How specialist publishers are adapting – survey

How specialist publishers are adapting

How are specialist publishers adapting to a challenging environment? What sources of revenue are growing? And how will the sector evolve? We surveyed 22 senior leaders in independent media and publishing businesses (both B2B and consumer) to understand how they adapted to the pandemic and the priorities they were setting for 2022. We also explored remote working, tech investments, and the skills they had brought into their businesses. This is what we discovered:

Changes in publishing revenue sources in 2021

  • Digital subscriptions were the most popular revenue source. 86% mentioned digital subs as a source of revenue, and 75% had grown digital subs revenue in the last year. Almost a quarter have set up a digital paywall this year.
  • However, digital display ads are still a source of revenue for over 80%.
  • 70% ran virtual events – although 50% had generated revenue from live events in 2021, so it looks like a mixed economy in events.
  • Print subs and print ads are still an important contributor, and half have grown print subs revenues, but only a third still sell print at the newsstand. A third have reduced print frequency and 20% have closed titles. Unlikely to reverse these moves as we emerge from pandemic…
  • Over half offer marketing solutions – and almost half say they have launched new marketing solutions in the last year.
  • A quarter earn revenues from training and e-learning and a similar number from e-commerce, so there is clearly some experimentation in new business lines.
  • Over a third have launched a digital subscription or membership, and almost as many have launched a digital community, as have launched a podcast.
  • Overall, on average publishers have six different revenue streams, a sensible level of diversification that will make them more resilient in a tough environment.

Plans for 2022

In events, there is a gradual return to live, but virtual is here to stay. Almost 70% plan a return to live events in 2022, while over 60% will also continue with virtual events.

Growing marketing solutions and lead gen is a priority for over 60%.

Almost half plan to launch a digital content paywall, and over half are investigating a premium subscription or membership. Over a quarter plan to launch a digital community, and a handful plan to launch e-learning or training.

Remote or hybrid working?

The pandemic is still impacting how publishing businesses operate. Half still had furloughed staff this year, and almost 20% had made redundancies. 40% have hired remote staff and 27% have ended their office lease. Some plan a “hybrid” office with staff splitting their time between office and home. Only 20% expect to stay fully remote in 2022.

Digital priorities

The future is certainly digital, but what exactly is driving revenue growth? We asked about 2021 growth and priorities for 2022.

In 2021 four digital activities dominated revenue growth:
Digital content subs (62%)
Marketing solutions (48%)
Digital display ads (43%)
Virtual events (38%)

The same four are the focus of growth for 2022:
Digital content subs (81%)
Marketing solutions (64%)
Digital display ads (50%)
Virtual events (40%)

Two other digital revenue sources are of interest to about a quarter: membership propositions and premium digital subscriptions, typically the next step on the ladder for those that already have a digital content paywall.

E-commerce an emerging area of interest

About half are already experimenting with e-commerce, with activity evenly split between taking affiliate commissions and selling own branded merchandise, from bookazines to clothing. Several plan to commercialise research and sell third party products on commission. More interest in e-commerce from consumer publishers, although B2B media owners are looking at one-off paid reports.

Technology investments growing

With the focus on digital revenues, it is not surprising that two thirds of publishers have made major tech investments in 2021.

46% have signed up to a third-party platform (e.g., Piano, Zephr, Affino….)
27% have created an in-house CMS or paywall
23% have hired in-house developers
A few have created an in-house virtual event platform, upgraded analytics and SEO
Publishers split into two camps: those who build in-house and hire their own developers, and those who buy in specialist tech platforms.

Hiring in new skills

Publishing is changing fast, and this group have been actively bringing new skills into their organisations, principally social media, digital marketing, video, audio, and virtual event production. Other in demand skills include developers, sponsorship sales, data science, subscription marketing and digital content creators. Media leaders are hiring more flexibly, using contractors, remote working, and fractional roles to bring in specialist skills without the cost of an FTE.

How will publishing look from 2022 onwards?

There’s a strong interest in digital subscriptions, and the move from free content to paywalls continues.

Virtual events were the story of 2020 and by 2021 most media businesses had developed the skills to run them effectively. The move back to live is already taking place, but virtual events will likely stay part of the mix.

Publishers are increasingly interested in developing new digital marketing solutions and lead generation packages for ad clients.

Those who are already offering digital subs are exploring the next step, from digital communities to premium subs packages and membership propositions.

A growing number are exploring e-commerce, of in-house or third-party products.

Two thirds are investing in technology, either on in-house developers or third-party platforms.

The range of skills required to run a modern media business is expanding and publishers are more than ready to hire in skills as they explore new revenues.

Find out more

This survey was run for members of the Speciall Media Group, a community of over 160 independent media owners that I run on Guild, with an online forum, regular virtual round tables and surveys. It’s free (for now) but invite only – just senior publishers and media owners, no vendors or suppliers. Request to join here.

If you’d like a confidential chat about how your media or publishing business can evolve in future, just get in touch to arrange a real or 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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