Last year, the team at Pugpig decided to take a step back from their day-to-day development work and get a sense of what was going on in the wider digital publishing market. Analysing data from their publishing clients and interviewing 40 senior executives, they created the company’s first annual State of the Digital Publishing Market report.

As the platform provider for over 300 media brands – from The Economist to The Independent – Pugpig is in a unique position to answer key questions about the digital publishing market.

In this special Conversations episode of Media Voices, Peter Houston is joined by Pugpig founder and CEO Jonny Kaldor to discuss what’s been happening in the world of digital publishing, and what to expect from 2021.

Here are some highlights:

A ‘helicopter view’ of digital publishing

What we’re seeing is pretty positive, I have to say. We’re seeing increases in readership and engagement pretty much across the board actually; the dailies, the weeklies, and the monthlies. There was definitely a COVID bump in terms of engagement and readership, for the dailies in particular.

And then the monthlies is interesting, because consumer publishing has been attacked on all sides. Not just from a technology standpoint, but also, the fact that the content for the mass consumer media is harder to defend.

So what we found with the consumer titles is, the niche titles, again, doing really well. I think the bigger publishers have found it more challenging. But this was an interesting year for the consumer publishers, because subscriber revenue finally got the priority that it’s probably been wanting for some years.

Consumer publishing is not quite there yet, at least in our little world, it’s not quite as mature as the dailies and weeklies. But it’s definitely getting there.

Editions vs live apps

What’s interesting is it’s a very subtle difference between the two. The Independent is a great example. They have a daily edition, and The Independent Premium, and the overlap in content is enormous. The publishing cadence is pretty similar. I mean, the daily edition obviously is updated once a day, then Premium is updated more regularly.

But ultimately, it’s just down to a different user experience. Some readers like the idea of a finite piece of content that has a beginning and an end, and they can go from start to finish, and they have a sense of completion. And some readers like the idea of dipping in and out, and browsing through different timelines and different sections.

Ultimately, the content product is the same, the user experience is different. So what we’re seeing now is a blurring of the lines.

Evolving content delivery

You start with the content, from one perspective, but you’ve got to start with the user and this device that they’ve got in their hands, and ask, where are they? And why is the device in the hands? And what’s their intent? And what are they trying to achieve?

Then you deliver a product, which matches that rather than, ‘Oh, yeah, we’ve got all this content leftover from a print workflow, might as well just throw it at the phone and see what happens.’ Which is what I think a lot of publishers did, which is why apps got a bad rap four or five years ago, because people just did half hearted attempts at creating products.

But now they really are putting a lot of effort into it. And it works.

The subscription opportunity for apps

The New York Times is an interesting one. The discussion there when Mark Thompson did his exit interview with McKinsey actually – and these are his words – he turned the New York Times into an organisation, which is app first, website second, print third. He completely switched.

They’re almost unique in that respect. In other words, all of the other news media I speak to and we work with are web first, web or print first, app second, print third. So that’s fascinating that he sees the app as the thing driving their product strategy.

I think in general, apps are terrible for acquisition. It’s just not their job. So apps, if you think of the pyramid of your readership, where at the bottom, the big base is social, and then you’ve got your website, and then you’ve got your paying subscribers, and then you’ve got your members at the very tip of the pyramid, apps are really good at the tip of the pyramid, or the top two tiers.

So as a consequence, yes, they’re terrible at acquisition, but they really are the basis for retention. So what we tend to find is, you get your audience through social or through your web presence, you then encourage them to download an app, and then it’s the app that you engage with them on a daily basis, because that’s the thing that’s on the homescreen. It’s one tap away.

How the pandemic has changed digital publishing

It certainly looks like it changed things over the course of last year in that there was a significant shift upwards in terms of subscriber numbers and reader revenue. What we saw was that so called COVID bump, which hit in February, March. Actually, it dipped a little bit over the course of the summer, but it came back again.

And that increase so far is holding. I mean, I guess we’re still in lockdown, so I’m not quite sure what what that says, apart from, at least it wasn’t a blip that disappeared. So we’re maintaining it now.

My sense is yes, I think it’s not just the situation the world finds itself in, I think it’s also just that publishers over the last year, and I can specifically pinpoint customers of ours who really do have a renewed energy in driving subscriber revenue and building products that will enable that, so I definitely see a shift.

I see that shift having started a year ago. I’m not sure if the shift was because of COVID, but there is that that element of the shift from print to digital, and certainly a number of the news media companies we’ve been working with have accelerated their plans of what was a, ‘Well, we’ll let print just slowly do its thing naturally, and we’ll let digital take over,’ to right now, ‘Okay, now the cost of distributors is too high, we simply want to do a wholesale switch to digital.’

So we’re definitely seeing that, which clearly has a huge impact.

Pugpig is the publishing platform that powers the world’s leading media brands, from The Economist, Conde Nast and DMG Media, to Hearst Magazines, Tortoise and The independent.

We work with publishers to launch lightning-fast websites, beautiful digital editions and deeply engaging mobile apps, all in record time and with Team Pugpig providing support every step of the way.

Learn more about Pugpig, or find them on Twitter and Linkedin.

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