Six themes to help publishers thrive in 2021

six themes to help publishers thrive in 2021

How have independent publishers coped in a challenging year?  There’s been tons of innovation and reinventing taking place, judging by the stories shared at the PPA IndPub conference.  I was refreshed and inspired by the energy and ingenuity on show.  I spotted six themes that summed up how to navigate the challenges: with luck they can inspire you too.

1. Championing communities

TTG Media, long established publishers of Travel Trade Gazette, have been at the eye of the Covid storm.  Their readers are travel agents, who saw their business evaporate as lockdowns and travel bans started to bite.  But Editor of TTG, Sophie Griffiths, was undaunted.  TTG had to suspend print editions but saw a sharp traffic spike for their Covid news hub. 

TTG launched free fortnightly online seminars to help their readers save their businesses, with up to 500 attending.  They set up a business support service with expert Q&As, launched a mental health survey, ran a series of social media campaigns to raise awareness of the impact on the sector and signed up 150 suppliers to offer exclusive travel deals via travel agents under the banner of “Holiday to help out.” 

Championing their community has now paid dividends, TTG have a viable revenue stream from virtual events, and their newly launched paid membership scheme is off to a strong start.  The lesson: those media brands who stand up for their communities in a crisis can earn great loyalty.

2. Evolving Events

I interviewed Lynn Lester, MD Events at The Drum.  Their forced switch to virtual events has opened up new international audiences, quality speakers, global awards entries and new sponsorship enquiries.  It has been a steep learning curve in production and technology, and revenues from delegate tickets and table sales have gone.  But once in person events are viable later in 2021, they may keep some virtual.  Another unexpected advantage of virtual events has been the ability to create video content that is valued after the event.

Joel Harrison, Editor of B2B Marketing, told a similar story.  In 2020 they switched two conferences and an awards night to fully virtual and now feel the boundaries between digital events and digital content are blurring.  Event producers, speakers and sponsors have to work harder to hold the attention of audiences, raising standards.  Leaders round tables actually work better and are more accessible as virtual events, so may stay in that format.  And virtual platforms have forced an informality into b2b conferences which is welcome.

3. Subscription sophistication

Many publishers have seen their subscription revenues grow during 2020, and the move towards digital only subscriptions has accelerated.  Simon Hassell at The Stage explained how they have implemented their new metered paywall, and priced print and digital options so both are equally profitable.  The audience insights from the paywall help them target offers to the most receptive segments, and even develop a special rate for students.  With online marketing, payment integration and self-service accounts, an increasing proportion of subscribers are acquired on-site rather than via external email marketing.  And the early days of a new subscriber can be tracked more minutely, predicting later renewal behaviour.

Jo Wood at New Scientist is equally focussed on analytics and reader behaviour.  They are learning how to use social posts, free e-newsletters and even podcasts to drive engaged audiences to subscribe.  All subs bundles now include a digital component, and they are gradually tightening up the number of free articles on the meter. 

Certainly sounds like publishers are getting more sophisticated in understanding how their online readers behave, and what prompts a subscription.

4. Membership moves

Utility Week is a long-established title at indie publisher Faversham House.  Ellen Bennett, Publishing Director, discussed how they have grown memberships.  Events used to dominate revenues, with subs at just 13%.  Covid hit events revenues, prompting a move towards memberships.  Utility Week put up a paywall and reduced the amount of free content. As most of their readers work for large organisations, they developed a corporate licence and put the individual membership price up by 20%.  That confidence in the quality of their content has paid off, with memberships now 30% of revenues, and over half of their core audience taking out corporate licences.

Skift, a recently launched B2B travel publisher, has also switched to a membership proposition.  Skift Pro members have early access to events and exclusive content.  Co-founder Jason Clampet explained that Skift consider the entire member experience, from website to newsletter, events and social media, and refined the product and user experience continually following launch.  Like many publishers, they have experimented on pricing, moving from annual to monthly and now settling on quarterly billing.

5. Commercial creativity

Immediate Media, like most publishers, took a big hit on newsstand and advertising in early 2020, although web traffic spiked.  Duncan Tickell, Chief Revenue Officer, has encouraged his teams to be creative in developing new income streams.  Their Imagine content studio has thrived, creating digital content across video, audio and social for clients and achieving a seven-figure revenue.  Another smart idea is making magazine product reviews visible on Amazon, earning a commission on sales. 

Online masterclasses in crafts, cooking and gardening have been a surprise hit, with readers buying tens of thousands of tickets, and partially mitigating the loss of in person consumer events.  Just shows that there are many new ways to apply editorial skills and market knowledge to develop commercial revenues and provide valuable new services for audiences.

6. Taking care of teams

For many independent publishers, 2020 has hit revenues in commercial and events; some have had to lose staff, and all have had to adjust to remote working.  Mark Sennett from Western Business Media and Sarah Cox of Burlington Media provided candid insights into how they have tackled restructuring, temporary salary cuts, and encouraging creativity among a team working from home.  What is important is to trust the team to manage their time, and also for managers to invest more time to engage with and listen to them.  Given recruitment freezes, they have also had to invest in training to meet skills gaps including virtual event production and digital marketing.

I don’t want to understate the upheaval that indie publishers have faced this year, but I was cheered by the positivity, ingenuity and creative solutions of these businesses.  I hope that these six themes might well inspire you to explore new approaches to your own media business.

If you want to have a chat about how you are developing your media or publishing business for 2021, just get in touch to fix a virtual coffee.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has bought, sold, launched and grown specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events.  A founder of the Specialist Media Show (sold in 2014) she now advises media businesses large and small on their digital strategy through her consultancy Speciall Media.

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