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What will publishing look like post Coronavirus?

The economic impact of the world’s response to the deadly novel coronavirus may be even more devastating than the public health impact. Carolyn Morgan assesses the likely legacy of the virus.

By Carolyn Morgan

What will publishing look like post Coronavirus?

With the majority of Western economies in lockdown with an uncertain end date, consumer spending and business activity is in freefall.

You don’t need me to tell you about the impact on all this disruption on your own publishing and media business. Advertising revenues are stalling, and newsstand sales are crashing. Live events have long been a lucrative extension for media owners: they have been stopped in their tracks, and organisers are quickly getting up to speed on virtual event platforms and rushing to reconfigure conferences planned for later in 2020 as purely digital experiences.

Publishing teams have quickly shifted to working from home, reliant on domestic broadband. This isn’t such a huge change for editorial or marketing teams, although they miss their creative collaboration with colleagues. But it’s a major adjustment for sales teams, used to working closely together and clinching deals in face to face client meetings. Now, not only are they learning how to sell via video platforms, they are also having to adapt to concerned and distracted marketers.

Publishing directors and business owners are in full survival mode, deferring discretionary spend, deciding which of their team to place on furlough, and reshaping their business to focus on digital solutions for sponsors. They are taking the knife to previously sacrosanct areas, trimming print copies and issue sizes, international post, external contributors and product development. This of course will have an unfortunate effect on the freelance community who support the sector.

But this horrifying perfect storm will, eventually, pass, although it may be this time next year before business conditions resemble normality. Not every media business will make it through to the other side. Some have already closed. I have in the last fortnight spoken to publishers who have furloughed a third of their staff. It will be a particularly torrid time for pure-play live events organisers, and traditional controlled circulation publishers reliant on print display advertising. Recruitment has evaporated as most organisations implement a freeze on new roles.

So, when the survivors step out into the unfamiliarity of the outside world again, what will it look like, and how will their businesses have to change?

I’m making seven predictions about the new shape of the publishing and media sector – which might just provide you with some guidance on what changes you have to make during the height of the storm to prepare for the new world.

Pure-play exhibitions businesses or ad-dependent publishers are now looking much shakier.

1. Revenue diversity will be more important than ever

Over the last few years, media businesses have been growing their subscriptions and recurring revenue, to balance the volatility of advertising. Many have moved into events, training and learning, research, consultancy or e-commerce. This diversity of revenues, all built around quality content and strong relationships with a specific market, will be core to resilience. Pure-play exhibitions businesses or ad-dependent publishers are now looking much shakier.

2. The print newsstand model will reach its endgame

For specialist publishers, newsstand sales were becoming barely profitable pre-virus, as footfall declined, and wastage grew. Post virus, buyer behaviour may shift permanently, so reliance on newsstand for reach and sampling may have to end. Publishers who continue to produce print editions will likely reduce frequency and push up cover prices and shift aggressively to subscriptions. International print subscriptions may no longer be viable, and publishers will shift towards digital delivery.

3. Subscription and membership will be the new religion

If you had already been focusing on subscription and membership, you will be counting your blessings. And if part of your subs package was print, you might be considering how to now deliver it digitally and push your readers online. The greatest asset a media brand has is its audience, with loyal relationships built up over maybe decades of excellent, relevant, authoritative content. So, there will be a new focus on serving your most loyal customers and determining what additional services you can offer at a premium price. Training and learning were already moving online pre-virus, and I expect this to become the default, and an important part of membership propositions. Keeping your core community close, online or via live events, will become ever more essential.

4. Digital presence will drive awareness and sampling

Without newsstand visibility, or live events, the only route to developing new prospective customers is digitally. Successful media brands will focus on creating targeted, valuable social media and free website and newsletter content, to draw in readers to their digital marketing funnel. Managing content intelligently, to provide readers with engaging, relevant information, and drawing them in closer to your premium subscription offer, will become an essential skill.

5. Many more events will be virtual, not live

As event organisers come to terms with the fact that 2020 will not be a year for live events, they are rapidly exploring digital alternatives. B2B conferences that are largely about learning and best practice, can be relatively easily transferred to digital platforms. Sponsors who are used to developing thought leadership content are open to the idea of converting their marketing investment to digital and measuring RoI in terms of online audiences and qualified leads. And delegates who are having to conduct all their routine business on video platforms will, by this autumn, be digital ninjas. Even networking can, to an extent, be replicated online.

The mega business exhibitions, with acres of stands and product, might be harder to replace in cyberspace. I can’t really envisage the Spring Fair, filling the NEC with tactile giftware and tinsel, working on a digital platform. So, they may persist from 2021, albeit the valuations may be less heady now that international business travel is no longer considered essential. And those trading in less tangible wares, such as tech and services, might move online.

Consumer events fill a different need. While editorial gurus can share their wisdom on video platforms, the events that more resemble an entertaining day out, like Good Food or Gardeners’ World or Glastonbury, will likely return with a vengeance from next year.

But I would predict that maybe a third of all B2B events that were “live” in 2019 will be virtual in 2021. Venues may need to invest in digital technology, much as printers have in the last decade.

6. Commercial relationships will be collaborative: about outcomes not reach

The shift away from print, and live events, and towards new digitally driven marketing solutions, will require sales teams to invest time in working closely with their best clients to co-create new campaigns. Not all advertisers will survive the storm. Media owners will have to spot the sectors and companies that will continue to invest in marketing, and spend more time getting to know them and developing tailored solutions. By the end of 2021, sales teams might have fewer commercial partners, but a deeper relationship and, with luck, higher spend per client. The conversation will be more about delivering business outcomes in partnership with clients than simply placing their messages before a large audience.

7. Remote working will be the default and new skills in demand

Publishing, sales, marketing, editorial, events and tech teams have had to make a rapid accommodation to remote working. Whilst video meetings are not a perfect substitute for in person creative sessions, they suffice. Many staff will start to appreciate the autonomy of managing their own working week. And managers will learn to trust their teams to deliver in their own style.

Once the worrying backdrop of the virus itself, and the distractions of small children at home have receded, more people will want to actively choose remote working. And the MD who has had to pay rent and insurance on an empty office for several months, may wish to reconfigure costs, instead hiring flexible meeting space for periodic team gatherings. An advantage of the move to virtual organisations, is that you can recruit regardless of geography, and long commutes will be a distant memory.

During the crisis, workers have had to sprint up a steep tech learning curve. Even those who previously dismissed digital technology will have had time to observe how it can work for clients, readers and the publishing team. This is helpful, as the future is likely to require all of us to learn new skills, innovate what we offer our customers and master new technologies. Willingness and the ability to learn and adopt new practices will become ever more important in recruitment and will be the key to future growth.

If you had already been focusing on subscription and membership, you will be counting your blessings.

The future shape of the publishing and media sector

At an aggregate level, how might publishing businesses look in three years’ time? Here’s some more specific predictions:

  • Over half of all revenues on a subscription or membership basis
  • Over half of all revenues driven by digital technology (events, e-learning, content, e-commerce, digital marketing solutions)
  • One third of B2B event revenues delivered via digital platforms
  • Over half of all staff working remotely
  • Fewer commercial clients but with higher spend
  • At least four different revenue streams for each media business, none accounting for more than half of total revenues

So, the question for media owners is, how can I start to reshape my business now, firstly, so that it can survive the storm, and secondly, be positioned to grow when the skies clear. My counsel would be to stay close to your readers and advertisers, take early decisions on products that will not be viable, and experiment with digital platforms to educate customers and staff on what will work for your audience.

Good luck and stay safe.

Willingness and the ability to learn and adopt new practices will become ever more important in recruitment and will be the key to future growth.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list, please register here.