2020 Digital Publishing Trends

A renewed focus on serving their audience’s needs seems to be at the core of the main digital publishing trends we are seeing for 2020. This means serving the content audiences want, through the channels they want, and trying to monetize this thanks to improved reader loyalty and more satisfying experience.

Every year State of Digital Publishing takes the pulse of the digital media industry through a survey addressed to a diverse set of participants: editors, audience development directors, startup founders, and martech professionals offering solutions to digital media publishers.



Nine key trends for digital publishing this year

#1 Audience loyalty through acquisitions

As mentioned in CJR, “Eighteen months ago, Facebook sent somewhere between 35 and 45 per cent of many of our sites’ total visitation. In that period of time, it has gone from that to seven per cent,” one publisher told them in early 2019. “It’s just, the bottom fell out.” 

The solution, according to our survey’s respondents, is to focus on developing content that is more targeted to their audience’s needs. As Sarah Tolle, editor at Black & White Zebra stated, “focus less on how to snatch attention and more on how to deserve attention”.

To achieve that you need user research to better understand not just what your audience wants, but also how, where and when they want to access that content.

But that’s only the first step. There is the recognition that the way to win younger audiences is not through one but through multiple properties. Nine Networks takeover of Fairfax Media, McClatchy’s acquisition of Meredith and the like demonstrates fears of cannibalizing audiences through acquisition is meaningless. Providing a wide range of content across the sites, since this dictates Millennial audiences behavior is more beneficial. Expect audience growth through acquisitions.

2020 will be about building loyalty. Eyeballs for the sake of eyeballs are no longer important. Loyalty is what matters and finding ways to build habits in the lives of your consumers is the only path forward. 2020 will be focused on understanding the behaviors of the most loyal audiences and using those insights to build more of them. Melissa Chowning, CEO at Twenty-First Digital.

#2 SEO again becomes a key driver of traffic growth

A consequence of pivoting to the reader’s needs is the resurgence of SEO as a key driver of traffic growth. Putting the user in the center means creating the content the user would search for. According to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019, search engines are now the third most important traffic source to news sites after direct access and social media. 20% of people in the US accessed their news through search engines

SEO is also a complex and evolving channel which requires time and investment. But even so, algorithm changes can throw a business off balance if your strategy depends too much on just being first on Google instead of truly providing value to your audience.

In 2020 we will continue to build processes  as well as provide training so that writers and editorial teams can be successful in scaling SEO-first content. There is a big emphasis on targeting specific queries, understanding the intent behind those queries, and building content from the ground up to be the best result in the SERP. Jim Robinson, Founder at Clickseed

The way to do SEO in 2020 is focused on content quality more than in keywords or links. Google is becoming more adept at semantics and understanding the topics that your site covers. Using a cluster strategy, where you group topics in clusters through your website architecture gives Google a stronger signal around your topic modeling and helps Google understand and give you more authority on the topics you cover. This topic clustering strategy is becoming mainstream in 2020.

Another big impact in SEO is the changes in Google News SEO, which is favoring original reporting with high topical relevance and authority with higher positions and SERP features in Google search. Content freshness is also important. Google News also takes into account highlighting the latest news or even live coverage of time-sensitive events.

#3 Creating a diversified monetization strategy

According to our survey, media companies are exploring new revenue channels this year. Most companies are exploring subscriptions and membership options as an alternative or to complement advertising revenue. Other companies are going beyond that, and are building out eCommerce portals or creating digital courses. 

For Brian Morrissey, Editor-in-chief at Digiday, “In 2020, we’ll continue to focus on growing our subscription business. This is critical to our future as a sustainable media company. First and foremost, that means executing on the simple but hard task of creating content worth paying for. In addition, we need to continue building a new class of must-have content for members in the form of original research, guides, pitch decks.”

The objective is to not rely on a single revenue source like advertising. If that revenue source declines, that can put the business in a delicate position. Having a range of revenue sources can potentially offset any negative developments in your main revenue source.

To build a successful digital media company it’s important we continue to diversify our product portfolio and not rely on purely magazine subscription revenue and advertising. Nathan Chan, CEO and Publisher at Foundr.

The Reuters Institute Digital News Report has already been documenting how digital media is shifting towards a sharper focus on user subscriptions (52%), followed by display/native advertising (35%) and donations (7%) beyond 2019.

#4 Prioritization of content quality over quantity

Some of our respondents asked themselves what was the point of publishing yet more content if it didn’t make a difference. And they have a point. Why add to the noise if you’re not bringing value to your audience? How do you distinguish yourself from all the other outlets pushing content out there?

The public trust in media is still low. Just 41% of Americans trust mass media today. Political divisiveness, misinformation and fake news are still eroding that confidence. 

A strategy that focuses on high-quality content that actually serves their audience’s needs will be key to overcome that issue. Strategies that focused on scale are becoming less attractive as well as their SEO effectiveness has been reduced in recent years as Google becomes better at identifying and surfacing quality content.

Improving content quality requires commitment. It’s demanding in terms of resources, time, engagement metrics and manpower.

Quality audience and not chasing scale – engagement metrics and doing the best job for our loyal readers. Charlotte McEleny, Asia Editor, The Drum

#5 Podcast, webinars & newsletters monetization is mainstream

Digital media publishers have more channels than ever at their reach. And this year they plan to take advantage of that to reach their existing and new audiences just where they are. Podcasts, webinars, newsletters, video, Instagram TV, Snapchat, are just a few of the new channels media companies are now becoming mainstream.

But to be effective, there are two things to consider.

  1. As Nadya Khoja, Chief Growth Officer at Venngage said: “it’s common for people to just pour money into new channels for a while and claim they do or do not work without proper tracking in place, and without a repeatable process to follow.” To properly expand your brand into new channels, you need to set clear objectives beforehand and put tracking systems in place to help you reach your goals.
    2. For Susan Dickenson, Editor-in-chief at Home Accents Today, maintaining a coherent brand voice is paramount: “As we’ve continued to expand into video, podcasting, and social media, one thing has become very clear: You can’t underestimate the importance of projecting a consistent, cohesive, authentic editorial voice. For 2020, we’ll focus on tailoring our content – both editorially and graphically – to effect a smoother, deeper and broader integration across channels.”

Podcasts in particular are a growing medium. About a third of Americans listen to podcasts at least once a month, growing from 26% last year. Podcast creation is growing too. There are now 700.000 podcast shows on iTunes, a 27% growth from 2018. It’s worth remembering that 15 years ago, when iTunes first added a podcast section, there were just 3.000 shows available.

Top media companies, celebrities and brands are all developing podcasts and driving the podcast advertising market to reach 1 billion dollars in size in 2021, according to Forrester, IAB and PwC.

A key driver is the acquisition of podcast networks like Gimlet and Anchor by Spotify, which is helping the audio company to quickly expand their share of the podcast market. One key thing to note is that Spotify’s advertising revenue is bigger than the whole podcast market today. Their experience and these acquisitions will be key to increase the advertising market in podcasting, and their size puts them in a key position to dominate this market.

#6 Stories content format is becoming widely adopted

The story is a digital content format originally developed by Snapchat that has become an industry-standard and it’s been adopted by most social networks. Google AMP has its own stories format to support search. Even Twitter has developed their own version of stories, called Fleets. Stories are short, visual content (images or video), in vertical format, that in most cases is ephemeral and only available for 24 hours.

On the Facebook-owned social networks (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) 1 billion stories are being shared every day. A few among those are from respected media brands like The Economist.  The Economist now has 4.6 million followers on Instagram, where they publish daily using the story format. They also use the highlights functionality, that allows you to group stories and make them permanently visible on your profile, to showcase stories around key topics.

#7 The death of third party tracking

Apple and Mozilla made the first moves that signaled the death of third-party tracking when they developed smart cookie-blocking technology for their Safari and Firefox browsers. This functionality is now on by default on both browsers. Ad-blocking apps and browser extensions, and regulation like the GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act are also part of this same trend towards privacy and giving users more control over their data.

But what about Chrome? According to Statista, Chrome has almost 70% of the browser market share. But in January 2020 Google announced it will stop supporting third party cookies over the next two years. This represents the death of third-party tracking, and will force a major industry shift.

Online advertising without third-party cookies will most likely revert to contextual advertising, where ads are related to the content you’re seeing and not your online behavior elsewhere. 

8# Audio distribution of Google News content

Audio interfaces continue to develop and expand their presence across new audience touchpoints. The Google Assistant is now creating tailored playlists of audio segments from Google News when you ask it to play you the news. The playlist lasts about one hour and a half, and selects news items based on your past reading behavior and locations you care about.

In the future, the length and the topics will become even more personalized. So if you usually listen to this news update during your commute, Google Assistant will learn to adjust the length of the playlist to your commuting time.

To build this playlist Google has released “an open specification for single topic audio stories” that lets Google manage brief, single-topic audio segments between 30 seconds and 3 minutes.

#9 Tik Tok, voice interfaces and chatbots on editorial strategies  are still areas of uncertainty

On the other side of the spectrum, there are a few global digital trends which media companies are still unsure whether they should adopt them or not. 

  1. TikTok, a Chinese social media app focused on short videos that has at least 500 million users worldwide and is consistently one of the top ten most downloaded apps in iOS and Android. It’s a massive hit with teens. Some digital publishers have started creating content for the platform. But it’s a quite new channel, with a very particular style of content, that most media companies still don’t really understand how they can fit their brand and their editorial approach. Some are concerned about whether they’ll find their target audience there. Others are conscious that developing a new channel takes time. Companies that invested time developing Vine profiles may be conscious of the risks involved.
    2. Voice interfaces, like smart speakers or voice-activated search, are increasingly common. But the media companies that participated in our trends survey are not seeing the revenue potential to justify the investment in developing that channel. Others expressed concerns over the reach of audio interfaces, even though in the US alone 110 million people have access to them, and the lack of technical knowledge to properly develop this channel. All of this means that only big publishers will have the resources to invest in audio interfaces without a clear return on investment.
    3. Chatbots and AI are two areas in which publishers are interested to explore. But while the results might be better than other direct marketing channels, like email marketing, there are risks involved. The main drawback is that publishers own their email lists, while the Facebook messenger contacts are owned by Facebook. If Facebook makes changes that affect the publisher’s ability to reach out to their contacts, the publisher doesn’t have many options but to accept it.In 2016, Quartz launched an app which had a conversational interface to access news. It was lauded for its innovative approach, but it was shut down this year. 

 A renewed focus on the user

All of the key trends that digital publishers reflected on their survey responses this year have a common theme, which is a renewed focus on the user. Focusing on the value content brings to the user helps publishers make better decisions on revenue streams, content channels, and content promotion. Media companies with a sharp focus on their users will have a clear competitive advantage. As they will become essential to their readers, they will be one step ahead in the competition for the user’s attention.

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