10 insights from The Publishing Show
At last, an in-person event for media and publishing leaders after eighteen months of on screen only. At The Publishing Show sixty speakers shared how they have flexed and reinvented their businesses while Covid and lockdown accelerated digital trends. I relished every moment of chairing this event on stage, watching panels bounce ideas around, and encouraging the audience to ask questions directly. If you missed it, there will be video available on demand soon. In the meantime, here are ten insights I took away from the event.
1. Start with your community
Community was a recurring theme. Media start-ups began with a small group of passionate customers and learned what problems they wanted solving. Established publishers gained deeper insights for new content and products from their online communities. Being seen to champion your community, and campaign for change, as TTG Media has in the travel sector, strengthens your brand and builds loyalty. However, communities take time to establish and require authentic, expert, dedicated hosts. The benefit is building all-year-round engagement with your audience, rather than at occasional in person events.
2. Embrace change don’t fight it
When streaming threatened the traditional music industry, their first response was to take legal action. But now, streaming contributes three quarters of their revenue, explained Will Page, former Chief Economist at Spotify and now author of Tarzan Economics. Many publishers have embraced new customer behaviour, switching from in person events to digital, newsstand to subscriptions, print to digital content, and weekly frequency to monthly. Most notable is the move from display ads to e-commerce. In the last decade magazine display ad revenue has halved. Future plc leads the way in e-commerce with 31% of revenues from e-commerce affiliates, matching 32% from digital display ads.
3. Stay flexible on revenue streams
Given the volatility of advertising, and the collapse of in person events, it is now more important than ever for publishers to develop multiple revenue streams. Future is betting heavily on e-commerce, but earns 23% of its revenue from newsstand and subs. TTG Media has launched a paid membership scheme. Indie publisher Singletrack is developing a strong line of branded merchandise for its loyal audience, from caps to watches. Start-ups like Crafty Counsel provide creative studio services to the legal tech sector. There is a noticeable shift towards reader revenue and recurring revenue.
4. Membership connects community and content
If community was the most popular word at the Publishing Show, membership was a close second. Membership connects the quality content that publishers create with an engaged audience. B2B Marketing has replaced its magazine “wrapper” with a content rich community for its paying members, called Propolis. This links B2B marketers to peers and experts who can solve their marketing dilemmas. Info Pro launched the Central Banking Institute, offering benchmarking, online learning, and international peer communities. They traded up individual $10k subscriptions to corporate packages of $40k and more. FT Forums had to adapt its events-led model for the work from home environment. They now offer virtual networking and weekly newsletters, reaching more executives in each member company and strengthening relationships for standard FT subscriptions.
5. Experiment with pricing
Will Page shared the story of Radiohead’s In Rainbows album. The band went direct to their fan base, offering a digital MP3 for free, suggesting users paid what they want. They also produced a deluxe CD box set at £40. Radiohead generated more revenue from this album than their previous three. The moral for publishers is that your most loyal fans will probably pay more for premium items than you might imagine. And it can pay to offer some content for free to expand your reach. Another lesson from the music industry is the move from edition-based pricing (pay £10 to own a single CD or magazine) to access-based pricing (pay £10 a month for access to the entire archive or catalogue).
6. Content is valued
Editors can feel overwhelmed by the range of new media channels: podcasts, video, data journalism, events, online communities. But those well-honed skills in spotting a story and telling if effectively can transfer brilliantly to new formats. And clients also value the insights provided by publishers who know their audience well. Jonathan Bown of Immediate Media shared some excellent case studies of bespoke content campaigns that added value for audiences and delivered client marketing objectives.
7. Virtual events are a catalyst for change
Two years ago, few publishers had much experience in running virtual events beyond the odd client webinar. Now we have a deep understanding of how audiences behave online, and how to develop virtual conference sessions that hold attention and have a life beyond the initial event. Ultima Media has used free virtual event content to build a database and learn about content preferences in the global automotive sector. Awards programmes such as those run by The Drum now reach an international audience, with growth in volume of entry fees in part replacing revenue from table sales.
Virtual events have forced organisers to up their game in crafting engaging sessions with the pace and production values of broadcast TV. Post pandemic, we will see a “mixed economy” with learning-focussed conferences working best on a virtual platform. In person events will need a strong purpose to entice business executives to travel. Ascential’s Money 2020 is bullish about returning to face to face as it is where the big finance deals are done.
8. Go direct to customers
A strongly engaged community can provide the confidence to bypass traditional gatekeepers. After 20 years of nurturing its online community, Singletrack has dropped its newsstand sales – its magazine is now available only on subscription. The FT is wary of participating on platforms like Apple news as it can’t track who is reading its content – preferring to develop direct subscriber relationships.
9. Analyse and optimise subscriptions
Everywhere publishers are investing in subscriptions. The discipline is becoming increasingly analytical. The FT segments its free readers according to propensity to subscribe, making “harder” offers to the most engaged prospects, while offering longer free trials to the less engaged. They also serve tailored marketing offers based on past content consumption, featuring content that matches recent topics of interest.
10. Don’t fear AI – use it to save time
Many journalists are concerned that artificial intelligence (AI) could be used to write articles and substitute their hard acquired skills. But in fact AI struggles with all but very simple writing tasks, and is being used by publishers to save time and cut out tedious, repetitive tasks, freeing teams to work more creatively. Reach plc uses AI to spot new stories and to personalise email newsletters. Boat International uses it to generate listings of boats for sale. CaboodleAI curates specialist news feeds from third party sources. Start-up Culture Trip automates article tagging and also creates instant travel listings from forms submitted by local contributors. Advice from the panel was to avoid building in-house, and instead experiment with third party tools.
How to apply to your publishing business
I’ll be diving into these topics in more depth over the coming months. And you will be able to view many of the panels, interviews, and presentations from The Publishing Show on demand very soon. In the meantime, if you want to discuss any of these ideas in depth and how they might apply to your media or publishing business, do 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.