Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

It’s time for publishers to take back control

Nick Welch, VP Business Development at ADmantX reflects on the issues raised at NDA’s recent Publishing Roundtable.

Who’d have thought that despite the negative trends in digital ad revenues for some, we are in a place where publishers of all kinds are looking forward with confidence to the future?

Platform disruption’s positive influence means publishers are digging deeper and innovating harder, connecting with their audiences in more nuanced ways and developing ever more-diverse revenue streams, as the recent NDA publishing round table so clearly illustrated. 

It seems as an industry we’ve collectively accepted that battling the giants of Facebook and Google on their terms isn’t just impossible, it’s also flawed. 

Publishers cannot even begin to match the scale of the platforms, which between them collect all but a fraction of the digital ad revenues globally, and should not attempt to compete on price: it’s a dangerous and downwards game, commoditisation, particularly when operations are already lean. 

Instead, as the participants clearly believe, the strategy must be about following your strengths and building on those deeper connections with their readers and bringing something special to advertisers that they cannot get elsewhere. 

It’s also a vindication of the relationships they hold dear with those readers and a realisation, perhaps, that to make more of their data and insights they must also control much more of that data and insight. 

Variety and innovation

There is no one-size fits all approach to publishing these days — not even within a publisher’s own stable. Take News UK, home of the UK’s best-selling paper The Sun and its broadsheet sibling The Times. Digital sales director Louise Crosby outlines the very different approaches they take to each: The Times has a loyal subscriber base behind a paywall; The Sun inspires loyalty through initiatives such as its £9.50 summer holiday club. News UK’s understanding of it’s audiences allows it to cater to very different motivations and behaviours.

Or the example of Dennis Publishing buying online car marketplace Buyacar and now making up to 40% of its revenue from that. Or the move towards offline initiatives such as Hearst’s foray into everything from events to hotels. 

This is the kind of innovation that will drive publisher growth and give them the opportunity to connect in diverse ways in order to collect yet more data from their customers — but transparently, and to the benefit of all parties.  Can you imagine a Platform hosting an upmarket event or hotel experience? Wouldn’t it seem contrived given they are not known for their credible opinion unlike that which some of Hearst’s titles still carry for brand’s and their customers?

This rich data is helping diversify their own strategies and informing new and growing revenue streams including, but not limited to, products and services, partnerships, ecommerce activity and more sophisticated affiliate offerings. 

It is also incredibly valuable to agency and advertiser partners. This is a real opportunity. Content providers and publishers arguably have a greater understanding of what inspires their customer’s  than tech giants like Facebook, which creates a lot of data at scale, but lacks the sophistication of how, when and why these publishers are creating content and speaking in a language their readers understand or aspire to. Publishers are never going to be able to compete on the longtail with Facebook or Google so instead they’re realising the need to double-down on those strengths; opinion forming, style blazing and delivering brand experiences with credibility.

We’re not there, of course: the roundtable discussion demonstrated the lengths publishers are having to go to to diversify those income streams, and how each little innovation together is still a drop in the ocean compared to the revenues they stand to lose from, say, falling print revenues and the continued dominance of the global platforms. 

Time to be brave

I worry they will lose sight of this new opportunity and fall victim to short-termism and click-bait tactics that offer up increased revenues today but little reader loyalty tomorrow partly by attracting unpleasant advertising experience which could negatively impact on the audiences they have worked so hard to maintain and grow. I worry, too, that innovation will dry up. Now is not the time to be risk-averse, though I understand the reasons to be so. By playing a wait-and-see game some publishers risk being left behind and missing out on opportunities. 

The biggest of these lies in publishers laying claim to more of their hard-won data rather than (as has often been the case) ceding control to third parties in return for a revenue share that often isn’t a fair reflection of the value exchange. 

Instead, I’d urge publishers to work with partners who are just that, in it together, rather than tech partners who are effectively on the take. 

Be brave: audit; remove those partners (pixels) that are inefficient, slow or those whose value you struggle to articulate; consider more of a walled garden approach instead of being too open with your assets; demand a business model that works for you and is in your power. 

Dig even deeper into your data. Use the next-gen tech at your disposal such as the contextual tools that we offer. Our natural language processing, a form of AI, is able to help publishers precisely understand the content they offer and the interactions within it enabling greater strategic decision-making and leveraging existing commercial assets and turning it into actionable 1st Party Data. 

Other companies will offer other advantages and opportunities that allow you to build richer and deeper connections with consumers, advertisers and agencies alike — just be sure you know who’s in control and perhaps ask yourself 4 simple questions: 1) Does this partnership empower me 2) Do I have 100% control of my data 3) Could this partnership benefit my audience 4) Will it add value either Strategic or Revenue?

These are exciting and opportunistic times for publishers, particularly as fake news, brand trust and privacy are on the agenda as perhaps never before. It’s time to take advantage of that and give readers even more reasons to belong and brands best-in-class ad environments and experiences.