What are specialist media businesses 2023 priorities? What revenue sources are they focussing on for 2023? And how are they adapting to challenges in the environment?
The Speciall Media Group surveyed leaders in independent publishing businesses and ran a virtual round table to explore key issues. This article shares the top insights and considers how specialist media has changed since the previous year.
Diverse revenue sources and business models
On average publishers have five different sources of revenue. The top three are digital display ads, print ads and live events, which have made a comeback in 2022. Meanwhile virtual events have dropped back from third place to seventh. About half have digital subscriptions and just under half have print subscriptions. Marketing solutions and virtual events remain an important revenue source.
Membership and research were barely mentioned as revenue sources last year. Now they are featuring in about a quarter of publishers’ business models. And publishers are exploring a wide range of other activities, from training and e-learning to job boards, advisory/consultancy and specialist reports.
Business initiatives in 2022
The big story is the return of live events, with 80% running an in-person event last year. Virtual events have not disappeared, although they have dropped back since 2021. Over half of publishers have developed new marketing solutions, continuing the move away from straight digital display advertising.
Half the publishers have grown their digital subscription revenue. A number have launched paid digital subs or put up a free registration wall, continuing a trend towards reader revenues. And experimentation with podcasts and digital communities continues. A steady number have reduced print frequency – not surprising as paper prices spiral.
A noticeable minority are developing digital technology in-house, rather than reply on third party solutions. Most publishers are sticking with the portfolio they have – only one had closed a title and one had launched a new title. Focus appears to be more on developing diverse revenue streams in existing markets around existing brands.
Priorities for 2023
Top of the list for 2023 was adding live events – although a third are also planning to launch new virtual events. Second priority is growing marketing solutions and lead generation. A smart move in niche markets where clients are seeking RoI and value the editorial skills of specialist media brands. Launching a premium subscription or membership – or a digital community – remain popular.
Only a quarter are remaining fully remote (so three quarters are hybrid). There’s lots of experimentation with new business models – e-learning, consultancy, research, reg walls, content paywalls. Other plans include launching voluntary subs and donations and acquiring titles/brands. And a minority are planning to develop in-house technology, supporting the continued transformation of traditional publishers to digital media.
What drives digital revenue growth?
We asked which revenue sources grew fastest in 2022, and expectations for 2023.
For 2022, the top three digital revenue sources were the same as 2021: digital display ads, digital content subs and marketing solutions, but this time display ads have edged ahead of digital content subs. Virtual events play a lesser role (not surprising) and membership propositions are making a stronger contribution. Other digital revenue sources included sponsored emails, promotional newsletters and online knowledge partnerships.
Looking ahead to 2023, a majority believe digital content subscriptions will be the main source of digital revenue growth. Membership propositions have moved up the ranking since last year – with half putting them in the top 3 growth sources. Marketing solutions and lead generation is expected to be another banker. Since last year digital display ads and virtual events have slipped back. New categories include sponsored emails and voluntary subs/ donations.
Which skills are publishers hiring in?
The process of re-skilling publishing and media continues. The top new skill hired in is social media/ digital marketing. Sponsorship sales and subscriptions/ membership have risen up the rankings since last year. Video/audio and virtual event production have slipped down, maybe as these skills are now established. Other specialist roles hired for include analysts/ report writers, data scientists, developers, digital product managers and data journalists. This reflects the continued shift towards digital and producing a more diverse range of content.
What are your biggest strategic challenges and how are you tackling them?
2023 appears an uncertain environment for media: these were the top five themes and challenges mentioned by publishers. And some of the insights shared in the virtual round table.
Economic environment and impact on budgets
The challenge: Many mentioned the impact of reduced demand from advertisers, increasing costs and shrinking margins. The pressure was summed up by one comment “doing more with less.”
How to meet it: Providing greater value for customers to justify price increases and improve retention. Reviewing all discounts. Tilting salary increases to new entrants, while moving senior staff to performance-related pay. Questioning print in the mix – one publisher had closed print but maintained revenues by enhancing digital content.
Creating valuable digital content for subs/membership
The challenge: Multiple mentions of the challenge of finding content that people will pay for and of launching new subscriptions and membership products. Those already with subs and membership are focussed on retention and growth.
How to meet it: Continual small improvements in features, UX and content, so that at renewal, customers will remain even if prices go up.
Maintaining ad revenues
The challenge: Advertisers will need clear RoI in an uncertain economic environment, and more account management. Print ads remain challenged, but publishers can see opportunities in digital.
How to meet it: Provide evidence of the quality of audience and leads. Trade clients up from digital display to marketing solutions and lead gen.
People management in a hybrid world
The challenge: Both recruitment and induction are hard in a remote/ hybrid world when new skills must be brought into an organisation. Equally tough to retain the best staff.
How to meet it: Many require staff in office two or three days a week to build culture and help new staff to learn but allow for some personalised packages. Deliberately create team meetings and strategy days.
Making more sense of data
The challenge: Digital publishing generates data, but we need to learn how to use it. Building first party data must be a priority.
How to meet it: Tightening up meters can dramatically increase registrations even if fewer convert to paid subs. This creates better analytics on content preferences and opportunities to promote specialist newsletters or events. May need to invest in tech to enable more sophisticated audience insights.
Join the Speciall Media Group
The Speciall Media Group is a community of over 200 leaders in specialist media businesses. As well as a lively online forum, we run regular virtual round tables and surveys. No suppliers or services, just media owners and publishers. It’s free (for now) but invite-only and you can request to join here.
About the author
Carolyn Morgan has acquired, launched, built, and sold specialist media businesses in print, digital and events. She now advises niche consumer and B2B publishers on developing new products and digital revenue streams as a consultant and NED.