It’s been another breakneck year for the media industry. Every year at Media Voices we round up the biggest moments from the past 12 months, and explore how they impact publishers. This year was certainly not short of industry-defining events, and Media Moments 2022 summarizes these across 10 chapters, from advertising and subscriptions to newsletters and emerging technology.
Stepping back from the big moments of cookie delays, Twitter takeovers, and bumpy ad markets, there have been a number of developments this year which have the potential to shape publishing strategies in 2023 and beyond. Here are seven key themes from the report that will inform your approach moving forward:
1. Adblocking has returned to an all–time high
The days of adblocking causing sleepless nights for publishers seemed to be long–gone. Between the demise of third–party cookies and vigorous blocklists costing huge amounts of revenue, executives in the ad department have had plenty of other things to worry about.
Unfortunately, adblocking needs to move back up on the agenda. It has returned to levels last seen at the peak of the phenomenon in 2018, with 290 million web users actively blocking ads worldwide, according to the 2022 PageFair Adblock Report. This is an average of 21% across all geos and verticals. Solutions to tackle the problem are in short supply, and are likely to remain so unless it is prioritized again.
2. Streaming accounts for the majority time spent with TV
In August, streaming officially topped cable as the most popular method by which people in the U.S. consume television content. According to Nielsen, which runs a monthly Gauge study of TV consumption, streaming now makes up more than one–third (34.8%) of all television consumption, overtaking cable (34.4%), and far ahead of broadcast (21.6%).
Unsurprisingly, streaming powerhouses like Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+ are leading the charge. However, this is a notable milestone for streamers across the board. It marks a major shift in how audiences – especially younger people – engage with what we’ve traditionally thought of as television content. This opens more opportunities for publishers in the video space to get well–told stories in front of audiences. But it also means that the video landscape is more fractured than ever.
3. Local news can be profitable on just reader revenue
The past five or so years has seen local news start–ups grow all over the world as access to publishing and revenue tools has opened up. Some have shown real promise this year, offering tantalizing glimpses of a sustainable future for local publishers.
In the U.K., The Manchester Mill, a Substack–based local news publisher, reached profitability last month with just 1,600 paying subscribers. The two–year–old brand says they are profitable off annualized subscription revenue of around $164,000. Founder Joshi Herrmann has launched two sister titles off the back of its success: the Liverpool Post and Sheffield Tribune, which are at 650 and 900 paying subscribers respectively.
For local news to truly thrive, we will need to move beyond models of just one or two reporters per city. But the early green shoots of success are encouraging.
4. There’s no sign of subscriptions decline…yet
Following Netflix’s Q2 subscriber tumble, many analysts have forecast a downturn in subscriptions. As economic pressures begin to bite, almost 30% of consumers polled by Toolkits and the National Research Group said that they planned to reduce the number of online subscriptions they hold.
But the second half of 2022 has shown that the subscriptions market is resilient. Netflix saw a spectacular bounceback in Q3, adding 2.41 million new subscribers and beating its own and analyst expectations. Publishers are seeing continued growth too: AOP members reported digital subscriptions growth at almost 15% over the last 12 months. Some have reported record performances, from the New York Times’ 9 million subscriber milestone to The Economist posting its most profitable year since 2016 on the back of 1.2 million subscribers, and total subscription revenues accounting for more than 60% of its revenues.
We may yet see a downturn depending on how pressures on consumers play out over winter. But for now, people are happy to pay for content they find valuable.
5. Email newsletters are an unexploited revenue opportunity
Email may be one of the oldest forms of digital communication, but as a revenue driver it is still very under–used by mainstream publishers. Despite the wave of Substack–led paid newsletter creators over the past few years, few publishers have attempted anything similar themselves.
A recent report from WAN–IFRA highlighted the opportunity gap around email newsletters. 48% of publishers they surveyed did not monetize their newsletters. Of those that did, advertising and exclusive sponsorships were used by 32% and 16% respectively. Significantly, newsletters were used as part of a subscription bundle rather than standalone offering were used by 30% of publishers.
Quartz is one publisher who dropped its paywall entirely this year. Interestingly, they still kept the membership scheme, and instead have a suite of premium emails they send to members. “We found that 75% of Quartz members read us primarily through email, so we’ve been putting more of our best stuff directly in their inboxes,” said CEO Zach Seward.
When it comes to advertising, I wouldn’t wish the ad tech that plagues the rest of the internet on our email inboxes. But the tech to improve the advertising experience in email via personalisation and segmentation is getting there. Now, we just have to behave responsibly with it. Newsletters have a reputation as a premium engagement method for a good reason.
6. News headlines are in a negative spiral
Following the headline findings from the Reuters Digital News Report about the growing issue of news avoidance, there has been much discussion this year on how to rebuild trust with audiences. As publishers compete for attention online, they have found ways of standing out and getting readers to click and share content. But this isn’t necessarily positive.
One study in particular from PLoS ONE showed just the extent to which media headlines have become increasingly negative over the past two decades. The research showed headlines expressing anger were up 104% since the year 2000, fear, 150%, and sadness 54%. This isn’t because the world has got worse, even if “permacrisis” is the word of the year for 2022. Rather, negative and emotionally–arousing headlines are more likely to attract clicks and attention, which in turn means more revenue for publishers.
It’s a difficult cycle to break. The sheer amount of competition for attention means that it’s understandable publishers have to find ways of breaking through the noise. But the long–term effects of stoking outrage and despair on a near–constant basis are just beginning to be recognized.
7. Some emerging tech is good to jump on early. Others, not so much!
Publishers who tried early experiments in NFTs have been richly rewarded. From digital covers to archive images, NFT projects have generated millions for brands like TIME, The Economist, Forbes, and Playboy over the past few years.
However, the bottom has since fallen out of the NFT market, driven by the tough year cryptocurrency has had. NFT trading volumes collapsed 97% between January and September this year. So it’s not surprising to see publishers like CNN wrapping up their NFT marketplaces and projects.
Caution in other areas, however, is wise. Apart from a couple of publishers like Vogue testing metaverse experiences, it has been mainly consumer brands rushing to the space.
Audiences so far have not followed. Meta had aimed to have 500,000 monthly active users for its flagship platform Horizon Worlds by the end of 2022. By October, they had revised that figure down to 280,000, although the current tally is allegedly less than 200k. Other metaverse platforms are also struggling; audits on Sandbox and Decentraland have shown that user numbers are small. Platforms seeing success like Roblox are primarily built for gaming. As yet, there is little justification for publishers to lever themselves into the metaverse at great expense.
Trends and strategy
What is more evident when compared with previous years is how quickly things can crash. We suspected when authoring last year’s edition that, for example, that the NFT bubble would burst. We couldn’t have foreseen that would happen just months later.
Instead, innovation – whether that be audience-building, revenue generation or product – is to be found in formats that have been around for decades. Podcasts, newsletters and apps have been used by publishers of all shapes and sizes this year to deepen relationships and reduce churn. The key is to be where your audience is with a product that they need. And so far, you won’t find them in the metaverse.