Sponsored by Pushly
2020 wasn’t supposed to go quite like this. Whether digital natives or survivors of a decade-long shift away from legacy models, most large online publishers entered the year forecasting significant revenue growth and continued investment in more sophisticated digital products that would enable increasingly diversified audiences and businesses.
The ensuing global pandemic has impacted every publisher differently, but a few common challenges have generally emerged: the immediate shelving of long-planned initiatives or new launches, a total pause on live events—an increasingly vital extension for many, in normal times—and frustratingly, a dramatic yet difficult-to-monetize rush of web traffic and social media engagement.
On an hour-long, virtual panel sponsored by Pushly and hosted by Folio: in mid-July, four months after the U.S. began locking down, a group of content strategists, digital and audience development directors and editors, gathered to share how the publications they operate, each of which reach millions of consumers every month, have faced down the challenges and worked to position themselves for continued growth.
“There’s a surge of interest around news, so we saw huge tides of increased traffic in certain categories, but not necessarily the categories that people surround with sponsorships, so that’s always a challenge,” said Alison Overholt, senior VP of multiplatform storytelling and journalism at ESPN. “How do you match up the spots where you’ve got rising traffic and engagement with the sponsorship support, so the business stays strong and healthy?”
At Bonnier Corp., Popular Science had been leaning into DIY content as a means of pursuing more consumer-driven revenue, and had planned to ramp up its coverage of science policy—a typical strategy for an election year—but the pandemic temporarily “blew up” the editorial strategy, said digital director Amy Schellenbaum.
“We shifted a lot of editorial budget into health coverage,” Schellenbaum continued. “Luckily, we made this investment in DIY which has come in handy, but it’s not building stuff in the way that we thought it would be, it’s how to create your own mask, how to create your own hand sanitizer.”
Similarly, service-oriented content specific to the pandemic proved to be a major source of engagement for Wired, said director of audience development Indu Chandrasekhar, who added that the site’s COVID-19 reporting, much of which was initially placed in front of the paywall in the early weeks of the pandemic, also helped drive an influx of female visitors to its site.
“That’s been gigantic for us, because Wired has always been very male-heavy,” Chandrasekhar said, “so now the challenge is how do we keep those people and show them that the rest of what we do might also appeal to them?”
At The Seattle Times, one solution has been offering readers browser notifications, “which are always great at bringing people back,” said product manager Audrey Clark. Another was implementing live-updating content threads on its website around the pandemic as well as protests in the city following the killing of George Floyd.
“People continued to come back to it,” Clark said. “We were making it a habit that The Seattle Times is where you can come for immediate information like this. You don’t have to go to Twitter.”
For many, the key to turning one-off news consumers into repeat visitors is gaining access to the email inbox.
Popular Science’s digital-only Summer issue was made available for free to subscribers and non-subscribers alike, but required that users provide an email address to access it, resulting in both an increase in newsletter signups and an additional point of contact with print-only subscribers.
“Fundamentally, our core strategy is around conversion,” said Melissa Inman, VP of digital content strategy and operations at Meredith Corp. “Getting folks into that pipeline, getting that email address or getting them signed up for a browser notification, and then continuing to maximize what we get out of them through our retention cycle.”
To augment that effort, Meredith combined insights into consumer sentiment from its internal research arm with analytics on user engagement on its platforms to come up with new series or content franchises it was confident audiences would respond to—and just as importantly, provided its advertising partners with a point of entry.
As a publication that was already investing in digital subscriptions and affiliate revenue before the pandemic, Wired may have been in something of an enviable position, but made the decision early on to place most of its COVID-19 reporting outside of its digital paywall.
“We were finding that there were a lot of people clamoring for the best information, who took offense at being charged for it, and some of our sources didn’t want to speak to publications that were paywalling their content,” Chandrasekhar explained.
Like many publishers, Wired has since re-paywalled much of that content, save for some key resources related to public health. But for those first several weeks, rather than promoting paid subscriptions on its non-paywalled content, Wired instead added prominent banners directing readers to its free COVID newsletter.
“We really pushed that as a free way to engage with our stories and with the news, and of course, within that newsletter, we had promotions to sign up [for a subscription],” she added. “We switched our language to really point out what our newsroom was doing, working around the clock to give you the best information about this, so subscribe to support us. We started using ‘support’ and ‘membership’ language a lot more, and that worked very well for us.”