audience-development-2017

Audience Building: How will digital publishers fare in 2017?

It’s trying times for the digital publishing industry, friends. As we discover more about hidden treasures that the Internet has stowed away for us to utilise, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for publications to garner and maintain a secure and stable income source. While most publications, historically speaking, have secured their revenue through advertising, digital publications are finding that task to be a little tougher.

Why is that tougher? Because humans, by nature apparently, can’t stand advertising and they are intelligent, savvy and dedicated enough to figure out ways to bypass the system – still obtaining the content they want, but without having to “endure” advertisements. In fact, a colossal 64% of people believe that digital ads are not only irritating, but they find them intrusive. Perhaps this is why it is predicted that the entire industry could suffer a huge loss of up to $35 billion in ad revenue by 2020.

Apparently, this almost universal disdain towards digital advertisements have contributed to an expectation that content should always be available at no cost to the user, which, to be frank, is an idyllic and unrealistic utopian expectation. Paul Taylor, who is the editor for Xbox Magazine, T3 and Builders Guide to Minecraft, says that this expectation is perhaps the biggest issue publishers face coming into this New Year.

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“There’s this expectation that your site’s editorial will be accessible, for free,” Paul says. He also expresses his concern about ad blockers and the detrimental effect they’re having on the industry. “Turning a dollar out of (your site) with intrusive ads is either going to turn your readership away, or have them installing ad blockers – if they haven’t already.”

Chris Jager, editor of Lifehacker, shares a similar opinion to Paul about the effect that ad-blockers are having on the industry.

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Relying solely on digital advertisers for revenue is becoming increasingly dangerous, particularly for tech publications whose audience are no stranger to ad blockers and who typically rely on significant spends from few big industry players,” Chris says. “The challenge for online publishers in 2017 will be finding multiple, alternate revenue models that actually work.”

The ad-blocking game is quickly becoming one of the biggest threats posed against the digital publishing industry. In fact, it is predicted that 86.6 million Internet users will have installed or used some form of ad-blocker by the end of this year, which is a massive 24.4% increase from last year. There are certainly ways to combat the perceived evil of ad blocking, with one of the more popular methods being weaving advertisements in your content more seamlessly. Audiences, as an entity, have been proven to be far more receptive to these sorts of methods, with over 70% of internet users claiming that they would much prefer to learn about products if they are woven into content as opposed to traditional – and somewhat out-dated – sources of digital advertising. The native advertising realm, which is an area most publications are immersing themselves in at the moment, is experiencing a huge boom at the moment, with the entire industry predicted to be worth over $60 billion by next year. Essentially, what we’re witnessing is, now more than ever, is that a publication needs to use their skills and talent to revive this fading source of revenue and they need to be ready to adapt or it will definitely suffer.

This adapt-or-die mantra is a strict and pretty grim one for publications to live by, but both Chris and Paul agree that it is one that all publications need to instil within their existence.

“Adapt or die is absolutely a mantra that every online publication must live by,” says Chris. “When Lifehacker launched last decade, the online landscape was completely different – mobile readers were almost non-existent and having a presence on social media was an afterthought at best. Some changes you can predict and prepare for, while others you’re forced to react to and/or play catch up. But the important thing is to do something.”

Paul also elaborates on this, stating the importance of social media platforms as well as the cruciality of knowing their volatility. “Social media platforms rise and fall, (and can be) bought up by larger parent companies,” says Paul. “Fostering your own forum – if you think your publication has the staff to maintain it – isn’t a bad idea (or) else you might see your platform disappear. Or at least be folded into something that’s bigger and breaks your system.”

This recognition of the power of social media marketing is something that is virtually undeniable at this point. A third of millennials say that social media is their preferred way of communicating with businesses, and it is highly unlikely that that will change once these millennials grow older. Instead, it is predicted they will maintain these preferences while simultaneously instilling it in the millennials of tomorrow.

On the matter, Paul succinctly makes note of social media’s power to enhance the conversation about a brand despite its unstable nature. “Social platforms may change, but they’re the quickest way to share articles, and it’s a space that readers share and engage with their peers who they’re most likely to be inspired by.”

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Chris, however, details how social media marketing made a hugely positive impact on consumer engagement and audience building with Lifehacker. “In 2016,” he says, “we employed our first full-time social media editor”. The big two – Facebook and Twitter – have over 3 billion active monthly users between them. And most of them are open to clicking on interesting content. If you’re not catering to this audience, you definitely should be.”

However, much like what Paul touched on, Chris also warns everyone of the danger of social media’s relative unpredictability, all the way down to basic algorithms. “At the same time,” he says, “it’s important not to rely completely on social media referrals for your audience numbers – as Facebook algorithms have shown, the rug can be pulled out from underneath you at any time.” In this instance, Chris is referring to a giant algorithmic overhaul the social media giant employed that was aimed to have users’ news feeds focus more on friends and family as opposed to brands and businesses. This obviously sent the entire industry into frenzy – as, according to a study undertaken by analytics company Parse.ly, 40% of publisher traffic comes from Facebook. However, as both Chris and Paul have pointed out, one has to adapt or one will suffer.

So how exactly does one adapt to such a drastic change, or at the very least try to remedy the damage caused by it? Besides employing other revenue streams and staying on the constantly moving ball that is social media, both Chris and Paul make clear that the only thing publishers really have total control over and can rely on to drive revenue, is quality content.

“The loyal, front page visitor is giving way to the casual surfer who primarily consumes content through social and search. Ensuring these readers are consistently reached will be a major challenge in 2017,” says Chris.

“Above all else, focus on producing amazing content!” he continues. “Keep releasing your unique, well-researched and entertaining stories into the wild. If you produce good content that can’t be found anywhere else, the referrals and link backs will come flooding in.”

Paul explores this same idea of traffic coming through search and maintaining that audience. “Keeping an audience on the site is hard,” he says, “so many sites had to work harder at providing relevant articles when they know that a lot of traffic comes from search.” Interestingly, he also makes note of the apparent underhandedness and ‘dog-eat-dog’ ethos some publications have taken in these trying times. He says one of his biggest challenges is actually trying to horde off those who blatantly plagiarise another publication’s work and slap their brand on it. “There are sites regurgitating – or outright thieving – your hard-written copy with little or no recognition,” he says.

The quality of one’s publication and its content, is always going to play a major role in determining the traffic, which thereby determines the revenue. Both Paul and Chris sound off on this topic with similar messages. Keep the editorial up to scratch, and financial reward will follow; don’t just do what’s easy. “Don’t bulls—t (the) readers,” says Paul bluntly. “Ease off the clickbait, and give them great, informative headlines that treat them with intelligence and make them want to know more.”

Chris extends on this saying “If a site is producing high quality, locally relevant stories consistently, the audience will grow and keep coming back.” It’s about putting your faith in one’s ability to adapt to an industry that never stops changing, but not to put all your eggs in one, simple, formulaic basket. As Chris puts it, “trying to fake it through click-baity headlines and a dependency on social media referrals is a good way to crash and burn.”

We will just have to see what 2017 and beyond brings.



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State of Digital Publishing - Copyright 2016