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Roundtable debate: The Future of Publishing

25 Jun 2020 
Roundtable debate: The Future of Publishing

To celebrate the live stream of The Future of Publishing event, Steven Scaffardi hosts a debate looking at how publishers are navigating their way through the pandemic

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): Hello everyone and welcome to this round table special on Mediatel News as part of our exciting new series of fortnightly digital experiences.

This week we are discussing The Future of Publishing and joining the debate today is David Mulrenan (Head of Investment at Zenith UK), Amy Brown (Head of Trading at Hearst UK), Sue Todd (CEO at Magnetic Media), David McMurtie (Head of Publishers UK – Partner Business Solutions, Google) and Lee Lythe (Chief Investment Officer, Spark Foundry).

Let’s get to it. Three months after going into lockdown, how do you feel the publishing industry is coping in what has obviously been a very difficult period where revenues have been hit hard?

David Mulrenan: This situation brought the best out of people. Continuous innovation, whether that be in how the copy gets into consumers hands or using their first party data to help take the temperature of the nation, I think the publishing industry has stood out. The way they have interacted with agencies and clients has been in a respectful but helpful manner, particularly when they are being hit so hard in terms of revenue.

Amy Brown:
The publishing industry is resilient, and most brands have adapted well and more importantly in a conscientious manner. With printed brands we faced a huge technical challenge of creating, editing, printing and distributing 19 brands and we did not miss a single deadline.

Digitally we have seen audience growth with 79.5million UU in May, up 26.4% year over year as there is a desire for our positive and inspiring content. Our e-commerce arm has accelerated, and we have seen growth of 328%.

Sue Todd: Magazine publishers moved quickly to adapt to the national lockdown. With newsstand closures, subscriptions have seen a surge, up 200% in some cases, and publishers were quick to redirect supply chains and support supermarket outlets.

Editorial switched immediately to helping audiences cope with their working and lifestyle changes and have continued to provide useful and reassuring information to consumers. The close relationship magazine titles have with their readers has helped deliver highly relevant content that has been ‘on point’ in terms of the mood of the nation.

From a commercial perspective, advertising teams moved quickly online and produced a series of sector-specific targeted webinars to help brands and agencies navigate through the changes. Insight teams have supported these with regular tracker studies to provide the very latest in consumer sentiment and the feedback to this has been incredibly positive.

Lee Lythe: Personally, I am impressed with the agility and adaptability we have seen from newsbrands over the last three months. By speedily implementing strategies such as reassessing their distribution points, subscription promotions and introducing new home delivery propositions, they have done everything they can to safeguard their circulation.

In an online world clouded by fake news and misinformation, the Covid crisis has seen a surge of new readers turning to trusted news brands and publications for the facts they can trust and rely on. As such all news brands have seen growth in their digital audiences, but the uplift has been mainly around Covid content.

Newsworks' executive chair Tracy De Groose sending an open letter to advertisers, urging them to back British journalism by taking 'coronavirus' out of blocklists, was a great step to protect and encourage spend.

David McMurtie: When thinking about this question my mind immediately went to the famous opening lines of Dickens' Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

It’s almost as if this was written with news and Covid-19 in mind. On the positive side, publishers, especially news publishers, have benefited from a huge increase in readership and news content has never been more important or relevant to people’s lives.

News subscriptions have increased along with trust in news, and younger generations are finding new ways to engage with news, all of which are optimistic signs for the future.

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): What are the most innovative ways in which you think publishers have reacted to make sure they continue to engage with consumers?

Sue Todd: Magazine media business models and day-to-day operating has evolved at a pace. With the majority of people working from home, some magazine titles have had to completely pivot. The Big Issue – typically sold by street vendors – had to overhaul its distribution model and move in store, seeing deals struck with chains such as Sainsbury’s and Co-op.

Time Out whose raison d’etre centres around city culture and entertainment, switched to becoming Time In.

Large-scale events that are popular with readers went online attracting vast audiences. A great example being Women’s Health Live which was viewed by over 10.9 million across Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. They also added over 10,000 to their Women’s Health Live Facebook group, creating a new online fitness community in a matter of days.

Lee Lythe: Never have we seen such a huge amount of innovation in such a short time. The newspapers coming together with their new delivery at home proposition: delivermynewspaper.co.uk is absolutely brilliant, and definitely deserves a mention. The Evening Standard completely overhauling their distribution strategy is also worth mentioning.

The Mail, Metro and i titles introduced a great incentive offering £3m worth in free advertising to small businesses struggling due to Covid. Businesses could apply for £3,000 of advertising each for use across print and online – a wonderful initiative and truly inventive. Whatever they are doing it’s working… the latest readership audience from PAMCo last week told us over 34 million people a day now read a newsbrand – a rise of 3.2 million daily readers compared to a year ago.

David Mulrenan: First and foremost, has to be distribution. They quickly had to pivot to a different way of getting copies in hands. Whether that be home delivery or increasing distribution in supermarkets. Metro, for example, upweighted area’s where they knew key workers would still be out and about and The Evening Standard targeted home deliveries to people in and around Zones 1 and 2.

Further to that The Mail created a charity Mail Force to support NHS Staff and Key Workers which has raised circa £10 million and they have also created a £5m fund for SME’s to utilise their inventory. The Telegraph have been interacting with their readers via Podcasts and WhatsApp groups, staying relevant and useful to their readers in difficult times.

David McMurtie: There are a few publisher examples I’d highlight, all of these are customer focused: BBC Good Food developed the #stayhomegetcooking initiative simultaneously livestreamed on the BBC Good Food YT channel, Facebook and Instagram.

Users of bbcgoodfood.com grew by well over 100% year on year, and there have been millions of video views and interactions across social channels. Gumtree saw the rapid shift to home deliveries and launched a quick, inexpensive, and contactless delivery service with Parcel2Go.

Reach developed Mantis with IBM Watson, and has used the tool to identify positive news stories around Covid-19 and unblock inventory that was blocked through keyword blocking, allowing advertisers to create a positive association with ‘good-news’ stories.

Amy Brown: A key challenge for us was our dynamic distribution model where we target an engaged audience through premium events and social spaces such as offices and gyms. We reacted quickly by moving dynamic distribution of our May issues into door-drops, where we were able to quickly target high affluent addresses.

As lockdown has continued, we have been distributing copies directly to frontline workers at the NHS, via the excellent Project Wingman initiative. Last, but not least, it has been about keeping our clients supported and enabling clients to invest in our marketplace at a difficult time. I have felt a real sense of camaraderie between agencies and media owners as we get through this together.

The announcement from ABC that newsbrands no longer need to make their circulation details public throws up an interesting set of questions around new measurement techniques to reassure advertisers in a post-COVID future. What are your views on how publishers should and could be measured in the future?

Lee Lythe: Given the vast shift in consumer behaviour, I strongly believe that newsbrands should not be judged on a single number, which reflects falling circulations of their print properties. They need to be judged on their overall reach across ALL of their platforms.

The technology to enable this is available now, so in all honesty I cannot fathom why as an industry we are not insisting that the dots are joined. This will show a different but much truer representation, allowing us to make fair and considered judgements about which publishers we collaborate with to support our brands.

Realistically the only people that care about circulation figures are agency trading teams and their clients, and these people will have access to the figures (albeit under NDA), so trading is unlikely to change dramatically. Readers certainly are not concerned – if you like a news brand, you like a news brand, and increasing or falling circulation numbers is not going to change that.

Amy Brown: In this difficult time, I think it is important that media owners are transparent with the buyers and I understand that the news brands are still sharing figures with agencies each month. I think some publishers have chosen to hold back on official reporting until they can get a deeper understanding of this unique period. Of course, circulation is going to be impacted but it is about what the industry does to adapt and recover from this.

David Mulrenan: ABC has always and continues to be the gold standard in measurement. However, it does come at a cost as publishers continue to lose revenue this has to be reviewed.

Also, as more and more of their audience comes from outside print, they need a different type of measurement to the past. The key part of this is to make it adaptable so it can last long into the future. What agencies and advertisers want is certified third party verification of this audience.

Sue Todd: The UK publishing sector has some of the most robust standards in audience measurement in the world. We have market-leading standards of auditing with the ABC, innovative gold standard measurement of audiences with PAMCo and new digital measurement around the corner from UKOM.

Advertisers can be confident that what they buy, and plan are what’s delivered. It’s incredibly important that in the sector which has the highest levels of consumer trust (as measured by Ofcom, Kanter and others), we are trusted to do the right thing on the commercial side and offer transparency and accountability at all times.

I think the more we can all do to support cross-platform measurement the better and the more effective comms planning becomes. We are all watching the development of Project Origin with interest.

David McMurtie: Circulation has always been a one dimensional approach to measurement and as readership has shifted from print to digital and across platforms, its relevance has declined.

For those titles which continue to invest in print, this will increasingly be as an add-on to digital and not the other way around. This places greater emphasis on true cross platform measurement and a greater understanding of reader behaviour.

PAMCo has shown what can be done to measure cross platform readership, creating a JIC that is more relevant for today’s complex landscape than circulation data alone. As a key to unlocking advertising budgets and competing with other media, having this data is a big step forward for publishers.

Looking to the future, deeper integration with Publisher ad serving technology for targeting would be a major step forward.

Steven Scaffardi (Chair): Media analysts have been predicting that this pandemic will accelerate huge changes in consumer behaviour. With that in mind, what is the future of publishing?

David McMurtie: For publishers, the challenge continues to be that of achieving the right balance between scale and audience quality. As the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020 highlighted, they do need to cultivate new channels where they can engage with the younger audiences who are vital to their long term survival.

Successful publishers will have to create high-value experiences across device types to maintain this type of loyalty, and seek the right monetisation strategy to drive immediate and long-term revenue.

Equally important to content strategy is the challenge of balancing multiple revenue streams and optimising to the lifetime value of a single user.

David Mulrenan: I believe that the changes in consumer behaviour because of this pandemic and other world events will only make trusted news sources more important. Some of the changes in consumer behaviour will stick around, but not all of them. Let’s hope that one of the ones that does is the increasing amount of people consuming content from our fantastic publishing industry.

Amy Brown: As I said before I think that Covid has accelerated change that was going to happen in our industry. Our ability to work remotely and still create relevant and engaging content has shined. Some print brands may be lost but publishing is about so much more than the printed page and brands live on digitally. We will continue to see digital acceleration I think e commerce will be a really interesting growth area.

Sue Todd: Magazine editors have always been well attuned to cultural changes, so diversification of publishing brands will certainly accelerate.

In the context of Covid-19, people are attributing a higher value to content and experiences that serve their passions. We know from previous work with Enders Analysis that ‘the Passion Pound’ is the only part of discretionary spend on the up.

Behaviour during the pandemic would support this with subs and spend around hyper-relevant passion areas seeming to be high. That deep understanding of what consumers want, delivered in a positive way, means magazine brands stay relevant and are able to offer brands an environment that commands strong attention and trust.

Lee Lythe: The future of publishing is inevitably digital. There will always be a role calved out for print, but it will continue to decline in line with consumer behaviour.

However, publishers have a huge opportunity that they must seize. Publishers need to break down their internal silos between print and digital and talk to agencies and advertisers in a joined up manner, rather than print experts and digital experts having separate conversations, with opportunities and revenues falling between the cracks.

Reporting publisher reach across all platforms as industry standard would be the next vital step. Consumers are becoming platform agnostic, and context is more important than ever for advertisers, so a platform agnostic approach to publisher spend is where I at least hope the future will be.



The Future of Publishing was live streamed on 25 June, but is available on demand. Visit the event website for access details.

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