Last year, publishers faced a dilemma of how to sustain their programmatic advertising business beyond 2022, as Google end its support for third-party cookies in his Chrome browser.
But in March, as a pandemic struck, publishers had to contend with the fallout including a volatile advertising market, unfavorable keyword blocking, shortened sales cycles, dying revenue lines, suppliers in default and contested commercial supply chains. This list of existential threats has only added to the continuing pressures of increased privacy regulation and browsers tightly controlling the ability of media companies to effectively monetize their audiences.
But the editors’ ability to adapt has proven to be invaluable. In these turbulent conditions, media companies rolled out virtual events, ditched subscription payment walls, and reshuffled ad budgets through close ties with ad clients. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post, among others, launched advertising products tailored to markets where buyers needed to make quick decisions on the fly.
As budgets started to float again (60% of publishers reported lower ad rates in April, for example IAB) those with close ties to customers reaped the rewards in the second half of the year. Customer loyalty is synonymous with success. This publisher Group Nine has launched 78 editorial and sponsored and vertical franchises since the start of the pandemic to meet the needs of advertising clients outside of stressed verticals like travel and hospitality. The Feel-good In This Together series, launched in March, has sold every episode since July to partner brands. In 2020, Group Nine had a 60% customer retention rate, according to chief revenue officer Geoff Schiller.
“We win through retention. It’s one of our engines, ”says Schiller. “This allows us to have long-standing relationships, provide white glove service, and be quick and nimble.”
In an instance where flat has become the new “up,” a handful of publishers, from Bloomberg Media to The Information and Group Nine, have made it through 2020 in relatively good shape.
Where we are now
The question now is how publishers will remain nimble, especially as they grapple with the same predicament they have faced since last March – how to plan in an era of uncertainty.
Publishers anticipate positive growth, says Adweek Intelligence Study. About 68% of respondents said they were very or slightly optimistic about the year ahead. Among consumer and professional publishers, 71% expect positive financial growth in 2021 thanks in large part to the prospect of Covid-19 vaccines on the horizon allowing for provisional meetings, in-person events and gradual returns to the office.
The pressure is to figure out where this revenue will come from, especially when the full impact of the pandemic has been veiled by stimulus packages. Multiple crises have forced the inequality gap to widen, and media companies must now show real commitment to their promises of diversity, equity and inclusion, both internally and externally.
The bifurcation of media companies has become pronounced. Bigger, stronger companies with more data resources continue to invest in digital transformation and adapt to the challenges typical of economic downturns. Suitors love The New York Times continue to invest in top journalists and editors. Digital publishers such as BuzzFeed and HuffPost have consolidated to capitalize on each other’s strengths.
Where we are going
Antitrust business is piling up around Google and Facebook, from the former’s market dominance in search and ad technology to the latter’s purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp. These will scold through lengthy litigation procedures that distract from future business innovation.