What indie publishers learnt in 2020

While 2020 has been a challenging year for media businesses, we have discovered that in a crisis, we can be inventive and resilient, and develop new business models. These were the findings of a survey of 26 MDs and directors in independent media businesses at the end of the year.

Revenue sources in 2020

Diversity in revenue proved important for business resilience. On average respondents had five or six separate revenue streams in 2020. 80% of the group derived revenue from print and/ or digital display ads. Two thirds generated income from print subs, and slightly more from digital subs. Virtual events, a category that barely existed in 2019, contributed revenue for over 60%, as did marketing solutions for commercial clients. Some live events got out under the wire in the first quarter. A quarter generated revenue from print newsstand, a similar proportion from training and e-learning.

Tough decisions and bold choices

This short survey of leaders in independent media businesses, largely B2B but with a sizeable minority of consumer publishers, reveals a year of tough decisions and also some bold choices. On average, respondents took six listed actions.

  • 70% chose to furlough staff, and 50% made some redundant.
  • Half postponed or cancelled live events, and over 60% switched live events to virtual.
  • About 40% reduced print frequency, and over 30% paused print copies, while 25% closed individual titles.

But amid the gloom, bold business choices were made:

  • Over 60% launched virtual events, over 50% grew subscription revenues.
  • Over 40% hired remote staff, and 15% ended their office lease, signalling a permanent change to working practices.
  • Over 30% launched a podcast, and 50% developed new marketing solutions for clients
  • And three courageous souls (10%) launched a paid subscription product

Challenges and unexpected positives

The overwhelming challenge was the uncertainty, over the media business and that of the clients – planning was difficult.
Several took a major hit to revenues, either from live events, or advertising.
The shift to remote working caused much anxiety: keeping staff focussed and motivated, connected with each other, and providing support and training.
Workloads were exhausting; several mentioned the volume of work created by moving to remote teams and virtual events, as well as the relentless pressure of taking major decisions.

And yet, there were some unexpected positives. Remote teams worked effectively, and rose to the challenge, adapting, innovating and showing resilience. Staff have shown willingness to change practices, that are likely to persist in future. Online audiences have grown, and some were pleasantly surprised at the appetite for digital subscriptions in a professional market in meltdown. Clients and advertisers have supported virtual events, and ad revenue appears to be picking up. One respondent has even launched three titles in 2020!

Plans for 2021

Two thirds are anticipating a return to live events in 2021, although a similar number will continue with virtual events, maybe with a permanent place alongside the in-person variety. 50% plan to launch a high value subscription or membership proposition. Others are looking at new products for ad clients, offering virtual marketing as a service, launching podcasts and video events, or e-learning, or a digital paywall for previously free content. And a couple will restore print editions that were suspended. A third will stay remote, with no office, and one other is downsizing their office.

A few takeaways from a torrid year

• Diversity in revenue is essential for a resilient business, and audiences are prepared to pay for access to high quality digital content.

• The forced move to remote working has challenged business practices – and many business leaders have realised that their teams are very willing to change.

• Commercial clients have found virtual events a useful marketing channel, so they will continue in the mix alongside in person events.

• Adversity has driven experimentation in new services, from podcasts and e-learning to innovative marketing solutions.

Thanks again to the respondents for sharing their experiences. I hope it helps to know that others are facing similar challenges in 2021.

The participants in this survey are members of the Speciall Media Group, an invite-only online community of senior leaders of specialist media businesses. If you are interested in joining this community, get in touch.

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.

Read more about Carolyn

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