This special episode of Media Voices includes the audio of our launch presentation for the Media Moments 2021 report. Chris, Peter and Esther each outline which media moment of the year they found interesting, from the refocusing on advertising and strength of eCommerce, to paid podcasting going mainstream.

The team are then joined by The Rebooting’s Brian Morrissey, Press Gazette’s Charlotte Tobitt, The Reuters Institute’s Professor Lucy Kueng, and Sovrn’s Dominic Perkins. The panel talks about some of the key media trends that have affected publishers this year, and what they’re all keeping an eye on in 2022.

Media Moments 2021 is free to download and can be accessed here.

Here are some highlights from the panel, or you can read the full transcript here:

Evolving subscription trends

Charlotte Tobitt: One of my colleagues has done what he calls the 100k Club, where he’s tracking how many English language publishers have more than 100,000 digital subscribers. There are over 30 now, and it’s all people you’d expect, and some that you might not expect to be so high: New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Gannett, The Athletic. But interestingly, Substack is now number six.

Also interesting [this year] has been trial offers. Actually, a lot of people decided it wasn’t worth doing them, and they’d rather have fewer people sign up, but actually make money and actually engage those people, rather than having loads of people sign up for hardly any money.

Hearst for example, we wrote about, stopped doing these discount offers, and it really paid off. They marketed the subscriptions properly. And it meant that the revenue per subscriber went up. So all these things are worth doing, rather than just putting a subscription out there. We’re thinking about, how do we make sure they know it is valuable and part of their everyday life?

Lucy Kueng: I think the industry is in a much more mature and solid place than we would have expected it to be. I’m not really seeing massive upticks, what I’m seeing is the whole system is getting better oiled, more mature. I’m seeing a shift in terms of organisations no longer looking at total subscriber numbers; it’s average revenue per user, lifetime customer value. So the whole thing is just getting much more sophisticated.

Where I’m still seeing the issue is getting that thinking to penetrate deep into the content creation areas especially. And I think that is the shift you’re seeing in the leading organisations. I think we’re going to see that percolate out to the rest of the organisations.

Dominic Perkins: One of the things we noticed – not from an Immediate Media point of view but from the market in general – was that in some cases, [advertising] was a very short sighted revenue claim to try and boost the revenues from around the business. So people went the opposite direction to where we should be going, and they put more ads on their pages.

Immediate did look at it from a less is more perspective, and that really came through from the subscription dialogue that we were having with our publishing teams and everybody else.

Newsletters as a fundamental shift

Lucy Kueng: The creative industries have always been winner takes it all; with Hollywood films, with classical music, with publishing, that is actually the dynamic in hte industry. If there’s a lot of mud against the wall, some sticks, and a little bit of that might become the next JK Rowling. We’re never going to break that dynamic. But actually, the growth in podcasting, the growth in newsletters, it’s really pulling out a fundamental shift in the media, which is, it’s really another stone that’s being taken out of the mass media concept, essentially.

What we are seeing across the board is that consumption is shifting from generic to specific. There’s various prime real estate in terms of very interesting areas that really have traction with audiences, that advertisers are interested in, that are being plucked off by players who are doing either newsletters or podcasts, or both, who are very dangerous to mass media players because they offer both speed and depth.

That shift from generic to specific is going to continue. Look at Axel Springer’s purchases. It’s not trying to buy News Corp. It’s trying to buy Morning Brew, it’s buying Politico; very specific players in a particular vertical where there’s the option to go B2C and B2B as well.

Brian Morrissey: We’re definitely seeing a flight to niche and to verticals. I think newsletters and podcasts are interesting because they’re examples of a larger shift going on in general, from institutions to individuals. There’s been a lot of trust loss over the last decade plus, really, and I think it’s normal for this phase of media to go more towards individuals, because people end up trusting people more than they do faceless brands.

That has a lot of advantages for individuals. And so I think newsletters and podcasts are both very personal media in some ways… and why is it working so well? Because it’s very much tied to a person. It’s more valuable to have a narrower but deeper audience than it is to have broad fly-by-night audiences. And that’s just part of the overall trend.

Charlotte Tobitt: Publishers have slowly started to realise that newsletters are a way of building a more specific relationship. We’ve spoken to some where, the i for example, they started to make the newsletters more tailored from a particular person within the organisation, like the culture editor. It’s very much based around their personality, even though it’s a branded email.

Dominic Perkins: I think publishers have to be very careful about how they define those newsletters from metering and things like that. There’s little point in having millions and millions of email addresses, other than from perhaps an advertising point of view, if you’re going to be sending out loads and loads of emails which aren’t really required or wanted. They’ve got to be wanted to be engaged with – engagement is a really important part.

M&A for future growth, and growth for Future

Lucy Kueng: M&A is going to accelerate, because once you’ve done the digital homework, and you’ve got beautifully executed digital machinery, you have this horrible moment where you realise average revenue per user on digital is just a fraction of what it was in the old days. So if you’re serious about your content creation or your newsroom, you’ve got to find growth from somewhere. And that is actually acquisition.

One of the interesting things underlying that development, what you’re seeing is actually a kind of acknowledgement that the growth is coming from non-core activities. They might subsidise the core activities, but the growth is coming from non-core activities.

Esther Kezia Thorpe: You can’t not talk about Future in this conversation. If you look at the turnaround from five years ago, most of that has been through very smart acquisitions. Compare and contrast this to Alden, which has gone the opposite way and is buying up all these properties, cutting and squeezing them, and throwing them away.

But I think one of the really interesting things this year has shown is that post-pandemic, media properties are still really desirable targets for investment and acquisition. Axel Springer pays a billion dollars for Politico; Buzzfeed is due to go public any day now and has been valued at $1.5 billion.

eCommerce’s role at a publisher

Peter Houston: I think back to the conversation I had with Aaron Asadi at Future. He put huge emphasis on the content operation, because that was what was driving the sales. That’s where the sales were coming from. So if you’re writing reviews, you have to write good reviews. You have to write credible reviews.

Dominic Perkins: Why shouldn’t content owners be able to drive people through the [eCommerce] funnel? Why shouldn’t they offer better alternatives to Amazon? There’s a huge amount of that. One of the things that’s come through the pandemic is this ability to shop locally. People don’t want to shop at Amazon, they want to support local. So why can’t you create a retailer network based out of local suppliers? And that’s something that publishers can do.

NFTs as a gimmick or potential revenue stream

Peter Houston: I’m not saying NFTs aren’t something that’s going to be around for a while. But the way they’re being used at the moment is an absolute flash in the pan. It’s a fad. The Economist does this story about crypto and NFTs and sells its cover and makes £400,000 for charity. That’s brilliant, great. But they’re not going to do that on a regular basis.

Brian Morrissey: Maybe it’s living in Miami, but I’m not as sceptical I guess. There’s a lot of nonsense in the crypto world and it’s really difficult to understand, and it’s a lot of hot air and hype. But I think the principles of it make a lot of sense.

A lot of people are talking about theoretical possibilities, and the only tangible things seem like gimmicks, like selling an NFT of a cover is mostly a gimmick, it’s a short term thing. But if you think of NFTs like a membership card, we talked about the shift to niche and communities and stuff like this. Moving from audience to community is one thing, but when the community then has a literal stake in the endeavour, I think that changes things completely.

Opportunities for 2022

Dominic Perkins: I want to see this experimentation that publishers have been doing carrying on. I think moving forward as they’re doing, and trialling new ways to commercialise their content.

One of the things that was going through my head when I was looking at the NFTs was, could you acquire a cover that unlocks, or that is a token for search in the future? And then does that mean that front covers of magazines and newspapers become a lot more exciting than they ever used to be? It’s one of the things I would love to see publishers experimenting with and looking at new ways of engaging people and making revenue from.

Brian Morrissey: There’s all sorts of different publishers, but if you look at the most successful publishers out there – and they all have different models – they all focus and double down on the content, and that’s where investments take place. If you’re trying to cut costs constantly and cutting newsrooms and staff – and we’ve seen this with local newspapers – your product inevitably suffers because those are the people making your product.

The positive examples are all people who have disproportionately invested in the content that is their product. It’s not revolutionary, but I hope people take this basic point and apply it.

Lucy Kueng: There’s a really dynamic area of content emerging, which I think sinks so tightly into the commitment and passion of the industry and is a really strong base for  differentiating yourself.

It’s what someone in India calls ‘active content’. And this is content that really, this is a news organisation really trying to become the pulse of its community. So you’re talking about, trying to make a real difference, advocating, being activists. Someone described it to me as being the eyes and ears of the community. And I think we’re seeing a big explosion in that, and the organisations that are leaning into it are seeing a huge response in terms of engagement, in terms of commitment to the organisation.

Charlotte Tobitt: I just hope that publishers don’t forget what they’ve learned and what their readers have told them over the COVID pandemic. Lots of them have been focusing on building this relationship and everything, I know, it’s always too early to say as we emerge from the pandemic, but I just think it’d be a real shame if they squandered that and let subscriptions lapse, and didn’t really nail in what it is that that got people on board during this time, especially in digital subscriptions.

You can also catch the event in its full video form here:

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