At the end of March, the BlueConic team attended the Digiday Publishing Summit in Vail, Colorado. While there, we spoke with publishers of all shapes, sizes, and business models to find out what they were thinking about now that the first quarter of the year is behind them.
Much like the end of 2022, Q1 2023 was tough. Macroeconomic headwinds have suppressed customer spend on subscriptions and reduced advertising budgets, leading to missed revenue targets and strategy pivots across the media landscape.
That said, if any group of operators is used to disruption and challenges, it’s media leaders. The conversations at Digiday were focused, realistic, and hopeful of all things about the path forward. Here are three key takeaways we heard from the speakers and our conversations on the floor:
1. Back to the fundamentals
As the zero interest rate economy gets further into the rear view, it's easier to see that publishers need to unlearn some of the lessons from the last few years where growth was the most important metric above anything else. I’m not an economist (I’m an Anthropologist by trade) and will stay far away from any prognostications or advice, but I can say that there iss a renewed focus on margin and profitability as a measure of company health, along with the tough decisions that need to be made with that in mind (cutting products, re-allocating budgets, etc).
Folks we spoke with are working on finding the balance between innovation and the need to manage capital wisely. Agile teams that are able to quickly test new initiatives (e.g. limited launch newsletters, smaller pop-up events, paywall on only 20% of articles), get clear data on the impact of those tests, and either scale down or scale up based on results will strike that balance. As a leader, make sure your teams are empowered to test and learn at scale (i.e., the process of identifying and engaging with a test audience isn’t a six-week odyssey with IT.)
2. Failure to prepare is preparing to fail on cookies
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but third-party cookies are going away and third-party data is rapidly losing its value. Delays from Google aside, the end is coming and publishers need to have a plan in place now so that it's an easy switch when it does happen.
There are a number of options available to publishers that were mentioned at the event, including new forms of online identity (e.g., The Trade Desk’s UUID 2.0 or ID5), getting away from cookies entirely and building contextual targeting products, or leveraging graph/data clean room technologies. While all are interesting in their own right, none of them are a replacement for having a clear first-party data strategy in place.
Focus on what you want to collect, what you want to use it for, what local privacy regulations might be affected, and what systems that data will be used in. Audit for gaps that the solutions above might fill, but hoping for a single solution that keeps “business as usual” going is setting yourself and your business up for failure.
3. Riches in Niches
Gone is the era of trying to be “something” for a large swath of the population and chasing scale at any cost (e.g., Buzzfeed and VICE). Leaders across the conference echoed the points made by Leaf Group CRO Lindsey Abramo or Paramount EVP Steve Raizes on stage: the focus for 2023 is delivering differentiated value for their core readers and advertisers in ways only that brand can.
In Lindsey’s case, it was the use of Hunker House as an experiential shopping experience for brand partners, which makes use of Leaf Group’s design and art brand bonafides and their operational excellence for in-person events. For others, it might be putting more content behind a reg/paywall or shifting away from paid subscriptions entirely to focus on donations and direct sold advertising.
For Steve, it was about identifying what a great podcast meant for Paramount (good on mic talent, folks involved in the show hosting, etc.) and knowing when to say no to shows that won’t meet their high standards. When podcasts are popular but increasingly hard to make profitable, less can be more.
The key is to focus on what your readers want and need and build products and monetization strategies that align with that core audience. Build for your engaged few, and ignore the urge to pivot to the next “thing” if it doesn’t do anything for your audience.
Driving back from the airport after getting back to the east coast, I was struck by how similar the view on the side of the highway was to the feeling coming away from the event - despite all the wind and snow, there are signs of spring. Buds are on trees, and early flowers are pushing their way out of the ground.
We’re seeing the same thing across the media industry, where brands that understand and add value to their audiences, invest in first-party data, and are focused on building sustainable businesses are well poised to separate themselves from the pack in 2023. If this sounds like where you want to be, reach out or take our assessment to evaluate your readiness for a CDP. Perhaps a bit of Blue is all you need.