Why publishers should feel optimistic
In August 2018, something happened that had never happened before: Facebook, the arch nemesis of the traditional publishing world, took a multi-billion dollar kicking from Wall Street following a decline in new users and a series of scandals. Yet more than that, in the same month, print ad revenues for UK newsbrands increased for the first time in seven years.
As the summer drew to a close, Mediatel spoke with major publishers about this modest reversal of fortunes, and noted a new level of optimism. The way some publishers now thought about the future was markedly different than it was just a year ago or two ago - something we found particularly striking given all of the misfortunes that had clobbered them over the previous decade.
The threats and challenges had been exhausting to even list, but the main problems stemmed from confusion over which online business model to use and the conundrum of delivering Facebook-level scale, through to dirty adtech supply chains and the issue of luring advertisers away from the new data-driven offerings from Silicon Valley. It felt like it was only a matter of time before a major UK publisher would have to close entirely.
Then Brexit happened, Trump rose to power, fake news became an industry in its own right and brand safety woes, data breaches and metrics blunders began to tarnish the big tech platforms. All of these things, no doubt, began a slow reappraisal of premium news publishers.
So, as 2018 now draws to a close, many publishers - Johnston Press aside - are thinking about the year ahead with a renewed optimism - and this was outlined very clearly during this year’s Publishers Conference, hosted by Mediatel in partnership with Ezoic and Newsworks.
As Simon Jenkins, joint chief strategy officer of VCCP Media said on the day: "There is a lot of instability around the rest of the industry in terms of viewability, brand safety and transparency.
"You also have the backdrop of [geopolitical] uncertainty for consumers. They want trusted editorial advisors, so what we’re finding is that newsbrands have remained beacon brands."
With that in mind, these are our key take-outs from the conference, coupled with the remaining challenges to tackle in 2019.
PAMCo really was a game changer
In April 2018, after more than 60 years, the NRS was replaced by PAMCo - a new audience measurement company that, unlike its print-focused predecessor, could reveal the total brand reach for UK newsbrands across print and digital.
At the time it was described by industry commentators as a "landmark moment", and was certainly a world first. Eight months on, and agencies have high praise for what was achieved.
“I’m loving PAMCo because for once it allows us to look across all devices and brands and really see the scale of the audiences – and scale is still the most important thing for most clients," said Clare Chapman, head of media planning, Essence EMEA.
"I think PAMCo is going to revolutionise the way we plan for brands.”
Chapman added that the media landscape has only grown in complexity, but what PAMCo has done is deliver a "shortcut" for over-stretched planners.
"We’re only human, we look for shortcuts all the time," she said. "So making it as easy as we can for us to see and access the data is really key.”
Has that changed the way agencies talk to clients about using newsbrands to advertise?
Chapman admits the PAMCo data is still taking a bit of used to, and that behavioural change takes time, but as the industry enters its annual planning cycles for its clients, her planners are talking to them about newsbrands in a different and more positive way than they were last year.
Sentiment has changed
Not only have newsbrands been reappraised in the era of brand safety blunders, fake news, and attacks - both physical and political - on journalists, but there is also a growing body of evidence to now prove the effectiveness of premium published content.
The impact of this has, it seems, changed the way advertisers and planners perceive publishers. Newsworks, as the marketing body for national newsbrands, has produced weighty bodies of evidence over the last 18 months. Of particular note is the Planning for Profit study - which focuses on the total campaign profit delivered by investing in newsbrands and quantifies the effectiveness of both print and digital newsbrands for the very first time.
This evidence does not sit in isolation, however - other marketing and trade bodies have produced similar studies in the wake of a decline in marketing effectiveness and a lurch to short-termism. Many of them include print, adding to an already substantial library to draw on.
"Where our clients see or perceive effectiveness, they will put their money," said Chapman.
Meanwhile, Chris Taylor, chief information officer, Telegraph Media Group, said he also sees a positive change in sentiment towards newsbrands. However, this needs to feed into commercial gains much more quickly.
"Performance is definitely improving, and you can see that over the last couple of quarters," he said. "However, the challenge is this: sentiment is great, but what you really need is for that to flow down to actual transactions and the buying-desk level over the long term."
Monetising online users
It's taken publishers some time to find the right online business model fit for their own brand. Open and free? Membership? Hard paywall? Registered user only? Micro-payments? Every publisher has tried something - some, such as the Sun erected a paywall only to take it down, while the Guardian has maintained a free-model, but takes donations (very successfully).
Meanwhile, The Times stuck to its guns and has always charged for its online news, and in the end this paid off.
For the Telegraph, now is the time to pursue a registration-first strategy, having found that its registered users produce five times the value of an anonymous individual in terms of future revenue and long term return. That's despite its overall audience having "not materially changed."
"The idea of being able to secure long term sustainable value from anonymous scale has waned," said Taylor. "Very much on the rise in our mind is the idea of developing a direct relationship with the customer.
"We know for a fact that, when you have a business like ours - for which digital subscribers, e-commerce and advanced forms of digital advertising are all very important - getting people to register is an excellent way to provide oxygen to all three areas of the business."
Meanwhile, Chapman likes the idea of publishers being able to have pre-segmented audiences ready to buy.
Yet the idea for micro-payments - long mooted as a way to monetise casual users - is out. "There's just too much friction," said Taylor of the transactional process...but the tech to remedy this might appear one day.
Pooling digital ad sales
After several false starts, earlier this year four major publishers joined up to the Ozone Project - a joint digital ad sales house that seeks to offer better scale, a cleaner supply chain and easier buying options for advertisers.
It will also simplify ad buying for agencies and advertisers by consolidating multiple platforms into one. One of the most appealing traits of the platform is the audience it provides: 43 million British consumers - which puts it on par with Facebook.
"The main appeal [of Ozone] is that it's a trusted premium environment at scale," said Taylor. "But it also includes some bespoke adtech executions which are designed to ensure that safety, reliability and transparency. That’s the big difference.”
Meanwhile, VCCP's Jenkins said media agencies want the best of both worlds. "We want to be able to plan audience-first but again be able to deliver environment and context. That’s why Ozone could be hugely interesting if it gives me a network with which to chase consumers around – that would probably be hugely powerful.”
Although there are outstanding questions over Ozone - some programmatic media buyers feel they can already access content from most of the publishers through the systems they already use, and big publishers such as the MailOnline are not involved - Essence's Chapman thinks it looks promising.
“The benefit of Facebook for us is scale, yes, but actually it really is the data behind it," she said. "Because it’s got such a big reach we can buy any sub-segment of audience we want relatively intelligently and in a targeted way.
"For me, that’s what Ozone brings. You’re adding the scale that gives the ability to dip in and pull out the bits that we want.”
Despite the positive changes, there are still some uphill battles.
Brand safety is a big issue - and experts speaking at the conference think the solutions for getting it right for everyone in the market - advertisers, agencies, readers and publishers - is several years off.
And with crude brand safety tools in play, publishers are sometimes losing out on ad revenue because the tools do not understand context. There's a big difference between a news report on ISIS and a recruitment video for the terror group, for instance.
There are also issues on the creative side - as Mark Elwood, executive creative director, Mullen Lowe, pointed out: young creatives are caught in the transitional period between using traditional media as a canvas, and a complex, data-driven, digital world. The skills are different and its still very much a test-and-learn market.
Finally, print circulations might have seen a return to growth this year, but in general they are still in decline and the future is clearly digital.
“The market’s changed a lot," said Vanessa Clifford, CEO of Newsworks. “We should be really careful about not harking back to those supposed golden years. Newsbrands exist on every single platform that is out there – so we need to look at how we piece all of those things together in the amazing context of a trusted brand safe environment in the right way."
Clifford said that will involve some print and some digital and perhaps content on platforms such as Snapchat and Facebook. But the point is, the brands in their own right are trusted, safe environments.
"How we have that dialogue with agencies and clients is really important," she said. "How do you use us now that we are this evolved media?"