Chaos for digital publishers in 2020. How to come out as a winner in 2021?

Jaak Kalja

Jaak Kalja

Digital advertisement specialist

2020 had a huge effect on the relationship between publishers and readers. Global lockdowns fast-tracked news distribution from print to digital and fundamentally changed the way audiences engage with information.

The growth of online news consumption (and its explosion over the past year) is a double-edged sword. Publishers have more eyeballs on their content than ever before. But the advertising based business model means the focus is on impressions and clicks, not quality content. The long-term impact can be reader dissatisfaction. 

During the crisis, publishers saw advertising revenue drop across print and digital. As the crisis also impacted advertisers themselves, marketing budgets were cut. Ad revenue may restore to previous levels, but even that is questionable. Targeted advertising is being clamped down on (the “death of the 3rd party cookie”) and companies like Uber are discovering up to 80% of their ads useless

With the sustainability of the current business model, what other areas can publishers look at to come out of the crisis as a winner in 2021?

Shifting from impressions and clicks to subscriber revenue

People visit online news portals to consume news, not advertisements. If people liked ads, a third of them wouldn’t take the extra step of installing adblockers. Publishers are in charge of deciding where and how readers see advertisements across their online channels but do not use this opportunity.

The choice is often left to the consumer, who become frustrated enough to install an ad blocker. Alternatively, advertising takes on the format of advertorials, luring people into what they think is news, but in reality is just a different form of advertising. 

Enabling readers to free themselves of advertisements is an untapped revenue opportunity. Much like VOD services allow you to stream movies without annoying ad breaks and Spotify’s premium account lets you listen to music without audio ads, publishers can turn the readers’ annoyance with ads into revenue by implementing ad-free browsing subscriptions. 

While ad revenue is dependent on 3rd parties and forces publishers to sacrifice quality due to a growing need for impressions and clicks, reader revenue increases publisher independence. Publishers such as  The New York Times are already seeing more revenue from digital than print while online subscriptions continue to grow.

Changing the relationship with readers: from a middle-man to being the core product

Someone seeing an advertisement on a publisher’s website does not need to like the publisher’s product (news and articles) to register as an impression for the advertiser. Ads do not require a relationship between the publisher’s product and consumers to generate money. Instead, ads require a relationship between the consumer and the advertiser’s product, reducing publishers to a middle-man of sorts whose product serves the goals of the advertiser.

Subscribers on the other hand contribute revenue because of the publisher’s own product. They are the end-point in a relationship that starts with a complete stranger who is engaged with the publisher’s product. Engaged enough that it provides them with fulfilment, whether it’s desire for timely news, human-interest interviews or education.

The primary currency exchanged between consumers and businesses in the digital age is attention. When a publisher honors the reader’s value by providing them with fulfilment, reader revenue will follow. This means the reader experience, and not the advertiser’s interest, needs to be at the center of the content and monetization strategy.

Making subscriptions simple for readers

Having reviewed the fundamentals of transitioning from a primarily ad-based publishing model to a subscriber-based one through incentive and reader experience, how do publishers seal the deal? A quick and simple way to subscribe on the checkout page. 

So many publishers neglect the final step in creating a loyal subscriber base. They go through the hard work of finding their target audience, convincing them to sample their work, building trust through strong content and a fulfilling reader experience, and when people are finally ready to commit, they have no idea where to go. 

The checkout page should be easy to find, and never more than a click away. Once readers find it they should no longer have to change their mind because making the final commitment is too difficult. This is where the third component of transforming readers into subscribers comes in: data and conversion tracking. 

The checkout page is a crucial component of the reader’s journey but often the most overlooked. How many users enter? How many complete a payment? How many drop off? Where do they drop off? Why? Publishers who gather the answers for these questions and optimize their checkout based on the findings will come out as winners in 2021.

If you’re looking to make your publication’s checkout simpler, check out PayRead and take the friction out of your paywall.

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