Digital publishing trends in 2021: what’s coming up?

Jaak Kalja

Jaak Kalja

Digital advertisement specialist

Thanks to an ever-changing digital landscape and major changes to the ways in which people consume news, books and journals, the publishing industry has experienced turbulent times over the past decade. 

Online news outlets face difficult struggles thanks to the proliferation of free content and suspicions surrounding fake news. According to a recent report, around 46% of surveyed media executives reported pessimism surrounding the future of journalism. They believed that the power of journalists to hold powerful people to account was waning, along with public willingness to invest in local and national news organizations.   

However, the report also discovered that surveyed media executives were largely optimistic about the health of their own businesses. Why the discrepancy?

There is still plenty of room for substantial growth in the industry. For publishers to succeed, they will need to keep up with a shifting business landscape and adapt to new consumer behaviors. 

Before taking a look into the future, make sure to check out What’s New In Publishing’s Media Moments 2020 report. To help understand what’s coming up in 2021, we’ve put together a few publishing industry trends to look out for.  

Asia set to be a major source of revenue

Key markets in Asia are anticipated to represent the collective driving force behind the growth of subscription models for publishers over the next 10 years. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, population growth is strong in these areas. Combined with increasing mobile penetration and access to the internet, this means that the number of people searching for high-quality digital content will soar.

Secondly, it is worth noting that commercial media outlets around the world are gaining confidence about the future of paid content. In the Anglophone world, The New York Times has managed to rack up an impressive 4.9 million current print and digital subscribers, while the Guardianrecently managed to render itself profitable again after managing to collect over one million reader contributions over the course of three years. Prior to this, the future of the company looked very bleak. 

What digital publishers should deduce from such trends is that they need to focus on onboarding new subscribers to their platforms through smarter digital marketing, particularly if there is potential for strong uptake in Asian markets. 

Business models in the digital publishing industry are drifting away from advertising

Advertising is becoming an ever more disappointing source of revenue for digital publishers. In contrast to its impressive reader subscription rates, for example, The New York Times reported a 5.4% drop in digital advertising revenue in the third quarter of 2019. 

The weakening of advertising as a revenue stream can partly be put down to the fact that third-party cookies are no longer accepted by many browsers. Mozilla’s Firefox and Apple’s Safari browser, for example, block third-party tracking cookies, with Google Chrome set to follow suit in 2022. This means that ad tech trackers are unable to collect the kind of granular behavioral and personal data they need to target advertisements towards individual users. 

The phasing out of third-party cookies should come as no surprise in today’s digital landscape, as concerns surrounding the non-consensual use of personal information continue to hit the headlines. While this may be good news for web users, it is a negative development for advertising companies whose USPs rely on behavioral targeting. Programmatic advertising is likely to become increasingly imprecise and become less effective at yielding a return-on-investment for businesses. 

So, what can be done? One of the best ways to counteract suspicions surrounding advertising is to build a more transparent, consensual model backed by publishers themselves. 

Thanks to the increasing number of consumers signing up for subscription content services, digital publishers have access to a considerable amount of authenticated data that can be put to good use. In the future, advertisers and publishers may enter new alliances that do not require the use of third-party cookies while remaining relatively targeted.  

Publishers will start to measure user engagement and churn as their primary metrics of success

As publishers start to reorganize their business models, focus on user acquisition will shift towards user retention. If you run a digital publishing service, this means that you will need to keep an eye on engagement and churn rates to ensure that monthly recurring revenue (MRR) remains high. High engagement is reliant on top-quality content that is well-researched and stylishly written. If necessary, this could mean investing in a bigger writing team with more expertise. 

Publishers need to win back trust

Public trust in digital publishing is at an all-time low right now. The reasons for this are complex. According to recent research, countries that have experienced social and political upheaval in recent years are far more skeptical towards the media, considering news outlets to be corrupted by corporate interests. In Hungary and Greece, for example, trust levels stand at around 28% and 27%, respectively.

Although part of the decline in trust can be pinned on factors beyond the control of publishers, it is also worth reflecting on the ways in which click-based decision making (as recently explored in Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma has compromised journalistic integrity and encouraged unwarranted sensationalistic headlines. 

To win back the trust of readers, digital publishers must focus on commissioning content that is original, relevant, fact-based, and engaging. Avoiding click-bait and publishing content that is informative yet easy to digest is a sure-fire way to draw in a strong subscriber base. 

Fake news must be addressed

Fake news is one of the greatest threats to global democracy and highlights the vital need for high-quality publishers committed to truthful reporting. According to recent polling, over 50% of people do not trust the sources of information they find on the internet. 

What’s more, the purveyors of fake news are not simply malicious or misguided web users intent on spreading disinformation. In fact, artificial intelligence has made it much easier to produce useless or sometimes even dangerous fake news stories in different forms including text, video, and audio. As election cycles around the world continue to become more contentious, the role of publishing platforms is set to be increasingly politicized and will likely lead to accusations of bias from politicians and pundits alike. 

With this in mind, it is imperative that digital publishers put fighting fake news at the forefront of their plans for 2021. This should involve publishing stories about fake news and guiding users about how to spot disinformation, as well as investing money in rigorous fact-checking. Responsible journalism requires much more time and effort than half-baked articles containing information from second- or third-hand sources. In the long term, however, it will certainly pay off.  

How to prepare for 2021: get PayRead on board

As advertising loses its attractive sheen and an increasing number of web users look for trustworthy publishers, publishers looking to sustain their digital business growth must adapt. One part of this is increasing the focus on ramping up efforts around reader revenue from paywalls and other options beside advertising for monetizing content.

One way to do this is by onboarding PayRead. PayRead lets digital publishers identify & charge users through their SIM card, the most widely available digital identity. This kind of payment mechanism is called carrier billing – accessible to any mobile device owner, even when they do not have a credit card or even a bank account.

PayRead connects publishers to local mobile operators across 80+ countries of the world, in turn giving publishers access to user acquisition and payments capabilities with over 3 billion consumers. The wide reach and simple checkout flows of carrier billing gives publishers the tools to increase conversion, reduce friction in their paywalls and as a result, grow their revenue.

For a more detailed overview of using PayRead for user acquisition and reader revenue growth, download the white paper below. 

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