This year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report contains some signs of hope for the news industry. According to the report, “Change is in the air with many media companies shifting models towards higher quality content and more emphasis on reader payment.” However, as the report points out, these emerging trends are fragile, unevenly distributed, and are emerging in the wake of many years of digital disruption, which has undermined both consumer and publisher confidence.
Based on a YouGov survey conducted with 74,000 people in 37 countries, this is the seventh in an annual series of reports that track the transition of the news industry towards an increasingly digital and multi-platform future. Among the many challenges highlighted in the report is a low level of trust in the media in most countries and concerns about fake news. The business side continues to struggle despite a rise in reader revenue, as it has failed to offset continued declines in print and digital advertising revenue.
Here are 6 key takeaways from Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2018:
The use of social media for news has started to fall in a number of key markets after years of continuous growth. Usage is down 6% in the United States and is also down in the UK and France.
Globally, the use of messaging apps for news is on the rise. WhatsApp is now used for news by around half of the sampled users in Malaysia (54%) and Brazil (48%) and by around third in Spain (36%) and Turkey (30%).
Across all countries, the average level of trust in the news in general remains relatively stable at 44%, with just over half (51%) agreeing that they trust the news media they themselves use most of the time.
By contrast, 34% of respondents say they trust news they find via search and fewer than a quarter (23%) say they trust the news they find in social media.
Last year’s significant increase in subscription in the United States (the “Trump Bump”) has been maintained. The average number of people paying for online news has edged up in many countries, with significant increases coming from Norway (+4 percentage points), Sweden (+6), and Finland (+4).
Privacy concerns have reignited the growth in ad-blocking software. More than a quarter of consumers now block on any device (27%). More than four in ten (42%) now use blockers in Greece (+6) with significant increases in Germany (+5) and the United States (+4).
The report concludes that the many changes this year serve as a reminder that things that once seemed certain (such as the importance of Facebook and the online advertising model) can quickly shift. The entire space continues to rapidly evolve, with technologies like voice-activated interfaces and artificial intelligence are on the rise, which will bring new opportunities as well as challenges. While the future of news remains uncertain, the report does provide hope that quality content will be increasingly rewarded in the future.
New research from Parks Associates shows that 6% of U.S. broadband households are highly likely to subscribe to an online pay-TV service within the next 12 months, which would more than double the number subscribing today.
While traditional television subscriptions held quite steady from 2010 to 2015, they have declined year-over-year since 2015. Significantly, the percentage of households “cutting the cord” has increased between 2015 and 2017. Parks Associates also reports a larger number of “cord-never” households, though a much greater percentage of consumers are either testing new options or still in decision mode.
Why Consumers Cut the Cord
Price, cost, and low price/value perceptions dominate as reasons for pay-TV cancellation and cord shaving. More than 50% of households that have switched, shaved, or cut the cord in the 12 months prior to Parks Associates’ survey said that the reason is that their pay-TV service was not worth the cost. Parks Associates also found that about a third of cord cutters would have stayed with their service provider if offered a Netflix-style service bundled with broadcast TV channels.
Providers must replace revenues lost in the wake of fewer subscribers. However, only one-quarter to one-third of consumers are willing to pay more for their pay-TV services, even given the addition of highly appealing features.
Maintaining Customers & Sustaining Revenue
Thus, providers must prioritize consumer retention. Given that Parks Associates found that many pay-TV subscribers are unaware of the video on-demand (VoD) features available to them, pay-TV providers must do a better job in communicating VoD offerings, or they will lose consumer VoD viewing to online options. Providers should also consider adding the features that Parks Associates found are most appealing to digital video consumers (pause, restart, and rewind) for no extra cost in order to incentivize maintaining their pay-TV subscription.
The good news, according to Brett Sappington, Parks Associates’ Senior Director of Research, is that streaming is well-established, and consumers are familiar with its function, even without a deep understanding of the technology. And, while percentage of potential shavers and cancellers has risen, Sappington points out that many consumers are comfortable with what they have and not in a rush to change. This lapse provides providers and entrepreneurs openings for creative solutions to bring consumers ever closer to their ideal vision of price/value and feature excellence.
Publishers spend most of their time thinking about how to sell advertising, not buy it. However, they should rethink advertising as a promotional tactic. As their sales teams likely say time and again, it can be used to increase brand awareness, viewership, and even paying customers. What follows are a few ideas for thinking about how to work old-fashioned advertising into a publisher’s promotional and audience acquisition strategy. (For more “traditional,” digital-centric tactics for increasing a publication’s audience, see my March 2018 piece, “How to Maximize the Value of Your Digital Publishing Properties”.)
Google Display Network
When campaigns are executed properly, the Google Display Network (GDN) can be a powerful tool for publishers to reach big audience groups, quickly and cost-effectively. The trick is to make sure that campaign settings are precise and strict.
According to some estimates, the GDN reaches as much as 90% of internet users. While Google makes most of its money on high-priced, keyword-based, pay-per-click activity, it also has a robust display advertising network that is global and reaches into the outermost nooks and crannies of the internet. For just pennies a click, savvy publishers can get their content in front of relevant audiences.
Though, by comparison, considerably more expensive than Google (on a per-click basis), Twitter can nevertheless be a valuable tool in a publisher’s promotional bag-of-tricks. It is especially useful when a marquee or evergreen piece of content is at the center of a campaign. Marketers can easily serve up ads to audience categories that are known to be attracted to a particular topic.
(If you’re not on Twitter already, it’s high time you open an account. Then keep an eye out for ads – aka promoted tweets – from the New York Times, which has been particularly aggressive on the social network in recent weeks – along with the usual suspects Fidelity Investments, Starz, and Uber.)
Not typically considered as “advertising”, as apress releases can serve in a variety of roles:
To strengthen a particular content asset’s performance in the search engines (when aligned with a particular keyword(s) strategy)
Expand a content asset’s reach among secondary and tertiary target audience groups – such as other media outlets, which takes their cues from others, and pursue “me-too” stories
To legitimize a topic or subject, vis-a-vis the vetting methodology and reputation of highly regarded wire services
Keys to Success
Regardless of the techniques used to get eyeballs to a content asset or publishing property, a variety of baseline tactics need to be employed in order to maximize ROI on the money you spent to the get them there. These include:
Front-and-center conversions. Make it easy for site visitors to follow your social media properties, sign up for newsletters, and give you permission to engage with them over the long term. The ultimate goal is to gain a new subscriber, of course, but there are lots of interim, nurturing steps that need to be formidable to help convince suspects and prospects of your value.
Accommodate Google’s Best Practices. That means make sure your website downloads fast and secure, and is in line with the Google Accelerated Mobile Pages (AMP) project. These accommodations lead to better search engine result placement, and more traffic. (When in doubt, look at properties like NYTimes.com and BusinessInsider.com for best practice guidance. And remember, we don’t need to respect the content, just the promotional tactics.)
Give Them An Offer They Can’t Refuse. Digitally-enable offers that you’ve been using for years via direct mail or at industry conferences: three months for one dollar, two years for the price of one, etc. Digital advertising, when done correctly, practically guarantees that your ads are being seen by like-minded individuals. Use what’s worked offline to convert passive online audiences into paying subscribers.
When employed strategically, online advertising can play a meaningful role in a publisher’s audience expansion plans. When combined with compelling content and baseline digital marketing best practices, internet advertising can help publishers find new paying audience groups and expand their footprints in a meaningful way.
While the digital publishing world seems enamored with direct reader revenue lately, here’s a quick reminder that it is difficult to ask people to pay for something that used to be free. And there are a lot of decisions that go into setting up a successful program such as determining the threshold for a free article limit, deciding on a call-to-action, and identifying the right people at the right time.
We wanted to understand the existing subscription model landscape, so we analyzed 1,870 domains in the Parse.ly network. Just under one third (29%) use some type of paywall. The majority of those use some type of membership paywall or a metered/partial paywall. And barely 2% of our entire network deploy a full paywall.
If you’re considering moving from that 71% group into the reader revenue group, you probably have a number of questions, starting with: is this the right move? Other big things to consider include: Who should be seeing your call to action? And what’s the ideal “free article” limit?
Parse.ly’s Head of Audience Development Solutions, Kelsey Arendt, encourages clients to find the answers in data for these three questions when evaluating which paywall method makes the most sense for your site.
What subset of my audience are “super-users”?
Super-users are your most consistent and reliable audience. They appreciate your content and they trust you. That makes the valuable as a target group for a paywall call-to-action and as an exclusive audience for premium advertising partners or for VIP offers.
Selecting the right paywall method hinges on an understanding of audience loyalty distribution. To determine whether you have a sufficiently-monetizable subset of loyal superusers, ask yourself:
How often do my visitors read?
How engaged are they each time they visit?
Reader frequency and article engagement help you decide what the cut-off for your call-to-action to subscribe should be, whether it’s a paywall after five free articles or 10.
To illustrate this, we took a look at a sample of aggregated data from the Parse.ly network. Seventy percent of the audience to these sites visit a single website four times or less per month. They also read less than 10 articles per month. Said another way, those readers would not be affected at all if a site implemented a metered-paywall with a limit of 10 free articles a month.
The promising opportunity lies with the other 30%. Take one of the smallest groups, the 3% of the audience who visit a single website nine times per month or more. This loyal group can, and should, be identified if they are the ones who are most likely to convert into subscribers.
Imagine a moment when you walk into your favorite store, the one you go to all the time and where they know you. If someone tells you that they have something special for you, you tend to trust them and consider their offer. Audiences that have made it to that “circle of trust” for your site, might be more receptive to the idea of a paid membership model, thus increasing your chance of converting them.
What content belongs behind a paywall?
Another way of asking this question is: What content resonates with your super-users? To find out, consider the sections or topics your most loyal audience already loves. Figure out what your most loyal audiences pay the most attention to and consider making one of your premium offerings.
Measuring total engaged time reveals the content that resonates the most with readers. Total engaged minutes encompasses both breadth and depth. The team at Slate focuses on engaged time for exactly this reason.
Am I adding value for my readers?
While you have to examine the data behind the potential audience and what they’re most interested in, you should also ask yourself what else you can offer them.
The reason why readers subscribe will always come down to your unique voice and your brand. But as much as people like your content, they also value their time. So, any moment with them must either add value to their life or come at the right time.
There are so many ways to add value to a membership or subscription model. A few that have been explored: exclusive benefits, an ad-free experience, discounted events, direct input into editorial, or VIP access. But don’t limit yourself to what you’ve seen. Maybe your audience would sign up in exchange for a book of coupons to local stores or for an exclusive app download that made them more efficient with their time.
Ask not what your readers can do for you—ask what you can do for your readers.
Paywalls: Not always the perfect solution
At the end of the day, if you want your readers to pay attention to your work, you need to pay attention to their needs and interests. Data can help you understand whether a subscription model might work, and how to get your subscription offer in front of the right people at the right time.
And what if the data shows that paywalls don’t make sense? Paywalls, meters, and memberships are just a few methods of monetization. Even if you can successfully monetize that 3% of super-users, you’ll still need to explore other revenue options.
The other 97% of your audience can still help you generate other types of revenue, like native advertising, merchandise, or advertising. And of course, data can help you find opportunities for those options too.
It’s essential for publishers to understand the different pathways to subscriptions to deliver value and engagement to consumers in the process. In new research, “Paths to Subscription: Why Recent Subscribers Chose to Pay for News,” the Media Insight Project—a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research—surveyed more than 4,100 recent newspaper subscribers to understand their motives and mindsets at the time of the decision-making. The report identifies nine distinct paths from reader to subscriber. (Some individual subscribers may fit into more than one group.)
The nine paths from reader to subscriber:
1. Digital Paywall Converters (21% of total respondents) buy a digital subscription for its unlimited access. They subscribe because they like to read interesting articles and want to support local journalism. Digital Paywall Converters tend to be younger, male, educated, have higher income, and are Democrat.
Digital Paywall Converters are twice as likely to subscribe to large metro newspapers compared to other subscribers. They like to share content and are more likely than other subscribers to use the paper’s mobile app and access articles through search engines. They are a digitally driven user segment. Nine in 10 Digital Paywall Converters (86%) state that their favorite benefit of their subscription is unlimited access to online content
2. Topic Hunters (23% of total respondents) are motivated to subscribe because of local politics and/or local sports (college or high school). They tend to be well educated and favor the digital experience. They often convert to subscribing because they are very engaged and hit a paywall meter limit.
Since Topic Hunters tend to be more digital, the best time to convert these readers to paying subscribers is when they are online. Using analytical tools (e.g. API’s Metrics for News) to track readers by topic is helpful in the conversion process. Newsletters can also be useful to engage readers around their interest areas and can help lead to paid subscriptions.
3. Locally Engaged subscribers (18% of total respondents) are interested in content about the community. They like being engaged and informed locally. They report that access to local news and politics are the major reasons they subscribe to newspapers. These subscribers are “news junkies,” especially about where they live, and want the news regardless of a discounted sale. The Locally Engaged are an important segment for smaller publications. Nearly half of the Locally Engaged subscribe to a small or medium-sized paper. Further, the Locally Engaged are more likely than other subscribers to value the accuracy and reliability of the news publication.
News alerts and email newsletters on local government, neighborhood, and other local civic topics are goods ways to attract and engage these subscribers.
4. Social Media-Mobile Discoverers (19% of total respondents) are subscribers who engage socially and use their mobile to access newspapers. They are very active with newspapers through news alerts, following journalists on social media and by sharing content.
Once they reach their metered limit, this segment (25%) is motivated to subscribe, particularly if they receive a promotional offer for unlimited articles. It’s important for publishers to consider mobile and social as two important paths to discover this segment of young readers.
Social Media-Mobile Discoverers tend to skew slightly female (53% vs. 46%), are much younger (51% are under the age of 60 vs. 28% of other subscribers) and are likely to be Democrats.
5. Journalism Advocates (24% of total respondents) subscribe to newspaper to support journalism. This segment values supporting news publishers and also likes to keep political leaders in check. Most Journalism Advocates identify themselves as Democrats. They are more likely than other subscribers to have a college degree (76% vs. 64%) and are also younger (40% under age 60 vs. 30%).
Journalism Advocates are much more likely than other subscribers to mention they were attracted to subscribe because they witnessed attacks on the news media (25% vs. 2%) and because of they saw messaging to support local journalism (23% vs. 1%).
6. Life Changers (16% of total respondents) subscribe because of a transition in their life, be it a move or new job. For Life Changers, a subscription is not based on the editorial or marketing offer of the newspaper. Life Changers highly value local news and want to support local journalism. This segment is likely to prefer the print access over digital.
To target Life Changers, publishers should find readers who are new to the area, recent graduates, retirees or transplants. They should seek partnerships with local organizations or groups, such as realtors, colleges, or employers, to offer discounted subscriptions. Life Changers and Locally Engaged both have an affinity for following local news.
7. Coupon Clippers (12% of total respondents) subscribe to newspapers because of the value of the discounted offer. Discounts and promotions motivate Coupon Clippers to subscribe. This group is more likely to be women, identify as Republicans or independents, have less education and lower incomes, live in the suburbs and prefers print.
8. Print Fans (16% of total respondents) like the experience of reading a printed newspaper. They are big fans of print home delivery. While they also use a newspapers’ digital app, they like to start their day with a hard copy of the news. The majority of Print Fans are female and more than half live in the suburbs.
This segment is very interested in gaining access to exclusive content that is available only to those who subscribe to both print and digital.
9. Friends and Family (15% of total respondents) subscribe because they see it as a way to connect with loved ones. The paper is an extension of their social lives. It’s what they talk about over dinner or in a telephone conversation. Local news is important to Friends and Family but current events and other topics (lifestyle, sports, etc.) are also important. Friends and Family tend to skew heavily female compared with other subscribers (60% vs. 45%), be Democrats (61% vs. 48 of other subscribers) and are slightly more urban (36% vs. 27%).
Publishers should think about testing “refer a friend” programs, where subscribers can refer friends or family to receive a discount or as a gift. Publishers should also offer discounts and benefits to those who refer new subscribers.
Consumers interact with a newspaper and its journalists in many ways before subscribing. It’s important for publishers to study these interactions and identify the moments of engagement. Identifying these moments along with important background factors are strong targeting opportunities to add subscribers.
Recent research from DCN shows that major tech platforms have brought very little in the way of revenues to publishers. Distributed content from Google and Facebook only amounts to five percent of the total average digital revenue for publishers. So how can the platforms turn that around and improve on those numbers? By helping drive subscriptions and conversions for paid products.
Last June, I called out Facebook and Google on this very point. Driving subscriptions would be a win for publishers who need more revenues, and for the tech platforms which need a way to build trust, support the news ecosystem and generate positive press in these times of bots, misinformation and election meddling.
The good news is that both Facebook and Google are now taking clear steps to help drive subscriptions for publishers. Facebook will take a 0% cut on subscriptions they drive through their app on Android and Apple devices, while launching a new Local News Subscription Accelerator. And Google has upped the ante with plans to help publishers identify potential subscribers by sharing more data. The bad news is that there is a long road ahead to making these initiatives work.
Facebook Makes Peace with Apple, Launches Accelerator
Facebook’s News Feed tweaks — most recently, to downgrade publishers’ posts in favor of content from friends and family — have long influenced the kinds of stories Facebook users see. Because people are used to the free-flowing nature of news in the Facebook News Feed, the social giant had been loath to introduce friction.
But after mounting criticism, Facebook has been developing ways to drive subscriptions from its app. And best of all, its support for paywalls will not include taking a cut of revenues from publishers. Instead, Facebook will show users five free articles and then direct them to the paywall on the publishers’ site. That means 100% of subscription revenue goes to publishers – and they get to keep all the data about users as well.
It wasn’t an easy task to pull off on iOS, because Apple is notoriously stubborn about waiving the 30% “Apple tax” it takes from any monetary transactions in apps. But after some tough-knuckled negotiation, Facebook’s Campbell Brown announced at the Code Media confab that Apple caved in and would waive the fee.
Not only that, but Facebook also recently announced a Local News Subscription Accelerator with 12 metro dailies getting training support for a three-month trial. It’s nice that the social giant is putting $3 million into the effort, and partnering with the Lenfest Institute. The big question is whether that work will scale to help more publishers.
Google Leading the Way So Far
While Facebook has made a lot of progress lately, Google, in comparison, has been more consistently friendly to publishers: At the recent Digital News Initiative summit in Amsterdam, for example, Google announced it would help identify which kinds of users would be attracted to which publications. The company also said it would ease the process of subscribing within Google. It also plans offer users a tailored search experience based on their subscriptions. This push to support subscriptions is one that Google has been working on for over a year. At the International Paid Content Summit in Berlin, publishers also touted Google’s efforts in distributing digital subscriptions. A survey among summit participants revealed Google shows much more “cooperative behavior” than Facebook.
Google also recently surpassed Facebook as the internet’s top referral source for publishers, a status that takes on significance for both Google and publishers given Facebook’s decision to de-emphasize news. A friendlier Google in the midst of News Feed shifts can help offset what publishers might lose with Facebook’s algorithmic changes. Coupled with access to Google’s coveted data insights — which publishers want and Google controls — working the publisher-Google relationship is indeed enticing for both parties. If Google wants to win favor with publishers, now is as good a time as ever.
Sharing the Wealth
Ultimately, though, whether Google or Facebook will do better in driving subscriptions is not as important for publishers as whether the two will really commit to the process. Because Facebook and Google together account for such a huge chunk of the attention for internet users, publishers must stay focused on working with both of them, along with other players like Twitter, Snapchat and LinkedIn.
It’s surely a positive that both Facebook and Google are taking big steps in driving subscriptions, and perhaps their rivalry could help push them even more. And while they surely dominate in online advertising, it’s incumbent upon them to make sure the news ecosystem is healthy and thriving. If digital ads are getting sucked up by the duopoly and subscriptions are becoming an important source of revenues for publishers (both for-profit and non-profit), then publishers will need to insist on better data, better leads, and a transparent funnel that helps them survive and thrive.
Historically, newspapers successfully employed a revenue model of print advertising and home delivery subscriptions. Unfortunately, this dual-revenue strategy is no longer a viable method to keep newspapers afloat. Digital advertising is dominated by two players – Facebook and Google – and most local news has failed to attract the subscription success enjoyed by publications with a national, or even international, audience like The New York Times and Financial Times.
In a new analysis, “Experiments and future models for digital news subscriptions,” the American Press Institute examines digital newspaper subscriptions in the U.S. to understand subscription costs and strategies. The research assesses subscription pricing by evaluating market size, circulation, and newspaper ownership. It’s important to note that digital content access includes but is not limited to websites, mobile applications, print newspaper copies, or e-editions. The results are based on 100 U.S.-based legacy newspapers; each based in one of Nielsen’s 100 largest designated market areas (DMA).
The median weekly price is $2.31 or $10 per month and $120 per year for a digital news subscription. Most subscriptions fall between $1 and $3 per week.
The new median weekly price of $2.31 is 83% higher ($1.05 more per week) than what was reported in the 2012 Reynolds Journalism Institute research. The median weekly price is also 221% higher ($1.59 more per week) than respondents stated they were willing to pay in the same Reynolds Journalism Institute research.
Four key factors in setting digital subscription pricing include market testing, corporate set price, industry norms and competitor pricing.
Market size and circulation do not show a correlation to subscription price. However, ownership does, as prices are often standardized across some companies’ media properties.
Discounted trial subscriptions result in higher conversion rates than do free trial subscriptions. It appears that some sort of initial payment information entry is helpful in converting discounted trials to paid subscriptions.
Subscriptions offer include an array of perks from access to comments and fewer advertisements to improved browsing experiences and rewards programs. There are also offerings that include “insider-only” perks such as newsroom tours, movie screenings and exclusive giveaways. Partnerships offerings are also popular. The Washington Post partners with Hulu to offer combined digital access to The Post and Hulu for $99 a year. The New York Times has a partnership with Spotify Premium for combined access for $203.88 for the year.
After news publishers capture the most loyal readers willing to pay for digital access, they need to secure the next segment of users who are not as easily convinced. This is when consumers need to be actively and individually converted to pay for a digital subscription. News organization must continually test new and unique offerings to attract new subscribers.
Strategies for differentiating their premium news and entertainment companies in an environment of disruption, trust issues, and monetization challenges were the focus of the annual closed-door members-only Digital Content Next (DCN) Summit held Feb. 8-9 in Miami, Florida.
DCN CEO Jason Kint updated attendees on consumer privacy, net neutrality, and press freedom policy initiatives. He said that pressure on platforms will increase this year and that advertisers will seek greater transparency. Kint cited findings from DCN’s new Distributed Content Revenue Benchmark Report, which found that publishers only garner 5% of their revenue from social platforms. However, he also touched upon the growth in paid content, on-demand video, and promising signs of sustainable advertising models.
For the digital media industry, Trust has reached a crisis level, Kint said. He and other speakers throughout the event pointed to the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, which reveals a low consumer perception of the media, platforms, and advertisers—particularly around digital.
An absence of trust has been a driving factor toward regulatory scrutiny in the U.S. and abroad. It has also profoundly affected digital advertising, one of the mainstays of the industry. Kint applauded DCN members for embracing DCN’s new tool for rebuilding trust: TrustX. The cooperative private programmatic marketplace serves as a collaboration platform for marketers and publishers to create innovative advertising solutions that drive measurable value and improve the consumer experience with confidence and safety at scale.
Kint was far from alone in extolling the importance of trust in the digital content marketplace, however. Fatemeh Khatibloo, principal analyst at Forrester Research cited the building blocks for trust, which include integrity, competence, transparency, privacy, and data security.
David Sable, Global Chief Executive Officer, Y&R, noted that trusted brands employ honesty, environmental sustainability, and kindness. He also pointed out that millennials are keen to identify trusted news sources. Building trust starts early, according to Sean Cohen, president, International and Digital Media, A+E Networks, citing how brands such as the History Channel have become a trusted source for students.
While Edelman’s barometer noted a five-point jump in trust of journalists, a social media-weaponized world has given way to readers and viewers expressing anger, often anonymously and without consequences, as vividly reported by a panel of journalists— Arianna Davis of Refinery29, Jorge Ramos of Noticiero Univision, CNN’s Brian Stelter, and Katy Tur of MSNBC Live.
Brand Quality and Context
People won’t pay for brands that don’t focus on quality, noted Andrew Essex, former CEO of Tribeca Enterprises and Droga5 [pictured, top]. Quartz President and Publisher Jay Lauf also emphasized value-based selling over commodified volume selling.
Context is critical, he said, adding that marketers “are terrified” about ads appearing on an exploitive YouTube video or inadvertently funding fake news on Facebook. And Hearts & Science research on negative reach confirms advertising appearing next to content a consumer finds offensive does more harm than good according to the agency’s president Zak Treuhaft.
And, in a world dominated by memes and disembodied news delivered via social platforms, “Context is king,” according to Sean Cohan, President, International and Digital Media, A+E Networks. For example, he pointed to the History brand’s increased emphasis on providing a larger historical context for today’s news, such as the history of sports figures’ involvement in political protests.
Disruption and Opportunity
Disruption has led to a competitive marketplace imbalance as DCN member companies try to transform their business models, as Kint noted. At the same time, disruptive technologies, such as voice assistants, can create significant opportunities.
Loren Mayor, COO, NPR, spoke of the station’s mission to connect with people through storytelling journalism and is using on-demand audio and podcasting to enhance audience growth and engagement.
Smarter use of data and respectful personalization were subjects that came up in a number of conversations and presentations. More-informed data will help drive value, according to Lou Paskalis, SVP, Enterprise Media Planning, Investment and Measurement Executive, Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
Marcus East, EVP, Product & Technology/CTO, National Geographic, said that successful brands create personalized experiences and help consumers save time and money, create emotional connections, offer life-changing elements, and promote positive social impact.
That said, in today’s uncertain digital environment, the hallmarks of reputable journalism have reemerged as critical for consumer trust and attention. Michael Anastasi, VP News, USA Today Network, Tennessee pointed to importance of the Indianapolis Star’s investigative coverage of U.S. Olympic gymnastics doctor Dr. Larry Nassar, which stands out in a time of local news outlets’ survival uncertainties.
Anastasi said that USA Today leverages its local/national symbiosis on to inform some of its stories. He cited the brand’s coverage of the opioid crisis across all platforms—and with national, local, and individual ramifications. The comprehensive coverage was made possible through a sponsorship from BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee.
In addressing financial sustainability in non-profit journalism, ProPublica President Richard Tofel noted significant growth in donation-based revenues since the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The non-profit model seems to be working for ProPublica as Tofel said that they launched with a staff of 25 nine and a half years ago and now number more than 100.
Diversification and Monetization
Unsurprisingly, revenue was a key topic at the Summit. And while advertising remains a critical focus, diversification was a dominant theme. In all aspects of monetization, good consumer experience and engagement were essential. As Ed Davis, EVP & CPO Advertising Products, Fox Networks Group put it: “Attention is currency.”
Maggie McLean Suniewick, President, NBCUniversal Digital Enterprises, showed off the many ways the company’s Olympic coverage is tapping into a wide range of platforms to engage target audiences wherever they might be. Bloomberg Media’s initiatives include global partnerships that help it transcend the competitive U.S. market according to Scott Havens, Global Head of Digital, Bloomberg Media. And The Washington Post has launched 15 products specifically designed to engage consumer interaction according to Jarrod Dicker, The Post’s VP of Innovation and Commercial.
The History Channel is leaning into new platforms and partners with The New York Times on stories and photo spreads. Sean Cohan, President, International and Digital Media, A+E Networks said that the company is seeing doubled social engagement, significant newsletter interest, and substantial boosts in YouTube video revenues.
Marty Moe, Vox Media President, said his company focuses on finding ways to grow quality, scale, and audience across its eight brands while retaining relevancy on each platform. However, diversification brings challenges such as tracking and measuring performance on multiple platforms, noted Christy Tanner, EVP & GM, CBS News Digital CBS interactive.
Dr. Jens Mueffelmann, CEO, Axel Springer Digital Ventures GmbH, President, Axel Springer USA, said his company’s success in global acquisitions is based on later-stage investment, development and partnership. While its successful classified ad profits have stunned critics, Mueffelmann urged companies to “stay paranoid” and continue to keep a close eye on emerging digital technologies and players.
On the heels of the news that The New York Times added 157,000 digital subscriptions in the 2017 fourth quarter, pushing its subscription revenues – which comprise 60% of overall revenues – to more than $1 billion, COO Meredith Kopit Levien encouraged everyone to get into the subscription business. It’s important to understand what drives subscribers, she said. For The New York Times, it’s the resources to create better original content, including 250 daily stories, a popular crossword puzzle and a cooking app, she said, noting “our strength is as a brand.”
While challenges in trust, brand quality, disruption and diversification continue to throw roadblocks up in the news and entertainment industry, Kint emphasized that for DCN members, there is strength in numbers, citing The New York Times’ subscription victory as a victory for all DCN members because of what it symbolizes for the industry.
At the core, DCN members are focusing on what they do best and continue to innovate and experiment in order to best serve audiences.
“All of our members have a direct and trusted relationship with your audience and with your advertisers,” Kint told the packed conference room. “They come to your brands because they know what they’re going to get when they give you their valued attention or valued advertising dollars.”
We live in interesting times. And they will only get more interesting if the past year is any guide to what’s ahead. With Donald Trump in office and “fake news” becoming the new “f-word,” there’s a lot to mull in the coming year for publishers. Beyond politics, 2017 was a tough year for those who pivoted to video without a solid strategy, and the “duopoly” of Facebook and Google gobbled up more digital advertising, even as they helped publishers on other fronts. And newer technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain are going from “good to know” to “need to know.”
Now that the year is coming to an end, let’s look ahead at how the past year’s biggest trends will influence the digital media business in the year ahead.
1. Power of Subscriptions as Trump Bump Continues
By the end of 2016, increased readership and donations to the likes of the New York Times and ProPublica suggested that partisan politics and the non-stop news cycle, for all its distress, were at least helping the bottom line of news publishers. While some subscription-driven and membership-based publications saw a leveling off of that by the middle of the year, it seems helpful to take a macroscopic view of this trend rather than a quick snapshot: The New York Times recently announced that it has more than 3.5 million subscriptions and more than 130 million monthly readers. That’s more than double the audience it had two years prior. While the Gray Lady’s boost can’t speak for everyone — local news still struggles, for example — it suggests that audiences are becoming more used to the fact that they ought to pay for premium content. With AI also becoming more efficient, and Google and Facebook both making efforts to support subscriptions, expect that technological help, including better personalized targeting and performance measuring, will help boost subscriptions and donations even more.
2. Pivot to Reality
For all the hype surrounding pivoting to video, not everyone who invested in the strategy saw its benefits. Perhaps most jarring was Mashable’s fire sale for $50 million. Given Mashable’s $250 million valuation just last year, the sale price serves as a dire warning to other digital darlings. Mashable is now poised to lay off more employees (last year, investment in video justified a round of high-profile layoffs) as it refocuses its brand yet again. BuzzFeed too, has announced layoffs of about 100 employees after revealing it missed its 2017 revenue targets. Vice Media is also expected to miss its revenue target by more than $800 million this year. CNN Digital announced 2017 brought in its highest revenues ever at $370 million —but it faces a $20 million budget shortfall. And let’s not forget the abrupt closure of DNAInfo and Gothamist.
Factoring in that Google and Facebook continue to gobble up digital advertising revenue, many publishers need to diversify revenue streams fast. Digital darlings like BuzzFeed and Vice, not to mention smaller publishers, will have to think beyond native ads. Perhaps the best strategy, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson put it, is not to pivot to video or pivot to VC money, but to pivot to readers.
3. A Shifting Regulatory Environment
Net neutrality, that on-again off-again issue, is officially back on after Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, pushed a proposal to repeal it. Even with the announcement that more than a million of the comments submitted to the FCC were fake, the outcome of the net neutrality vote isn’t in doubt as Republicans control the Commission. The new regulatory environment would be a bust for streaming video publishers like Netflix and Amazon Video, and a boon for publishers under the umbrella of the larger telecom companies that will benefit, including AOL, HuffPost, and NBCUniversal. Meanwhile, the AT&T and Time Warner merger — which the U.S. government is trying to block — would inevitably boost HBO, CNN, and TBS if it goes through.
What this amounts to is a huge upending for independent publishers and small businesses used to an even playing field, and the potential bundling of subscriptions and promotions would favor the larger ISPs and telecom companies. Meanwhile, Congress’ clampdown on the technology industry suggests that regulation may also be coming for major tech companies. With opposition on all sides of the regulation debate, expect a topsy-turvy cycle of enforcement — and resistance — in the year ahead.
4. Leveraging AI
Artificial intelligence is often talked about, but little understood. Expect 2018 to be the year publishers take heavier stock in what it can mean for them. Publishers have already turned toward programmatic advertising, and programmatic video has a huge potential to deliver advertising boosts. However, that doesn’t mean publishers can turn a blind eye on issues like ad tech fraud, high programmatic fees, and lack of vendor transparency. Leveraging AI will mean investing more time in quality control.
And while it is the root of many fears, AI doesn’t necessarily mean the complete displacement of humans. Rather, working AI to your advantage can free humans up to do tasks that require much more nuanced attention. Utilizing AI to deliver more meaningful analytics that can help automate repetitive tasks for publishers like social media distribution, for example, or more personalized ad and news targeting, is one way publishers can redirect their energies and consider AI as an aid rather than a threat.
5. The Rise of Audio and Voice
If you’ve visited the websites of The New Yorker or The Atlantic lately, you may have noticed options to “listen” to digital stories. Will others follow? Given the attention on the voice — think of the popularity of podcasts and the mainstreaming and price drops of home speakers like Google Home and Alexa — expect voice-command gear, and more options to listen, to take center stage in 2018.
There’s been a push by tech companies to move into audio, with Google buying the audio curation app 60dB, and Apple recently buying the audio search platform Audiosear.ch and the music recognition app Shazam. Audio publishers are bound to get a huge boost if Google surfaces playable audio clips in its news results, for example. And while some voice-command software may get a lot of flack for “eavesdropping,” the threat to user privacy is likely overblown. With all the new options to listen to voices and startups like Trint and Descript focused on automatic transcription of these voices (which can serve as huge tools for publishers), 2018 may just be the year of the voice.
6. Brand Safety Issues
Brand safety was a huge watchword this year, from fake Russian accounts on Facebook to the discovery Google helped advertisers target people searching racist search terms, to the more recent revelations that YouTubers were reaping huge financial benefits from posting disturbing footage of children. You can expect Facebook, Google, and other platforms to be under the microscope even more in 2018. While many publishers can crow about creating safe curated spaces for advertisers, they too need to watch out for problematic issues when using programmatic ads.
7. The Battle Against Fake News Continues…
The battle against fake news and the filter bubble on platforms may have felt like it reached fever pitch in 2017, but as the weaponization of social media around the world shows, it’s a topic that’s here to stay, especially with the 2018 mid-term elections on the horizon. Google struggles to separate rumor from fact during breaking news, Facebook is at the center of a Rohingya massacre in Myanmar, and the Philippines’ right-wing president Rodrigo Duterte has also been using the platform to undermine opponents — including human rights activists and publishers who leverage Facebook as their main medium of distribution. Plus, Russia’s utilization of “social bots” to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election is the precise reason Google, Facebook, and Twitter had to testify before Congress. With Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that the Access Hollywood audio in which he bragged about sexual assault was fake, expect more scrutiny on fake news in audio and video. The battle is only beginning.
8. The Power of Blockchain
The recent attention on the skyrocketing valuation of Bitcoin may have raised people’s FOMO quotient, but the attention on the technology behind it — blockchain — could have a huge influence on publishers and advertisers. Not only can this cryptocurrency technology allow for efficient monetization of content, but as Daniel Newman writes in Forbes, it has the power to help curtail ongoing issues with ad targeting. “Because the chain is transparent and encrypted, companies can easily determine if the people viewing their ads are members of their targeted audience—or not—saving millions in ad spend each year,” Newman wrote.
Indeed, there are a myriad of ways marketers can leverage blockchain. Publishers too can reap the benefits. A new startup called Civil, for example, looks to leverage blockchain to create a journalism platform free from fake news, advertising and outside influence. Blockchain also has journalists talking about its potential impact on news publishing.
For all its potential, though, blockchain remains confusing to many people, so you can expect a lot of explainers in the new year as interest increases.
It’s been a rough 2017 in many ways, and change is such a constant that it has become a way of life in digital publishing. But we can be sure that as digital advertising has surpassed TV ads for the first time that digital has stopped becoming the “other,” the “nerds in the corner” and has now become the center of publishing. So rather than pout and complain in 2018, it’s time to buckle up, sharpen our focus on new tech, new techniques, and new collaborations and partnerships, so we can make the most of this wild ride.
The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, LA Times, and others continue to report increases in subscriptions. Undoubtedly, this is a trend that media organizations of all types would like to get in on. It is helpful, then, to understand who these subscribers are as well as why are they willing to pay for their news. A new study, The 3 types of news subscribers: Why they pay and how to convert them, from The American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs identifies the emotional and behavioral factors that affect consumers’ news subscription decisions. The research methodology included the use of in-depth interviews to uncover the values and motivations key to subscription habits.
Three types of subscribers (and how to attract them):
1. Civically Committed: those individuals supporting goals and initiatives that reflect their personal values. The Civically Committed subscribe to a higher-than-average number of subscriptions.
High willingness to pay for news content.
Views their support of journalism as a moral duty.
Subscription decisions are more emotional than practical.
Subscribes to a higher-than-average number of publications.
Prioritizes organizations whose goals and values align with their own.
High loyalty; likely to pay for subscriptions even if they aren’t using them.
Low price sensitivity.
Likely a news organization member, or donor.
Subscribes and donates to multiple news sources.
Likely donates to other causes and/or volunteers.
Strategies to attract
Publicize the news brand’s mission, values and community role. Ensure the brand’s mission and agenda is public. The Civically Committed support news organization aligned with their thinking.
Partner with civic-minded organizations and brands. Affiliate with causes the Civically Committed are already involved in and become part of their community.
Create events where they can meet journalists and get to know one another.
Reward them with appreciation. The Civically Committed see their subscription as an extension of themselves. Remember to thank them and be personal.
Allow them to donate to a news publication by adding a philanthropic relationship to their subscription. The Civically Committed want to support journalism.
2. Thrifty Transactors: consumers who pay for no-nonsense value and are highly selective in their subscriptions.
Moderate willingness to pay for news content.
News subscriptions are a combination of utility and relevance.
Price sensitive; needs to have high value.
Loyal to a small, highly curated number of publications.
Specific reasons for subscription such as part of a daily ritual.
Subscribers usually have at least one publication related to hobby or special interest.
Fans of coupon clipping.
May rely on a news publication for its coverage of one topic (look for digital users with high engagement in one area).
Strategies to attract
Provide excellence and ensure content stands out as high value and unique. Thrifty Transactors look to dedicated sources for items that really matter to them. Find these subject areas and serve the Thrifty Transactors.
Consider offering subscriptions by verticals or specialty areas. Thrifty Transactors only want to pay for the content they use so make sure they know the details of the publication’s reporting areas.
Think of magazine marketing partnerships to promote subscriptions of like content.
3. Elusive Engagers: generally do not like subscriptions. They see news and information as a commodity that should be free.
Low willingness to pay for news content.
Utility drives subscriptions.
Sees news and information as a commodity.
Not comfortable with transaction and commitment of subscription.
Likes free trials.
Likely to find content through search.
Strategies to attract:
Offer one-time-payment options with no commitment and include easy cancelation policy. It’s important to avoid monthly payment reminders.
Monetize Elusive Engagers outside of subscriptions. Market other products such as books, souvenirs, e-commerce, third-party paid promotions, etc.
The subscriber segments identified in this research are based on behavior, attitudes and beliefs, not demographics. This means an individual’s group will not likely change as they get older. However, further analysis of the segment groups by print and digital usage and demographics are also valuable in establishing marketing and monetization plans. Importantly, pinpoint the key differentiators of the news brand by segments to use in acquisition and renewal strategies.
As Facebook and Google continue to dominate the US digital advertising market — and capture nearly all its growth — digital publishers look to paid content for stable revenue and diversification. Consumer subscription models also provide publishers with a strong consumer touch point, allowing for deeper data and insights for content development and engagement. New Digital Content Next (DCN) proprietary media strategy research, DCN Paid Content Benchmark and Best Practices – Part 1 provides marketplace intelligence on paid content revenues and deal structures to support premium publishers with ongoing efforts to accelerate revenue diversification.
DCN members are actively developing paid content initiatives including direct-to-consumer subscription products and third-party revenue streams for licensed content. The study shows that monetization of distributed content for the first half of 2017 represent an estimated $22.4 million average revenue for the 20 participating DCN member companies. This report encompasses branded SVOD products (e.g. PBS Passport) managed by digital publishing operations, it does not include long-form digital video content through third-party virtual MVPDs (e.g. Hulu Live), SVOD services (e.g. Netflix) and download-to-own channels (e.g. Amazon). These businesses are for the most part run from corporate distribution operations.
One quarter of digital revenue comes from digital content subscriptions, and 27% from paid content overall. It’s important to note that eight companies reported less than 5% of their revenue coming from paid content.
Eighty percent of paid content is comprised of consumer subscription products sold directly by publishers, while the balance is divided between licensing and syndication (11%) and third-party sales of consumer subscription products (9%).
Companies reported an average of 12.3 digital subscription products sold directly to consumers, however after adjusting for the large portfolios of print brands included in the study, the average is 2.9 digital subscription products per company.
Facebook and Google technologies and policies limited publishers’ ability to leverage new audiences sourced through distributed content. Such subscription business models require the control of paywalls, the ability to track and differentiate the experience of repeat visitors, and the capture of data to manage the relationship with subscribers. Facebook and Google’s recent announcements of plans to support publisher digital subscription models with subscription tools and new policies are promising but still at early stages of planning and activation.
DCN identified five best practices publishers developed for successfully managing paid content.
Support commitments to paid content initiatives at the highest levels of top management.
Invest in premium content — including the creation of original content — for direct-to consumer subscription products that inform, educate, enrich, benefit, entertain and thrill consumers to drive subscriptions, high levels of engagement and renewal.
Support direct-to-consumer subscription products with opportunity for growth with investments in dedicated staffing, marketing, and technology and develop disciplined subscription marketing operations to optimize your marketing spend.
Where possible, push for a high level of accommodations from key third-parties – Amazon, Facebook and Google in particular — for subscription content and products. These platforms need to continue to develop policies and tools that provide for the data capture, paywall management and the direct customer relationships required to manage a subscription business.
TV/cable companies should also consider launching strongly branded Subscription Video on Demand (SVOD) services.
While there are many examples of digital subscription success, there are still those publishers who exhibit a cautious yet opportunistic approach. DCN Paid Content Benchmark and Best Practices (which is only available in full to members of DCN) serves as the starting point for additional member research on paid content planned for 2018. Next up is a series of case studies that will dive deeper into the strategies and best practices that are driving success for select DCN member companies.
If 2016 was the year of the platform, 2017 is the year of the subscriber.
Amid a backdrop of political change, wavering trust in government and media, and the rise of fake news, subscriptions are up among the largest U.S. publishers, proving that consumers value high quality journalism. According to Pew Research, the numbers show that in 2016, The New York Times added more than 500,000 digital subscriptions – a 47% year-over-year rise, and The Wall Street Journal added more than 150,000 digital subscriptions, a 23% rise. Even Facebook recently announced that it’s building a feature that would encourage readers to subscribe to news publications, in response to publisher interest.
And this trend isn’t going away. According to WAN-IFRA’s 2017 World Press Trends report, understanding paying commercial models is the number one priority of publishers this year, particularly as audience revenues surpass advertising revenues among global newspapers.
While the industry rightfully focuses on growing new subscribers and experimenting with business models, the discussion should not end there. What we’re not talking enough about is that subscribers are a distinct audience. They engage with your content in a different way and are loyalists in a different way. Understanding these differences is where publishers will build their revenue strategies to take their businesses to the next level.
Subscribers are Unique
No one will pay for content that doesn’t repeatedly engage them.
And what is that link between loyalty and subscriptions? Active engagement. A recent report by the MIT School of Management, Turning Content Viewers Into Subscribers, presented the Subscriber Ladder of Participation as an illustration of reader lifecycle. Rather than thinking of your reader journey in a passive way, it encourages you to build your strategy around action: moving readers from Anonymous to Subscriber by encouraging them to act.
And this active participation is central to Chartbeat as well – our research has shown that analyzing and optimizing the reader experience around engagement patterns as opposed to just empty pageviews drives returning visitors, motivating users to proverbially ascend the ladder towards subscriptions. Subscribers are loyalists who engage with your content in a unique way, and understanding that engagement is key to driving more loyalty.
As Kritsanarat Khunkham from Die Welt put it, “Our whole subscription model is based on returning visitors—they’re essential. You can only turn users to subscribers when they’re returning. I’d rather have 500 returning visitors than 5,000 one-time users. They’re [the ones] who appreciate my work, who trust my brand.”
Besides the simple fact that returning visitors increase ad impressions, they also represent a crucial point in a publisher’s subscription funnel. Every new visitor is a potential subscriber, but — to put it bluntly — no one will pay for content that doesn’t engage them.
Subscribers are Ideal
Once you’ve engaged your subscribing audience, you need to focus on keeping them and getting more. To do this, you need to study how they engage and drive like-behaviors in your loyal/returning audience to turn them into subscribers.
Khunkham notes that often, their consistent eye on data uncovers what topics their audience is truly interested in. This justifies expanding coverage in those areas, often areas they might not have expected. “Sometimes [our audience is] more interested in political news than we expected, and we have such potential for [an audience] who reads seriously,” he says. “When we can prove to [journalists] that readers engage with their meaningful work, it motivates them.”
In other words, publishers need to start thinking about taking their data past the point of conversion. Once a reader has subscribed, are you continuing to dig deeper into their behaviors and deliver the content that they have demonstrated a complex interest in? Discover not only what content your subscriber communities engage with, but think of subscription status as another lens to evaluate all of your editorial strategies — from social media channels and platforms, to devices and portals, and even relationship-building campaigns.
At the end of the day, understanding new visitors and their journey to return is important, but garnering deeper insights around how subscribers engage with your content differently can unlock durable retention and growth strategies for publishers across the board.
Terri Walter, the Chief Marketing Officer of Chartbeat, works every day to ensure that publishers and newsrooms have the tools and insights they need for quality content to thrive. A digital marketing veteran of 20 years, Terri has worked over the course of her career to position high potential brands and spearhead thought leadership in media and analytics at companies including DoubleClick, Razorfish and Microsoft Advertising.