One of my greatest lessons at Flipboard has been that no two publishers are the same. While our business discussions typically revolve around two key areas—growth and monetization—there are so many paths to achieving both.
In my role as Flipboard’s head of paid content partnerships, I have spoken with over 100 publishers around the world about their challenges and the need to diversify their distribution strategies. It’s given me a deeper appreciation for the uniqueness of each publisher while also allowing me to spot similarities and trends.
Here are five major areas in which we see publishers sharpening their focus in 2020:
1. Fighting a reliance on the duopoly
Long gone are the days of typing your favorite website into a browser to catch up on the latest news or gossip. Today is all about SEO, algorithmic distribution and virality. Publishers are so reliant on just a couple of key external traffic drivers that a simple algorithmic or ad rate change can cause momentous swings to their organic and paid traffic, putting their sustainability in a precarious state. Thus, many publishers are keen to diversify their referral traffic mix and build a portfolio of partnerships with multiple social, SEO, referral and paid distribution platforms.
2. Owning their audiences
As fickle as those algorithms are, it’s scary to think about how a majority of any publisher’s traffic is dependent on referral sources that could drastically decline or disappear entirely from one day to the next. As such, publishers deeply embrace the value of owning their own audiences. It’s one of the reasons so many have started free newsletters: email has proven to be an effective channel not only to drive traffic to their sites but also to build direct relationships with readers, providing an additional lever for more sustainable monetization.
3. Testing content behind paywalls
Landing at a paywall is one of the most disappointing experiences that digital audiences face today. But, hey, we get it. Publishers need to thrive, and guardrails for premium content are an effective way to capture subscription revenue and lock into an LCV (Lifetime Customer Value) model. I expect that we’ll see more publishers adopting paywalls and premium content offerings in 2020, testing programs like bundling, first three articles free, and access to premium insider content.
4. Building branded and sponsored content offerings
Each year, billions of dollars are spent on branded content production and distribution, and it’s easy to see why: According to an IPG MediaLab-led study, brand recall is 59% higher for branded content than other digital ads. Hence, sponsored stories and other branded content offer lucrative opportunities for publishers to attract major media buys from premium brands by leveraging their expertise for written, infographic and video content.
At the same time, the content studios at most publishers do not profit from the actual production of content; instead, they profit from the distribution (views) that they bundle into the overall campaign budget. However, for most campaigns, pageview goals are difficult to hit through organic efforts alone and often require paid promotion. While we’ll undoubtedly see continued growth in branded content production this year, it will be interesting to see which publishers start including more channels (beyond the duopoly) to diversify their strategies for incremental paid distribution.
5. Driving affiliate efforts
It’s great to double dip!
For a publisher, reporting on products and services while including affiliate links is an increasingly important way to diversify revenue from the same article. It’s a win-win that helps readers navigate trusted product reviews and lets publishers financially capitalize on the product discovery and purchase intent they drive. Since affiliate relationships raise ethical questions for publishers, many have developed guiding principles to guarantee editorial independence and unbiased recommendations. To provide readers full transparency, publishers post their editorial guidelines on their websites, like this statement from The New York Times‘ Wirecutter. In the next few years, I expect it will be difficult to identify a publisher that is not actively testing or thinking about leveraging affiliate efforts, especially when the industry is pressed to find ever more creative ways to monetize their audiences.
Despite these commonalities, at a micro level, these trends become highly individualized based on the organization’s structure, resources and definition of success. For some, high retention and open rates are the goal; for others, organic growth is the key. Talk to any two publishers and you’ll find that the true blueprint is as unique as two people’s DNA.