Despite all the challenges, 2020 has had some bright spots for publishers. Subscriptions have almost universally boomed, and traffic to sites has hit record highs as audiences turn to publishers for vital information – or as a distraction from – the pandemic.
Publishers have not rested on their laurels, but instead have come up with ways to engage new and existing audiences. In fact, nearly three in four publishers have created new content products in direct response to COVID-19, according to a survey by Brand United and Publishing Executive.
But beyond the obvious ways of making money, there have been some alternative revenue streams that have grown and evolved during lockdown. Here, we take a look at three of the most common, and importantly, what the outlook is for publishers looking to develop them into a post-pandemic world.
In March, with supermarkets only open for essential items and postal services disrupted, many publishers with print magazines had to put contingency plans in place to be able to get copies to customers. Some, like The Week Junior, made digital copies of their magazines available to subscribers in order to have a ‘backup’ to the print magazine.
Although the print magazine is still first and foremost for The Week Junior, they still have around 3,000 people looking at the digital edition each month. Editor in Chief Anna Bassi said that this means if children are able to go on holiday, “they could still get their Week Junior while they’re away.”
Another publisher seeing success with a digital edition is Stylist magazine. Stylist were already planning an app edition, but accelerated their plans as lockdown put a stop to distributing the free weekly magazine in UK cities. They continued producing a weekly digital version, with individual issues or a variety of subscription options available to purchase in the app.
The digital subscription has been such a successful move for Stylist that CEO Ella Dolphin recently said that the magazine “will not go back to being a free title”. Its print version returned in early October as a monthly issue, available via subscription or Ocado delivery.
While it is difficult to assess how long-lasting the surge in interest in digital magazines will last, the effects of the pandemic have gone on long enough to establish patterns in user behaviour. Now it is up to publishers to ensure their content is engaging enough to command loyalty when life starts getting back to normal.
Much has been written about publishing’s pivot to virtual events. But as consumers warm up to the idea of paying for digital ‘tickets’ and event organisers get smarter with their offerings, virtual events are proving to be a solid revenue stream.
The biggest benefit to virtual events is that anyone can attend from anywhere in the world. This opens the reach of the event up, meaning that publishers can either offer a scaled proposition to advertisers, or sell more tickets than they could if it was a physical event – even if prices are lower.
The FT are one example of a publisher seeing success with both advertisers and audiences. Their virtual event The Global Boardroom was spun up very quickly during lockdown, and with 110 speakers, it attracted 52,000 registrations from around the world. This scale, and the analytics capabilities of their event software, has been a key selling point for sponsors.
For the second edition of The Global Boardroom, coming up in November, the publisher is taking a freemium approach to ticketing. There is a free pass available which gives access to talks, Q&As and polls. There are then two paid options; a $65 pass which gives on-demand access to talks and summary reports, then a top-tier ‘Professional Pass’ which adds 1-1 networking, exclusive access to extra sessions, and a business community area.
But virtual events show promise beyond global scale and ticket revenue. Of the 52,000 people the FT had attending their first event, three-quarters were completely new to them. This in turn provides a valuable opportunity to feed their subscription pipeline, and promote other FT work to them.
For some publishers, events will be difficult to translate to the virtual space in a way that brings in any notable form of revenue. But as organisations like the FT have demonstrated, there are plenty of ways to be creative in this space and grow virtual events into a substantial revenue stream for the pandemic and beyond.
Ecommerce is not a new revenue stream for publishers, but some have got creative in driving traffic and sales during lockdown. Ecommerce is reliant on events like Amazon’s Prime Day – which was postponed this year from July to October due to the pandemic – for boosts outside of the Christmas shopping season.
But with shoppers stuck at home, some publishers have created their own ‘virtual shopping festivals’ to capture the buzz of Prime Day for themselves.
The Strategist came up with its own “Two Day (Actually Good) Sale” in May to capitalise on an exceptional second quarter, where they had seen an 85% year-over-year increase in commerce revenue. Compared to the site’s average performance of an ecommerce article, there was a 50% increase in both average click-through rates and earnings per click for items included in the sale.
Cosmopolitan also launched its own virtual shopping festival in August called “Hauliday”, which involved 96 brands offering exclusive deals to Cosmo’s audience. Like The Strategist, Cosmopolitan had seen an opportunity as the pandemic caused its affiliate business to grow 288% year-over-year.
Being able to manufacture a buzz around a publisher’s own shopping channels is a vital step in reducing reliance on Amazon’s own shopping holidays, which will first and foremost serve their interests. It is something that can be easily replicated and grown in the years to come.
Esther is a freelance media analyst, marketer, designer, and co-host of the Media Voices Podcast, a weekly round-up of all the key media news, as well as interviews with guests from top organisations. She writes frequently for industry sites like What’s New in Publishing, as well as editing their popular weekly newsletter and their growing library of reports. She has written and designed The Publisher’s Guide to Podcasting, a comprehensive 50 page report on the challenges and opportunities of podcasts for publishers. Esther is also the founder of the Publisher Podcast Awards, celebrating the best in podcasting from media and publishing businesses.