At the 2019 PPA Independent Publishers conference, Juan Señor of Innovation Media Consulting declared in his keynote presentation rather starkly: “If… a publisher is not charging for digital content, they should not be in publishing, let alone journalism.”
Juan has a point. The old revenue rivers of gold are in relentless decline and that isn’t ever going to stop or possibly even slow down. Retail print sales are down, subscription print sales are down, advertising print revenues are down. Consumer print publishers have fought a valiant fight to slow the rate of print revenue declines, but the downward trend is now irreversible. And yet print revenues remain the cornerstone of many consumer publishers’ revenue mix and often still at a high comparative margin.
At the heart of the modern consumer publisher’s challenge in 2020 is this now familiar dilemma, how to diversify revenues while at the same time trying to cling onto those oh so familiar and oh so comforting print revenues that the company is optimised to generate?
2020 could be the year when the question of how to diversify revenues moves from being a matter of the utmost urgency to one of life or death for consumer publishers. It will take only one infrastructure earthquake to create merry hell with the increasingly fragile business model. Realistically, how long can the retail supply chain continue to exist with ever declining volume sales? Could the tectonic plates rumble and shatter here? It is certainly a major fault line.
None of this doom and gloom is new. The ‘doomsters’ have been around for years and yet consumer publishers not only continue to exist but, in some cases, thrive. They are a resilient bunch. Is Juan right when he says charging for digital content is vital for publishers? Of course he is. But it is not as simple as installing a paywall. Consumer publishers have always understood the passions and motivations of their audiences, especially specialist interest audiences. Historically, they have done this through a mix of intuition, editorial genius and carefully calibrated focus groups and surveys. Now they can do this even better through digital audience data, customer data platforms and data analytics. And with the rise of a highly competitive marketing technology market, the costs of understanding and communicating with audiences at an individual level using digital platforms and tools is no longer cost prohibitive. Just a bit scary.
Those publishers who are single minded in creating vibrant communities of readers drawn together on and offline by a common passion, but with a central belief in the power and scalability of paid digital content and engagement will finish 2020 far happier than those still obsessed with their retail margin negotiations.
Consumer publishers have always understood the passions and motivations of their audiences.
This article was first published in the Publishing Partners Guide 2020, which was distributed with the January / February issue of InPublishing magazine.
Julian Thorne is the author of the InPublishing Guide to Retention Strategies for Publishers, which you can purchase here.