For some publishers, social media is the cornerstone of any good strategy. For others, programmatic is the No. 1 focus in 2020. The best strategy to keep a digital publication growing all depends on who you ask.
To build a picture of the most effective digital strategies, Marfeel invited publishers from around the world to participate in the Big Publisher Survey of 2020.
The survey drew 129 publishing executives representing publications of all sizes, with some reaching up to 100 million monthly readers. We made sure to reach out to publishers of all verticals and types, including those that are not our customers.
These executives described their strategies and the technology they are using to grow their audience, keep readers engaged and increase their ad revenue. The responses were filtered by audience size and specialization to find out how growth strategies need to be adapted as the audience grows.
The report explored five key themes across every stage of the publisher journey to discover underused technology and strategies publishers can employ to skip ahead in their evolution.
Publisher evolution patterns emerge
The strategies for growth revealed in the survey tended to follow a common three-phase pattern for all participating publishers: First, you write great content to build an audience; next, you optimize your online experience to keep that audience. Only then can you really start to work on diversifying revenue.
Here are the key highlights from our report:
Phase 1: If you write it, they will come
Survey results found that publishers with smaller audiences consistently listed content quality as their main strategy for growth. These publishers are also most likely to get the majority of their traffic from social media. These publishers focus on the need to write stories that hook people in an instant because the better the content they produce, the more equipped they are to improve their reputation and acquire new and returning readers.
However, despite a strong focus on content quality, not all publishers are putting their attention into returning readers.
Focusing too much on optimizing the revenue-generation machine with a potentially fickle audience or overinvesting in the online experience for one-time traffic might leave these publishers behind in a race for attention and eyeballs.
It’s only when traffic starts to reach a certain maturity and publishers manage their traffic acquisition well through quality content that publishers will organically feel the need to transition. So naturally, when a publisher gets enough traction from its audience, it makes business sense to invest in returning readers.
Phase 2: The experience matters
What comes next is the user experience. Once audiences start to hit 1 million to 10 million readers, publishers become far more likely to target growth by improving their mobile experience and other technical enhancements.
An interesting outcome of the survey was that when entering this phase, publishers’ emphasis switches from mainly social to primarily organic to reach readers who are often known to be harder to acquire. Still, by focusing on best UX practices such as inline-related articles and swipe navigation, Phase 2 publishers are targeting the exponential growth of turning a one-click reader into a 10-click reader.
Creating a powerful user experience can be a route to reader loyalty. However, for Phase 2 publishers, none of those surveyed said they would focus on ad stack optimization or revenue diversification for growth. It’s not until we reach publishers with the biggest audiences that we start to see strategies based on revenue diversification and optimization.
Phase 3: Making the juice worth the squeeze
Publishers with readerships between 10 million and 100 million monthly sessions are 138 percent more likely to list direct traffic as their main traffic source. They know that their readers are mostly loyal and will keep returning, so now they can work on increasing the revenue from each visit through different techniques, including revenue diversification.
Just as Phase 2 publishers hope to increase page views by a factor of 10 with better experiences, Phase 3 publishers now focus on boosting the value generated by every reader by a multiple of 10.
Despite this, when asked about monetization strategies into 2020, 74 percent of monetization teams surveyed revealed that they are using programmatic advertising in their monetization mix. Since programmatic is still gaining traction, with server-to-server header bidding receiving wide adoption in 2020, there is still plenty of room for growth for programmatic advertising in publishing.
Evolving alongside technology
If the Big Publisher Survey of 2020 revealed one thing, it’s that every publishing success starts with a great story. But, today, a great story alone is not enough.
In order to evolve even faster, publishers have to adopt technology and strategies that would usually be required in the next stage of their growth. Based on my experience, I have seen that niche or forward-thinking publications thrive because they manage the difficult art of balancing great content production, short- and long-term readership acquisition and sophisticated monetization. By adopting the right new technology, publishers of any size will set themselves for accelerated growth and will reach new heights.
Download the full publisher growth strategy report here.