibility. The TV channel model with sequential numbers and +/- volume controls led on neatly to the Electronic Program Guide (EPG) which celebrates its 40th birthday this year.
The biggest change to the EPG was the arrival of pay-TV services in the 1980s and OTT/VOD in the 1990s. However, as it enters middle age, stagnation of innovation may have set in. For many, the Netflix-style carousel has become the defacto standard. However, there are a few market insurgents. Pluto TV and even non-traditional platforms such as TikTok are challenging how an increasingly “tech savvy” audience engages with content.
TV: Wounded but far from dead!
The recent pandemic has accelerated a growing trend away from linear towards on-demand viewing. Yet, the TV is still winning overall. Nielsen’s 2020 total audience report highlighted that the average U.S. adult spends 27 hours per week watching the TV. This includes live, on-demand, and DVR. Only 19% of video consumption is through subscription streaming services. And, while not explicitly broken out by Nielsen, areas such as video gaming and even DVDs saw significant rises during the pandemic.
Even at a time when Netflix breached 200 million global subscribers and Disney+ edges over 100 million, most viewing is still initiated through an EPG. And there are probably several thousand variants in use across the 1.8bn global TV households.
Its ubiquity has led to familiarity but also a potential constraint to innovation. On the plus side, the EPG’s simplicity and almost universal “scroll down for more” methodology is easy to use, fast, and well understood. The left and right functions to show timeslots fit neatly with the way broadcast schedules work. This familiarity is a factor in why TV viewing is still number one – at least for the over 25s. And, for better or worse, many of its rules have been passed to the OTT/VoD world.
However, the EPG has recently evolved within OTT and Netflix’s own research group. This provides insights via controlled A/B experiments to test most proposed changes to its product. These include new recommendation algorithms, user interface (UI) features, content promotions, and other areas. Some of the nuggets to emerge include 75% of all Netflix watching is based on its own suggestions and algorithms. Content slate images, when tweaked, can result in up to 30% percent more views for a particular title. However, the Netflix kimono is not completely open. For example, few data points exist around key areas such as churn and session duration.
Yet, the biggest shift for the EPG concept is not even coming from Netflix. The real insurgents are the likes of Facebook and, more recently, TikTok. It might seem odd to define TikTok as built around an EPG. However, the interface design – with instantly playing videos, up and down swipes to move forward and back within a linear output – and follower model (…remember ‘favorite channels’ from old TV remotes) shares the same traits of simplicity and ease of use. At its heart, it is not a revolutionary. That said, it takes an evolutionary step from the “so uncool” EPG era.
As an app launched in 2016, downloaded over 2 billion times, and with around 700 million monthly active users worldwide, its model can teach the wider media industry a few lessons. The TikTok experience is both wonderfully simple yet incredibly powerful. In 2019, TikTok generated an average session time of nearly 11 minutes, which is over twice that of Facebook.
TikTok is clearly in the category of social media rather than TV platform. However, it stands out in terms of high engagement levels – and ad revenue for ByteDance. According to AdAge a single ad on TikTok can cost between $50,000 to $120,000 depending on format and duration.
Behind the scenes TikTok (as with all social platforms) is crunching data troughs filled by its audience to create a “TV for one” format. And this concept is at the heart of where the EPG is heading as an interface. It is becoming more personalized and dynamic to reflect a similar shift in content better tailored to the audience.
Can’t all data just get along?
Yet building engaging EPGs that draw in audiences for longer sessions requires several components. The technology is already here. However, what is missing is the data to underpin the creation of highly personalized, dynamic, and relevant services. This data must flow between those who produce content, those who distribute content, and the content consumers.
Unfortunately, at present, the various parties don’t share much of this data. That means that linear TV output and, to a lesser extent, what is surfaced on OD platforms, is still very much trial and error. We need is an Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) style organization that can help standardize data sets and broker stakeholder data sharing agreements. Although a potentially radical idea, the result is a net win for all involved – especially consumers that can finally get more relevant content. And, within a Free Ad-Supported Television (FAST) model – they will also see more relevant advertising based on their aggregated preferences.
This data sharing is starting to happen, albeit slowly. We are also starting to see real-world services populate content via the EPG with a dynamic playlist that updates the content in real time. This way, the time slot for content is not static. With sports as an example, the highlight of a goal from the most recent game would be inserted into the feed – like consumers expect from linear TV today.
EPG innovation is not dead – far from it. However, it is inexorably tied into the wider question of how our industry manages relationships, data, and privacy within an increasingly complex content distribution chain.
When the Covid-19 pandemic shut down gyms across the United States last year, people were forced to get creative with their workouts. POPSUGAR met the moment by bulking up its fitness content. However, even as gyms open up, the women-focused digital lifestyle brand is betting at-home workouts are here to stay. They’ve also seen that fitness serves as part of an overall content and monetization strategy that is good for audiences, and the brand’s bottom line.
Fitness was a core part of POPSUGAR’s video strategy long before the pandemic upended lives around the world. POPSUGAR got into fitness content in 2006. It launched a signature video franchise, dubbed Class Fitsugar, in 2012, which now sees an average of 1 million views per video.
Fitness content helped propel POPSUGAR’s rapid growth on Facebook in 2015. By January 2020, the brand launched a curated 4 Week Full-Body Fusion program. The collection of 25 workouts, each under 45 minutes, carries a one-time fee of $19.99.
As the Covid-19 pandemic spread in 2020, POPSUGAR released more than 200 workouts across social media platforms and its own website. It amassed more than 3 million new subscribers on YouTube in 2020 alone, where its total audience now stands above 5.5 million.
The brand, which is part of Group Nine Media, now hosts live workouts with top trainers on Instagram stories and YouTube. It launches Snapchat popups, and posts on-demand workouts to Facebook, Twitter, and the POPSUGAR website. “This year, we’re continuing to see growth and audience attention on these workouts,” POPSUGAR GM Angelica Marden said.
Bite-sized multiplatform content isn’t just for news
Have just a few minutes to spare? No problem. POPSUGAR created a series of short workouts that require nothing more than a phone.
Unlike going to the gym, working out at home is about fitting fitness into your life wherever you can, according to Jennifer Fields, a new deputy editor hired from WebMD to oversee POPSUGAR’s fitness content. That could mean sliping a 5-minute ab workout in between zoom meetings or a 3-minute BTS cardio workout whenever you can carve out 270 seconds for yourself. Or it could be making a 15-minute HIIT class on YouTube part of your morning routine.
POPSUGAR’s goal is to “meet audiences wherever people spend their time,” Fields said. “So many people are looking for ways to exercise at home. There’s a freedom that comes with at-home workouts.”
The rise of at home fitness over the course of the pandemic has made it possible for friends to workout with one another despite geographic separations and differing time zones. It’s also made it easy for audiences to take classes from the farthest flung of their favorite fitness instructors.
Free is key
In early 2020, the company was exploring audience-supported models, such as it’s flat fee Full-Body Fusion program. In fact, it had plans to release a subscription app with a recurring monthly fee last spring. However, in March 2020, the company shifted gears to better serve their audience in need. They released the app as a free, ad-supported product and – with hundreds of thousands of downloads to date – have opted to keep it free.
POPSUGAR’s free online workouts are far more affordable than even a bargain gym membership and certainly cheaper than a new Peloton. In addition to amassing audiences across platforms, the strategy serves as a bridge between popular fitness experts and people who may not otherwise be able to afford or access their services. And now that audiences are acclimated to the flexibility and cost savings, the company thinks they’ll stick with the POPSUGAR plan in the long term.
The strategy aligns with that of parent company Group Nine Media, which traditionally monetizes video content through sponsorships and advertising on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and its website. It also licenses content to OTT services including Discovery+ and Xumo and syndicates some content to linear TV. Group Nine also generates revenue through affiliate product sales.
It’s about more than exercise videos
Nowadays, the lines between fitness, wellness, and health are blurring. That’s a theme Fields plans to surface more this year in POPSUGAR’s content. “Fitness isn’t a separate bucket adjacent to your health anymore,” she said. “It is your health.”
Fields takes a broad view of what fitness and health content can be, one that includes mental health, particularly among women of color. That view is one that’s already begun to emerge in POPSUGAR’s content strategy.
In fact, last May, POPSUGAR launched a mental health content hub. At the time, POPSUGAR Founder and President Lisa Sugar described the project as a way “to help readers feel connected and less alone in their daily battle.”
More recently, POPSUGAR launched a Snapchat show aimed at helping Gen Z audiences answer their questions about things like anxiety and depression. The show aims to provide practical, actionable advice to viewers.
“We feel this is really an important conversation for us to be a part of,” Marden said. “Our goal across everything that we create and all of our programming is to offer an inclusive positive safe space for our audience and to help them live their best lives.”
Digital publishers face serious competition for readers at a time when customer loyalty is eroding. More than ever, readers want fast, personalized digital content regardless of device, platform, or location. Visitors are quick to abandon slow and mediocre online experiences in favor of outlets that deliver fresh content at the speed of breaking news. Unfortunately, many publishers find themselves unprepared and without a firm strategy.
Recent months have shown some progress when it comes to publishers and news aggregators. At the end of 2020, Australia was one of the first countries to require news aggregators to pay publishers for their content. Still, social networks and top-tier news aggregators dominate digital media.
Traditional publishers are responding with subscription-based services that drive predictable revenue streams and viewership. And, while not all readers are willing or able to pay for gated content, those who do have even higher expectations for a seamless experience when it comes to both accessing and viewing this content. For video content, consumers will set the bar even higher.
The key to customer retention is serving the most up-to-date content instantly, personalizing that content for readers, and ensuring online experiences are fast, safe, and secure. Let’s look a little closer at the top five challenges digital publishers currently face:
Today, milliseconds matter more than ever. Workflows and procedures must continuously be optimized and fine-tuned. Success often depends on editors being empowered to make content available the instant an article or video is approved for publication. Inherent delays, even for a few minutes, are almost certain to result in missed opportunity.
Thus, low-latency delivery is required to attract viewers and keep them engaged. Highly dynamic digital content, is more efficiently and quickly processed at and served from the edge of the network. However, that is often far from where the content is stored in a content management system (CMS).
Seen from the point of the subscriber, responsive systems that allow repeated and immediate access to gated and premium content are expected. Authentication and paywalls should be as unobtrusive as possible, as there is a significant risk of abandonment if the process takes too long for each request.
Personalization drives loyalty
With a plethora of news content, the competition for viewers and their loyalty has moved from pure availability and uptime to responsiveness and with that, personalization. Today, many digital publishers tailor news stories using variables such as viewing platform, location, and subscription status to deliver highly personalized content. However, not all CDN offerings have the needed visibility and configurability to support these efforts. This compromises customer loyalty initiatives and risks a loss of audience in both the near and long term.
Growing privacy and security concerns at every level
Strict privacy laws are placing new limits on traditional digital publishing approaches. And deploying cookies and other IP tracking methods is proving increasingly difficult. Within the European Union, GDPR enforcement requires publishers to explicitly define their tracking systems and limits any kind of data gathering unless the viewer accepts opts-in. And let’s not forget that similar privacy laws are emerging in the U.S. In order to enable compliance, digital publishers increasingly seek to control where content is viewed. To do this, many opt to partner with a content delivery vendor that can block access based on location and IP address as well as identify virtual private network (VPN) traffic.
Bots also continue to be a security concern for digital publishers. They can scrape and republish content illegally. This greatly diminishes the content’s value for the original publisher. It also poses a significant threat to both content quality and ad revenue. Advertisers are expected to lose an estimated $19 Billion to fraudulent activities this year—equivalent to $51 million daily (Juniper Research).
Political affiliations, opinion pieces, and other controversial content make digital publishers a frequent target for distributed disruption of service (DDoS) attacks. The mere exposure a hacker can get from disrupting major news sites is often incentive enough. Digital publishers wanting to build their online protection plans should be cautious of legacy CDNs that often lack visibility to detect online attacks and distinguish them from a flood of legitimate traffic when news breaks (not to mention the ability to react and mitigate).
Video content comes at a cost
Increasingly, customer demand is driving a pivot from static content to video. Snackable video is easy to consume. And, in the context of news, video usually conveys a higher level of perceived trust. Support for video can also bring additional revenue, as advertisers typically pay significantly more for video ads, especially those that can support dynamic ad insertion to target viewers.
The shift by traditional digital publishers to embed video into their news stories and feature articles is blurring the competitive landscape between video-only and video-first outlets. However, video content and delivery bring their own set of unique challenges. The amount of data needing to be transported increases exponentially. Therefore, it can put a heavy burden on infrastructure typically designed to accommodate much smaller payloads. Also, successful video delivery requires systems that can scale with audience and demand. This includes predictable demand for local news segments and purpose-built videos to unpredictable demand during significant news events such as breaking news or when video content goes viral.
Technical debt slows the pace of innovation
As digital publishers evolve their businesses to reach more customers with higher bandwidth content, they often encounter technical constraints created by legacy CDNs. Inflexible architectures fail to address fundamental content delivery requirements, including real-time visibility and control, as well as the ability to scale on demand.
Often, publishing workflows are complex and contain custom-developed technology stacks. Thus, modifying deployments for better scale and performance while maintaining uninterrupted workflows is fraught with risk and can feel daunting, if not insurmountable. Traditional CDNs routinely lack full API support, granular control, and real-time configuration changes. This flexibility is necessary in order to integrate with custom tech stacks, as well as other emerging technologies, and thus impede digital transformation efforts.
Don’t let outdated technology stand in your way
In a highly competitive market, often with thin margins, digital publishers striving to stay relevant must have modern systems in place that deliver content to readers and aggregators the moment it is ready. As you set out to architect and build your next delivery platform, be sure to evaluate the practical challenges a legacy CDN will impose when it comes to meeting the expectations of your audience.
Publishers know that competition for audience time and attention is fierce. Given increasing challenges, and rising consumer expectations, it is critical to make smart investments in order to deliver fast, excellent audience experiences.
In the constant scramble for sustainable, long-term audience growth, an increasing number of media companies are placing their bets on news products aimed at kids.
Since last April, Lester Holt has been anchoring a weekly kids edition of “NBC Nightly News.” The New York Times is currently developing a digital subscription product based off of its “NYT Kids” print section. And, in August, Group Nine Media’s NowThis launched NowThis Kids, a weekly video series complete with a dedicated newsletter and podcast.
For a news outlet whose audience is largely made up of millennial parents, it was a natural expansion, said NowThis president Athan Stephanopoulos. Moreover, amid a pandemic, an economic recession, and nationwide protests against racial inequality, it fulfilled a pressing need.
“This was a moment where we saw that there was a lot of uncertainty,” said Stephanopoulos. “How do parents communicate these complex issues to their children? It was the right time for us, with what was happening in the world. And quite frankly, we saw a business opportunity to program to this audience and bring in big-brand partners who saw a need for this.”
TIME for Kids has long been a presence in elementary school classrooms. But when the pandemic halted in-person learning, TIME for Kids began offering digital editions of its print magazine free of charge. In September, it transitioned that offering into a digital subscription product marketed to parents.
“I think families understand that if we’ve been in classrooms for 25 years, then we’re a resource that they can trust to handle issues well with their kids,” said TIME for Kids editorial director Andrea Delbanco.
Another, more established, player in the digital area of the children’s news space is Canadian public broadcaster, CBC. That outlet’s kid-focused online vertical debuted in the fall of 2018. However, it was an idea that originated in its Halifax newsroom as early as 2016.
“The whole idea of misinformation and fake news was really surfacing, so it became more and more apparent that CBC, as a news organization, should have a news service for kids,” said Lisa Fender, senior producer at CBC Kids News.
Inspiring a new generation of consumers
In all three cases, the long-term benefits of forming trusting relationships with a rising generations of news consumers are clear. But each outlet’s editorial approach differs based on its respective strengths.
NowThis Kids focuses on highlighting inspirational stories about kids and adults putting kindness into action, says Stephanopoulos. Many of its key topics—equality, climate change, body positivity—reflect those covered by its parent news outlet, which primarily targets liberal-leaning young adults. “It’s an opportunity to cover the core issues specific to NowThis through a lens that’s inspirational [to kids] about what’s happening in the world around them,” Stephanopoulos said.
TIME for Kids approaches its audience as two distinct groups: younger students learning to read, and third- through sixth-grade students who are reading to learn. “Once we make the jump to the reading-to-learn crowd, we’re really focused on making sure that they can recognize authentic journalism and value it and see all the different voices that we use as a magazine of journalists, as opposed to a textbook,” said Delbanco.
Like NowThis Kids, TIME for Kids focuses on inspiring kids to action. It also seeks to give them a sense of agency and hope, she said. And while it leverages TIME’s newsroom as much as possible, creating news for kids requires a different skillset from traditional journalism. A dedicated editorial team is complemented by a curriculum team. They create teaching materials and parent resources to accompany each story the editors produce and provides guidance on which content is appropriate for each age group.
“We have to assume that kids have no context for any story we’re telling them about, which is different,” Delbanco said. “It also takes a really specific focus on what will interest kids, what will be understandable to them, and how we can make sure that we’re not talking down to them.”
Keeping a finger on the pulse is one of the biggest challenges faced by CBC Kids News, according to Fender. Kids under 13 aren’t supposed to have social media accounts. Of course, many of them do. Fender’s team solicits feedback from kids directly when working on stories as well as through regular surveys. Identifying stories of interest to children is paramount, regardless of the topic.
“We never shy away from doing anything because it’s sad or scary or sensitive,” Fender said. “If kids are talking about it, then we want to make sure that we have the information there for them so they’re not getting misinformation from somewhere else.”
Reaching children—and their parents—online
Audience marketing in the platform era is a matter of constant adjustments for news outlets of any kind. When the end users are children—and parents mindful of what their children are exposed to—it opens up an entirely different set of considerations.
While TIME for Kids and CBC Kids News are both ad-free, NowThis Kids has been exclusively sponsored by Cheerios since its launch. Stephanopoulos said the kids edition requires a higher degree of vigilance about how and when a brand is integrated, and identifying the right partner was critical.
“We have a shared ethos around promoting positivity and bringing families together,” he said. “It’s an integration that doesn’t feel disruptive or inserted in a way that’s going to impact parents’ reactions to the content.”
As part of the transition from teachers to parents as the target market, TIME for Kids has leaned into a lot more cross-promotion, such as its partnership with Nickelodeon on a “Kid of the Year” franchise. But Matt Stevenson, TIME’s VP of product marketing, said TIME for Kids has seen “great success” by partnering with Cricket, a long-standing children’s literary magazine that is ostensibly a competitor.
CBC Kids News has no dedicated marketing budget, Fender says, relying mostly on word-of-mouth. However, it does leverage many of the CBC’s existing channels to cross-promote its content.
Context is key
While clearly self-serving, helping kids understand the topics dominating the news cycle and the importance of reliable sources benefits the industry—and by extension, society—as a whole. But Julie Smith, a communications professor at Webster University who specializes in media studies and sits on the board of the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), remains skeptical.
“This isn’t a public service; it’s about making money,” Smith said. “I understand it. They’re in business to make money. But we have to consistently remind parents to ask why they’re doing this.”
Parents need to remember that kid-focused news outlets function as a resource for conversations with their children, but not a substitute, she said. The sender of a message, their motive, who is profiting from it, and what information is being left out are all aspects that parents should ask their children about when consuming news. These are terrific topics to discuss with children as a means to improve their media literacy.
“Most kids get their information from YouTube,” she added. “That’s significant. Do kids understand the difference between fact and opinion? Or a reporter and a pundit? I think kids need to understand that if we’re using an app or a website for free, we’re not the customer. We’re the product.”
To that end, news literacy is a “huge area of focus” for TIME for Kids, according to Delbanco. From the minute they learn to read, she reasoned, children should be taught to be critical of what they’re consuming.
“Of course, we are thrilled to be raising generations of people who love TIME. But beyond just the TIME brand, what we’re really hoping to do is help raise a generation of kids who can do better within this information crisis than previous generations have.”
CBC Kids News allows teachers to book virtual “hangouts” in classrooms, taking kids behind the scenes on the production process for a particular story. This provides an opportunity for teachers to deliver lessons on media literacy, as well as another chance to solicit feedback on the topics kids are interested in.
Building for the future
Transparency around how stories are produced is a good first step, said Smith. Rising awareness of the importance of media literacy education, including the growing number of states enacting legislation to that end, has her feeling more optimistic than ever before.
As for the publishers, early returns suggest that it’s good business, too. TIME for Kids generated approximately 75,000 digital subscribers in its first four months, Stevenson said, and TIME has no plans to discontinue it after students are fully back in their classrooms.
“We’re very happy with the early response, both in terms of what we were hoping for and where we can see this going,” added NowThis’s Stephanopoulos. “Video is what we’ve built ourselves around, but we’ve also seen great growth around the newsletter and the podcast.”
From a 10,000-foot view, order-to-cash (O2C) is a seemingly simple process. However, the O2C cycle causes pain points across a number of business in various industries — notably in the media marketing and publishing industries. Orders are received, processed, sent through billing, and revenue is recognized. But anyone using order-to-cash in their business workflow will tell you that it’s much more complicated than it seems. This is particularly true in the digital age.
Reviewing the O2C workflow in any company reveals that a number of processes are involved. Many of these include manual aspects that create higher costs, elevate error margins, increase delays and limit scalability. This is especially true in the media and publishing industries where growth is critical and scalability hinges on resolving O2C pain points. Fortunately, many of these processes are repeatable and scalable, which makes them prime candidates for automation.
That being said, the thought of reengineering long standing order-to-cash processes can seem daunting. For many this involves enabling new systems, integrating different business units and systems together, updating to a modern data collection model, and syncing a proper tech stack. All of this is required to execute a well-functioning automated O2C process.
Often, the perceived complexity of such an undertaking will drive companies to put off automating their O2C processes. However, it is becoming more and more evident that the order-to-cash process must automated in order to simplify and streamline them, especially for industries with media buys.
Identifying O2C pain points
Media industry players are encountering a need for scalability in their ad campaign business now more than ever. Order volume is out-scaling manual elements of existing processes to execute campaigns. This is particularly true in companies with an ever-growing large daily volume of short-lived ad placements.
No trafficking team, no matter how skilled, has the ability to execute 100% accuracy when manually processing hundreds of ad campaigns daily. From tag checkers, to the volume of unique URLs needed for creatives, to requests for targeting large sets of DMAs, to endless rule sets and executing a wide variety of product packages for their clients, it all comes down to reducing the manual aspects of these repeatable processes. These are all essential to allow for scale with ease. This will also limit error margins almost completely. The good news is that all of this can be achieved through automation.
In reality, the repeatable aspects of trafficking workflows are all prime candidates for automation. These include target sections, creating unique targeting rules and UTM trackers, DMA cloning, and establishing rule sets. Executing a well-rounded automation strategy to address these aspects of O2C will free up bandwidth for tasks and process that must be manual. Thus, the process also facilitates scale.
Why automating O2C Processes is crucial
Order-to-cash issues in publishing and media can be both internal and external. However, they all involve the ad placement campaign cycle. Internal processes involve inventory management, subscription management, order process, and ad placements. Processes that are external include order processing, ad management, programmatic, and audience management.
Of course, there are some crossover points between the two. Some processes involve the client needs (advertising) and the means to flight ads (audience management and inventory management). All effect the bottom line in terms of profit.
O2C processes regularly involve segmentation which generally tends to be a manual process. The more manual the process, the longer the campaign completion times. This results in extended periods of time between order placements and recognized revenue.
Streamlining an ad placement campaign cycle in the order-to-cash workflow, with automation will make processes faster and more efficient. Creating smaller to zero error margins while enabling publishers and media marketing companies to complete order cycles and recognize revenue faster.
Real world examples
Consider, for example, the process of manually selecting rule sets in ad trafficking. Rule sets are a standard element in the O2C process and often come with a high margin of error pain point. For each campaign, ad, and platform, a particular rule set must be implemented to meet the client’s targeting criteria. Multiply this by hundreds or thousands per day and you have the perfect scenario for errors to occur. These types of errors effect ad performance and tracking UTM’s causing significant inaccuracies in reporting.
Thankfully simple and repeatable aspects of the ad trafficking workflow, like rule sets, are perfectly constructed for automation. Although the particular type of automation will vary depending on the use case, automating these elements will greatly reduce inaccuracies and speed up campaign cycles.
In addition, many publishing, media and streaming companies offer a vast array of product packages to their ad clients. Some offer 50+ types of product packages, each with their own set of guidelines for trafficking, enabling a host of issues that can occur during campaign setup, deployment and reporting.
In this instance, trafficking appropriately and enabling the correct tags for reporting is key to successful campaign execution. Reducing manual efforts and human error margins is essential and the best way to do so is through automated DMA updating capabilities.
The order-to-cash process has become more arduous as the digital ad market has grown. This is particularly true within the publishing and media marketing industries. As the scale of ad business increases, the need for simple and accurate solutions to O2C pain points has become critical.
In markets that rely heavily on order-to-cash workflows for recognized revenue, the answer is simple: Optimize your O2C workflows with automation to eliminate error margins, reduce delays in revenue recognition, increase bandwidth, and ensure scalability.
The decline of cable TV is not news. Ever since streaming services offered consumers entire seasons of their favorite shows – affordably, on demand, and ad free – cable has been losing subscribers.
The number of pay-TV households fell from its peak of 105 million in 2010, to approximately 77.6 million last year. And this number is predicted to drop to 63.4 million by 2024. Meanwhile, the numbers of subscribers to the largest U.S. streaming platforms went up 50% in 2019 from the previous year.
There is no doubt Covid-19 boosted streaming figures, as millions of viewers spent their lockdown binge-watching the latest Netflix recommendation. However, cable was in decline long before the pandemic, with new, younger audiences favoring a “buffet style” viewing experience. In fact, more than half of 18 to 29 year-olds who pay for a TV bundle say they stream more often than watch cable.
What is really interesting, amidst all this change, is that cable news continues to make a killing. In January 2021 CNN recorded its highest viewing figures in its 40-year history, beating both Fox News and MSNBC in total viewers. However, Fox News remains the most-watched cable news network in the U.S. And it took in a whopping $12.3 billion in 2020.
“The news environment of the past four years, with Trump in the White House, has given a life extension to cable news,” says Mosheh Oinounou, an Emmy award-winning journalist who went on to launch CBSN, and is now a consultant for media organizations. “More recently, Covid and major political events, such as the storming of the Capitol, have seen record revenue and record ratings for cable.”
On the flipside, news is under-represented in the booming premium OTT arena, particularly that of local markets. Given the habits and preference of younger audiences, it might be time to take another look at the local news.
Streaming news still a rarity
While news is still a rarity in the streaming space, things are starting to change. This month, ViacomCBS launched Paramount Plus, which will incorporate CBSN, as well as livestreams of local CBS affiliates. Fox Entertainment’s streaming service Tubi launched News on Tubi in October 2020. It recently added nearly 80 stations, with 24-hour live news feeds. Amazon Prime is also looking to get in on the news game, adding live and on-demand local news to Fire TV.
ViacomCBS already has a head start in streaming news, as CBSN was the first streaming news service to launch in the United States in 2014. And the company continues to make news part of its OTT strategy. Christy Tanner, EVP and GM at ViacomCBS, believes their “marriage of journalism and technology” differentiates them in the streaming wars.
“It baffles me that news is not a bigger part of streaming services. It’s such an incredible opportunity to reach a highly engaged audience,” says Tanner.
“News has been a really important driver of growth within CBS and now ViacomCBS. And that is the reason it is one of the three pillars of Paramount Plus. We know that news users are loyal. They come back frequently, and they stay for a long time. Now we are expanding on this knowledge to improve our news offering within our streaming services.”
However, creating live news, 24/7, is not without its challenges. There are issues around the nature of news content and the digital development resources required. This could be why few providers offer it as part of their streaming packages.
“Entertainment and news are very different,” says Tanner. “News is a real commitment. And you have to be prepared for what comes with that. Also, providers don’t see the financial opportunities they are missing. They see news as a loss leader or break-even proposition – but what we’ve done is proof.”
Oinounou agrees that some major streaming companies may be reluctant to “get too deep into news game” because of the constant need to feed the news monster with fresh content. “Media companies want evergreen content. But news is ephemeral, it’s only relevant for couple of hours, which is a real challenge,” he says.
Falling off a cliff
However, Oinounou is less convinced by the financial opportunities of streaming news, when compared to the figures cable news commands. Digital news revenue is largely ad-based while cable news relies on subscription and massive advertising income, both of which are hard to replicate online.
“There is revenue there, but not on the same scale as broadcast,” he states. “Streaming services need to ask how they can grow revenue in order to compensate for the cliff they are about to go off, in terms of cable subscriptions. We know that people will pay for sport and entertainment online. But it’s not yet been proven as a revenue source for news.
“We saw this evolution in print. News was free online. But then classified revenue fell through the floor and print subscriptions collapsed, so newspapers realized they had to start charging and put up a paywall.”
It’s only in recent years that news titles have started to generate significant subscription revenue. That said, these tend to be larger national titles or conglomerations of local news brands that have greater resources than most local brands.
However, the trend offers proof that people will pay for a quality product and a good digital experience. Therefore, it seems likely that broadcast news producers are heading in the same direction. But the question is, who goes first? Which company will be brave enough to put digital news behind a paywall?
Fox Nation is one example of how a news subscription model can work. They offer additional content on interesting topics with big names and personalities as a draw. WarnerMedia has also floated the idea of launching a similar streaming channel, with a CNN-based subscription service.
“OTT live streams need to do the same thing, by offering either exclusive content or access, which will add value and persuade customers to pay an extra fee,” says Oinounou. “They also need to make sure content is authentic to the platform. Consumers on new devices have different needs and digital news is more interactive. So content has to be adapted to the streaming space.”
A new business model
Along with great content, creating a successful streaming news channel is also about having the right technology to ensure it’s available on all platforms. This is something Tanner prides herself on. “CBSN’s strength is to enable the viewer to find our news wherever they are,” she says. “The channel is available on more than 20 devices, services and platforms.”
Oinounou agrees if news providers don’t move quickly to adapt to streaming technology and get on all new and emerging platforms “you are going to be left behind”.
Creating a good product is not just about attracting subscribers. It’s also about retaining them. And a key to reducing churn, is to reduce user fatigue and financial outgoings, which are often associated with too many streaming services. One solution is to bundle streaming content, in the same way as cable TV, where consumers pay one fee and have access to all the entertainment, sport, and news they want.
Bundling their own streaming services is a no-brainer for brands. However, given the proliferation of offerings on the market, partnering with other streaming companies could be the service consumers really want. We have already seen this happen with ViacomCBS, who partnered up with Apple TV+ last year.
“There is a lot of experimentation happening right now with all major companies trying to figure out a new business model for news,” said Oinounou. “But media executives are still focused on where the money is, and that’s not in digital.”
However, with the likes of Altice USA CEO Dexter Goei predicting the death of cable TV, the question is not “if” broadcast news will be streamed, it is a matter of how and when. What media executives need to focus on now, is how to make the new model match the traditional pay-TV bundle.
Successful D2C brands have a strategy for each and every customer touchpoint. This new crop of startups have made this specific way of marketing and selling into a model all its own. They have a renewed focus on understanding what customers want, expect, and need every step of the way. This includes everything from research to purchase and returns along with everything before, after, and in-between.
This approach borrows much from what is perhaps the oldest “direct to consumer” industry in existence: publishing. Publishing has always been the purest form of providing what the consumer wants, whether news or entertainment, in text or audio or visual form. Publishers have to be direct with consumers. Their value proposition is clear: This is what we offer, and here it is for your consumption. And today’s most successful D2Cs mirror this process in their sourcing (and marketing).
Traditional publishers recognize the power of subscription models and advertising on editorial content, but many of the new class of publishers have gone above and beyond. To name just a few: Food52 transitioned successfully from recipe blog to culinary business, leveraging their recipe site, and engaged its community to create a thriving home kitchen, cooking and specialty food business. Buzzfeed’s Tasty pivoted (or pivoted their pivot) into Pet by Tasty. They harnessed the undeniable combination of the internet and animal content. And they use it to power a natural pet food business. And of course, in 2014, Emily Weiss metamorphosed digital beauty destination Into the Gloss into the multi-billion dollar juggernaut Glossier. This new class of publishers understands — and monetizes — the power of brand equity, loyalty, and community.
Lean into your D2c roots
Even the more “traditional” publishers are well positioned to do the same. They’ve already accomplished the hard parts, like building a community, establishing trust, providing consistent value, and earning brand equity and cachet. Now more than ever, publishers are sitting on an unmined vein of pure gold. And with today’s level of technology, the next step for publishers is much more achievable than, say, sourcing a sustainable make-up factory or producing industrial quantities of pet chow.
Publishers now have the tools and expertise readily available to marry editorial with branded content thoughtfully and intentionally. They can respectfully leverage the enthusiasm and engagement of their communities and the eminence of their brands to create novel revenue streams. We can say farewell to the numbers game, where more clicks and eyeballs meant everything. It is being (rightfully) subsumed as a jaded consumer population demands quality, relevance, and a bit of respect in how they are advertised to. Publishers have already done the hard part as the original D2Cs.
Here’s a few more lessons that they can re-borrow from today’s most successful D2C companies.
Let your content lead your commerce
D2Cs quickly developed a new mastery of advertising everywhere their consumers already were, in podcasts or specific niches of social media. Even then, these brands did their best to match the theme, tone, and even appearance of their surroundings. In no way can an ad or branded content take a reader/viewer out of the experience. Your brand has worked so hard to give the consumer a consistent “universe” of experience. Don’t let bad advertising take them out of it and ruin all the established good will.
Feelings, lifestyles, brands > products, services, logos
Luggage D2C Away doesn’t sell suitcases. They give consumers the ability to live the jet setting lifestyle they’ve always wanted. Casper doesn’t sell mattresses. They imagine a world where everyone is well-rested and sleep is a pillar of personal fitness. Today, the bigger picture is the bigger seller, especially when everyone knows they can get an objectively similar product from a dozen places instantly. With everything so commoditized, consumers want to be a part of something bigger. Chances are that consumers already associate your brand with a lifestyle, feeling, or movement. Identify it and become a proactive champion.
Taking back the lead
Publishers are the “OGs” of D2C. Publishers boast the power of brand equity, loyalty, and community. So, they are uniquely positioned to capitalize on the opportunities that D2C brands have to work so hard to achieve. All publishers have to do is to continue to focus on their consumers and take back the lead in crafting, monetizing and commercializing the products their consumers want, expect, and need – a trusted brand with content.
Among the many changes witnessed in 2020, cookie deprecation has sparked conversation throughout the industry. Technological shifts, driven by browsers, alongside increased privacy legislation combine to create new challenges for advertisers looking to reach specific audiences. As a result, IAS found that 49% of industry experts surveyed in our 2021 Industry Pulse Report listed third-party cookie deprecation as the top challenge for the upcoming year.
The implications for advertisers have been widely listed: targeting, measurement, and attribution will all be affected. But what does it mean for publishers? And how will it shape relationships with advertisers and ad tech vendors?
How did we get here?
While browsers are undoubtedly driving the pace of cookie deprecation, consumer concerns about privacy and data collection also play a role. Last year, IAS found that 88% of consumers are aware that websites and apps collect and share their data for advertising purposes. And, unaspiringly, this finding coincides with increasing global privacy legislation. Between cookie deprecation and legal requirements, the industry is witnessing a seismic shift in how digital ads will reach consumer audiences.
What are the implications?
The bad news is obvious: Third-party cookie deprecation challenges current methods of audience targeting, attribution, cross-channel targeting, and measurement. However, that doesn’t mean third-party cookies provide the best method for reaching consumers.
Third-party cookies are not only limited to web environments, but they also have device and household limitations. In other words, third-party cookies don’t necessarily have a one-to-one relationship to actual consumers. Therefore, it can’t represent a precise “identity.” The good news? Knowing this, third-party cookie deprecation presents the industry with an opportunity to find something better. For publishers, the shift creates an opening to regain control over the value of their media and how they provide it.
How do publishers play a role?
In the short term, publishers can help advertisers leverage current technology that bypasses the use of third-party cookies. By proactively responding to the shifting environment and enabling the use of existing, developing solutions, publishers can establish themselves as partners to advertisers in this new era of digital advertising.
Verify that inventory is viewable, brand safe, and fraud free
Publishers should take time to review their inventory and assess for viewability, brand risk, and fraud. Ensuring that ads have the opportunity to be seen by real people, in brand suitable environments will remain the first step for advertisers looking to connect with consumers. By proactively evaluating content, publishers will be positioning themselves as partners to advertisers in the evolving digital landscape.
Work with a partner to optimize advertiser KPIs
Verification companies can provide more than reporting capabilities. Publishers should consider partnering with a verification provider that delivers solutions which automatically optimize their inventory toward advertiser KPIs.
Unlock value with contextual targeting
As the industry seeks alternatives for audience targeting and identity resolution, contextual targeting is experiencing an innovation renaissance. Industry innovators have been revisiting the technology, improving it, and creating new, exciting solutions to propel targeting tactics forward.
Publishers who package their inventory with content in mind will have an advantage in building relationships with advertisers shifting toward contextual methods. Additionally, publishers can work with verification partners that pre-screen pages and develop curated pre-bid segments to ensure they’re helping brands target the right environments for their audiences.
What about the longer term?
In the long run, the future of identity resolution will require advertisers to work directly with trusted partners across the entire ecosystem. While there is unlikely to be a single silver bullet solution, publishers should be considering the consumer, what devices they’re using, and how to marry various identifiers to create a robust understanding of their user.
All aspects, from email addresses in an effort to build Pseudonymous Deterministic Authenticated Identification, to latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates, to CTV IDs should be considered when thinking about working with brands to identify consumers. With direct access to first party data, publishers have intimate knowledge of their consumer base. This will allow them to help advertisers start to piece together identity in the absence of third-party cookies.
As cookie deprecation approaches, publishers should expect brands to become more reliant on their data and content expertise. However, despite the challenges ahead, publishers hold the key to establishing themselves as trusted partners in this rapidly changing ecosystem.