Future of specialist media – 7 insights from MX3 Barcelona

Future of specialist media MX3 Barcelona

What is the future of specialist media? Over 30 specialist media leaders from 9 different countries shared insights in informal interviews, panel discussions and open Q&As over two days at MX3 Barcelona. No slides, and all off the record, honest conversations. You had to be there. But if you weren’t, here is my anonymised, non-attributable summary of the key themes we discussed.

1. Experiment with new content formats

A trusted media brand needs to exist on multiple channels or platforms. Yes, print can still work in some markets – and there was one case study of a new consumer print magazine launch that was profitable in its second year. But most are looking at three core platforms: newsletters, audio/podcasts, and social video. All three can be used to create a feedback loop from readers/audience.

Podcasts can create the same sense of intimacy that magazines used to. Listeners build a habit around a regular slot, and trust around a familiar voice. Extended interviews can include more colour and personality than text articles. Asking for, and responding to, listener feedback builds loyalty. While podcasts themselves generate limited commercial revenue, live podcasts offer the opportunity of ticket revenues.

Newsletters are ideal to test a small market, especially in B2B. You can start with a few hundred recipients, and iterate the content based on their feedback. Top tip is to analyse incumbents and spot gaps in their coverage – be additive, rather than attempt to replace. Platforms like Substack encourage developing a community. In B2B, once you have the attention of high value professionals, you have the basis of an advertiser proposition.

Social video is the first choice of emerging indie creators but can also allow established media brands to reach a younger (Gen Z) audience, or mobile first audiences in emerging markets such as SE Asia. Video “natives” and “immigrants” alike learn how to use data to generate ideas, produce short-form and long-form video efficiently, and how to edit and re-use for new channels. Traditionally trained journalists can acquire video production skills. And social video is a powerful driver of branded content revenue models.

2. Defend your niche and explore adjacent verticals

Unique content in a tightly defined niche can be a superpower for specialist media businesses. Your very status as an independent commentator on an industry or market has value when your competitors are part of larger organisations. Think flexibly around how you can transfer your content, data and network to a new medium or format. And once you dominate a single niche, look for adjacent verticals where you have a data or content advantage, or can lean on advertiser and sponsor relationships. Broad news media are also on the lookout for appealing verticals where they can create more specialised content, grow a loyal audience and tap into new commercial revenues.

3. Nurture your community

Specialist interests or professional groups are fertile ground for community, and growing platforms like newsletters, social video or podcasts can encourage feedback and interaction. Community building can start small, with weekly Q&As or editors dipping into “below the line” comments sections. Successful communities have a sense of purpose and can clearly explain the benefits for participants (as well as the publisher). Take care to tackle issues of guidelines, behaviour and moderation. Supporting good behaviour in a community builds trust and engagement. And engaged communities drive loyalty to a media brand’s wider content.

Some publishers actively encourage journalists to engage with communities, which can generate new and unique content. In professional communities, especially behind a subscriber paywall, members can derive high value from sharing best practice and making new connections. Communities can be a powerful source of insight, feeding into event agendas, articles or reports.

4. Develop recurring revenue (subs or membership)

Recurring revenue models with high retention provide stability and the confidence to continue to invest. Many speakers enjoy value retention rates of 90% or even over 100%. If at some point you are looking to sell your media business, remember that revenue from subscriptions or membership attracts higher valuations and ebitda multiples from risk-averse buyers.

In B2B markets, the greatest value is created through enterprise subscriptions or memberships. These may simply provide convenient access to complex but essential data, or offer predictive forecasts, useful benchmarks or best practice. Closing upfront sales is hard, and it takes as much time to sell a low-priced enterprise package as a high-priced one. The skill is in offering a proposition that appears bespoke but is built on standard building blocks that are easy to scale. It pays to be strict about “cherry-picking” elements of your service, and instead keep adding value to the entire package. Smart operators have dedicated customer success teams who ensure that client objectives are met during the year, and entire customer team are engaged, to smooth renewals discussions.

5. Lean into advertising

The foundation of a strong advertising proposition is a deep and trusted relationship with your audience, built on quality content. As mass advertising audiences are challenged by privacy regulation, cookie deprecation and consumers avoiding tracking, the relative appeal of specialist media grows. Data can be a super-power: some pioneers are tracking B2B delegate behaviour at live events and connecting this with digital content consumption to provide better targeting for advertisers.

Custom-created content, whether text, experiential, audio or video, on behalf of brands and advertisers, is a growing proportion of commercial revenue. Savvy publishers are designing integrated packages to reach audiences across multiple platforms and using their close connections with their communities to access “hard to reach” audiences. Data on what branded content engages audiences can then feedback into the next campaign.

Many publishers are concerned about the volatility of advertising and commercial revenue. But one media business at MX3 enjoys over 100% cash retention rate on their branded solutions packages, rivalling the renewal rate of subscriptions models.

6. Diversify revenue streams

Several media leaders shared that they have three or more revenue streams that make an equal contribution to their business.

Indie publishers in particular are willing to stay agile and experiment with new business models building on assets, knowledge, data or relationships. Print publishers have moved into digital and launched events in their niche, with the investment underwritten by sponsors. Event organisers have discovered that their data and networks have a value to external bodies who will pay for bespoke projects.

But many emphasised the importance of being willing to kill projects that cannot scale or suck in disproportionate resources. For all new revenue streams, consider how easy they will be to scale, whether you are excessively dependent on a small number of clients, and how you can boost customer retention.

7. Plan for AI disruption

AI is both a tactical opportunity and an existential threat. Many are optimistic that productivity tools will allow creative teams to streamline tedious tasks and produce more content. AI can permit analysis of very large data sets to develop valuable insights for subscribers and audiences. And enable subscribers to query in-house archive content more easily.

Some compared the future level of disruption for media businesses to the upheaval of digital transformation over the last decade. Media leaders will need to be aware of the risks and build skills and resilience among their teams. It is not always essential to build AI solutions in-house, as increasingly enterprise software will have AI tools built in. Media businesses will need to articulate an AI policy to reassure staff and audiences of quality output. A strong defence against AI-driven competition will be to know your reader better than anyone else.

What next?

If you are contemplating a new direction for your specialist media business, I’d be happy to share more of the insights from the event over a real or virtual coffee. Just get in touch.

Looking to swap ideas with other specialist media leaders? We moderate the Speciall Media Group, an invite-only online community of over 250 specialist media leaders. Members can share best practice, ask questions and make connections with their peers. And we run occasional surveys and virtual round tables. It’s free (for now) but invite only, and only open to media leaders, not suppliers, vendors or service companies. 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 Non Exec Director.

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