Looking at a year-long strategy and previous publishing trends, life can seem simple. Set achievable targets, month by month, and watch them all click satisfying together at the end of the year.
Unfortunately, by about January 9th, it becomes clear that publishing is an impossible three-handed struggle between your wants, your readers, and (worse) the chaotic march that brings you what you get.
So, to help plan for the unplannable, we asked our team to compile 20 publishing trends that are going to define 2020, and the forks in the road that every publisher will have to face at some point in the year.
Quality content is always Plan A
Despite all the talk of technology and business models, for publishers and readers, content is still king in 2020.
The publishers that spent 2019 driving traffic at all costs—rather than building a readership— will find that readers are fickle and the cost of user acquisition will continue to grow through 2020.
Facebook—with their sordid quantity over quality algorithm— has seen high-performing publishers suffer from a sharp readership drain. After clicking eye-catching titles from social media, users realized they didn’t want to engage with their content that much. Trash has its temptations, but it’s in-depth, ground-breaking content that will start the relationship with your future loyal readers.
Increasingly, people are also getting tired of reading ‘bad’ news. In the UK abstinence from the news is up 11%. 32% of all people now say they ‘often avoid’ news content.
In 2020, publishers are going to have to find new ways to tell their stories and invest in ways to shift the tone of their content to something readers want to engage with again, especially if they are going to pay for it.
Trust in social media will strain under pressure
Although still dominantly popular, reader and publisher trust in social media platforms is noticeably on the turn.
In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 82% of people said social media “wastes our time’’, 61% said social media “spread unfair attacks and rumors”, and the majority (55%) believe that social media “spreads lies and falsehoods.’’. As far as use as a news platform, the most avoided sources were Facebook and Instagram.
But also, more than 50% of publishers indicated Facebook as the least trustworthy platform. It lacks transparency and has reduced Facebook page reach, adding to its unpopularity with the publishing sector.
For publishers, their issue is that they provide the value, yet are totally at the mercy of popularity algorithms. How will publishers strategize to focus on a platform when that platform can uproot them with no notice?
Never-Ending Optimization: Website Speed
The role of technology is to reduce the effort we spend to produce. It should be liberating. Unfortunately, this locked us into the perennial struggle of continuous improvement.
Faster, more immersive content, richer colors, deeper blacks are all being made possible. But, what do readers really expect from mobile content in 2020?
With 4K video content, podcasts, image-heavy articles, your web infrastructure needs to be able to handle your content.
The noticeably inadequate stands out more than the quietly exceptional. If the content is engaging and usable, users are not going to question the delivery. Let quality triumph over novelty.
Never-Ending Optimization: Google Core Update
Since the 2016 Medic update, publishers have seen how Google’s core update can suddenly unseat their progress for the year.
You should now be familiar with the ideas of E-A-T and YMYL, but with at least 2-3 core updates likely to happen in 2020, publishers are going to have to face the prospect of older content no longer reaching the standards to drive traffic. We’ve seen how topics such as cryptocurrency can be instantly devalued by Google, regardless of the quality of the content.
In 2020, expect more content and topics to be held to higher quality standards and more value to be placed on structured data for instant answers in featured snippets.
Build Walls or Open the Gates?
2019 saw some high-profile success stories from paywalls and even voluntary subscription models. But, this success was confined to major brands that had audiences that would follow them behind the paywall. 2020, paywalls are still going to be a high-risk strategy for mid-tier publications.
Some might find that their audience is not as loyal as they thought. Data from 10 major metropolitan newspapers showed that, on average, publishers saw an average 90% drop-off of users once they enter the subscription process along the purchase and conversion funnel.
Paywall technology is evolving to help publishers tier their audience between hard, soft, and no paywall options. 2020 will see companies start to devolve more responsibility for monetization to more external companies as they offer more varied options without the workload.
What’s the Workaround for the Cookie-Crisis?
The stock of third-party data slumped down further in 2019 with Apple’s Safari and Mozilla’s Firefox browsers culling third-party cookies.
Additionally, on February 4th, Google will release a Chrome update, SameSite, that will give users and site owners a new approach to cookies.
The SameSite update will require website owners to explicitly state label third-party cookies that will be used on other sites. Cookies without the proper labeling won’t work in the Chrome browser.
These shifts are going to give 2020 reliance on first-party data and less on third-party data, but it’s likely that workarounds that give users a simple way to control their data without making them agree to complex legal contracts or click through pages of permission levels. Advertising will find a way.
CCPA and GDPR Will Rumble On
GDPR is a toothless paper tiger to most professional eyes, but some high profile fines, including $100 million to British Airways show that GDPR could still unsettle big businesses—and may be having some impact on the care and attention shown to piles of user data.
2020 should see more businesses be held accountable for their data breaches but the regulation will need refining in order for users to have any genuine sense of agency. But publishers that did GDPR right in 2019 should not have much to worry about in 2020, just staying vigilant for updates.
Perhaps the most interesting regulation action in 2020 will come from the US, where the most ineffective notes of GPPR have been bundled into a California-only version, known as CCPA.
CCPA came into effect on January 1st so we are yet to see if this regulation will be more or less forcefully upheld than GDPR.
And New Regulation Will Crop Up
With the first US-based regulation coming into effect in one state, that leaves 49 left to follow suit. Congress is very unlikely to pass a federal privacy law in 2020, but further regulation at the state level is still possible. This gives publishers, potentially, multiple sets of data rules to adhere to.
Rather than wait for each state to fall in line or for federal regulation to pass, publishers should give all users more control over their data in a privacy system that is equal for all users.
This way, when new regulation passes, they are likely to already be covered and can score a consumer trust win by going above and beyond to protect their users before they are required to.
Content Aggregation Will Face Teething Trouble
Apple News+ showed that adoption is a tougher proposition than perhaps first imagined. 48 hours after its launch subscriptions hit 200,000 but the paid subscription service has failed to flourish since then.
And there’s good reason. Users are faced with subscription fatigue. There is free-to-access high-quality content everywhere, and maybe, people just don’t want another tech-company controlling the information they read.
With a slow 2019, it seems unlikely that any one content aggregation platform will emerge from the pack in 2020. 2020 seems more like the year that publishers look for more independent and transparent sources of traffic. No-one wants to be banking big on major tech companies, again.
…But Google Discover will thrive
But, as much as you may want to reduce your reliance on third-party giants, you have to know when to take advantage. Enter Google Discover.
Ever thought that Google knows what you’re looking for, even if you’re not sure yet? Well, perhaps it does. Launched in 2018, Google Discover is a feed that shows you results and news items related to items that they know interest you. Think of it as a social media feed, curated by your search activity.
At the start of 2019, Discover was already at 800 million users, far bigger than any content aggregation platform. Publishers that don’t start to capitalize on this traffic in 2020 are not only costing themselves now but falling behind the competition.
And it’s not the time for decentralized social media
At one point, most people will have considered a ‘super-restaurant’ where you can get the fries from one brand and the shake from another. That’s the vision proposed by Twitter CEO, Jack Dorsey, with his Bluesky project.
Bluesky would aim to break down the silos between different social networks, starting with ‘Five open source architects, engineers, and designers to develop an open and decentralized standard for social media.’
But there’s a reason the ‘super-restaurant’ never took off, big brands will never agree to cede their customers to another so easily, even as clients of a decentralized network. 2020 does not look like the year for this utopia.
Niche Content Will Help Grow Audiences
The Pareto principle states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. Following this idea, more and more publishers are creating niches in their content. Clawing in more market share that can help sustain long-term growth.
With revenue coming in from the main media property, publishers have the luxury to invest in niche content channels. These channels can start small but may create lasting readership across multiple arms of their media group.
The smaller the niche, the better the chance for survival in the industry. Specialization is in vogue. Produce ‘editorial excellence’ in a niche and these readers are going to bleed over across the rest of your brand.
Podcasting for publishers
One such channel and way to produce in-depth niche content is podcasting.
In Forrester’s predictions for 2020 report, they suggested that podcasts will be the next $1 billion media market. Podcasting’s share of audio listening has already grown +122% since 2014.
Publishers’ backgrounds lend themselves well to focused, single-subject deep-dives that rely on analysis and explanation.
By contrast, many broadcasters have focused on producing micro-bulletins and redistributing existing radio programs as podcasts. Where they have commissioned digital-born or native podcasts, these have often been aimed at younger and more diverse audiences that they are finding hard to reach through linear channels.
Segmented Revenue Models Will Follow
Every segment created then becomes a product, with a unique value to their readers. This unique value will require a way to monetize that suits its audience.
2020 will see publishers using technology to have multiple payment models for the same product and different versions of that product. Programmatic without the management team, paywalls for gated-content, spaces held back for direct sales, microtransactions to accommodate one-off readers.
No-one wants to close the door on and source of monetizable traffic. Technology in 2020 should allow them to devolve the management and operation of these segments.
The Rise of Gen-Z
Harbingers of doom will tell you that the rise of Gen Z means the biggest audience is going to be their most difficult to monetize.
Gen Z has been conditioned to accept advertising as a tradeoff for consuming online content that is free at the point of purchase—more than any other generation. The American Press Institute explains, ‘Older Millennials — that is those over age 21 — are about twice as likely as those aged 18-21 to pay for news personally with 44% willing pay for news out of their own pocket, compared to 23% of those 18-21 years old.’
This trade-off comes with a rational view on privacy. When it comes to sharing their data online, only 42% of Gen Z respondents called privacy “very important,” compared to 54% of Millennials.’. 38% said they would even sacrifice privacy concerns and provide data if it meant it creating a more personalized experience.
Publishers Will Need Better Brand Safety More Than Advertisers
Keyword blockers are an imprecise solution for keeping advertising away from controversial stories. They block adverts from appearing on the wrong articles, are calibrated too conservatively, and often keep adverts off the most viewed stories. But, for advertisers, they work.
Suitability is subjective and publishers need to prove to advertisers that their stories are not going to taint the brands advertising in them. Why would any advertiser take the risk of dicey content when there is so much more inventory out there?
The American Association of Advertising Agencies and Digital Content Next aim to make a standardized means of analyzing identify the context, sentiment, and tone of news items. Software will then help advertisers decide if the stories are suitable for their brand.
Commerce platforms dipping into the content world
Anyone can create content and eCommerce companies have a dedicated and interested audience readily waiting for them. With customers creating detailed accounts and opting in to receive marketing, their audience are also GDPR compliant and open the receiving
In 2019, retailers such as Amazon and Nordstrom have contracted publishers for articles and content that would feature directly on their own sites. Even Uber is getting in on the action, working on ads for its platform.
If advertisers can get better results on commerce platforms, the rise of commerce content might have negative effects on publishers’ eCMPs.
Transparency growing in value for advertisers
Advertisers are going to keep buying programmatically in 2020, but there is frustration with the markups they are paying for junk data. One location data exec reported data vendors selling sets, made up of users that are more likely to visit a store after seeing an ad that were 80% fake data.
In the U.K.The Information Commissioner’s Office, the official data regulator has implemented steps to deal with vendors that are still using data that doesn’t comply with GDPR. There are ad tech companies that exist solely to find fake data in the set already purchased by ad buyers.
Advertisers are also starting to scrutinize the veracity of the data they are being sold. One head of digital at a global advertiser told Digiday, “We’ve set up an in-house team and some of the conversations the execs are having are focused on the data costs that come with buying programmatic media,”.
To take on Google and Facebook in 2020 ad networks need to have the resources to stay competitive. This generally means mergers between strong competitors and the die-off of some of the smaller platforms.
With the 2019 announcement of the LiquidM acquisition by Smart Adserver and the merger between Rubicon and Telaria, there have already been major consolidation in Adtech ecosystem.
The next stage will be solutions that cover the whole value chain. These conglomerates will add value by being able to focus on omnichannel advertising, fostering commoditization across the industry. But—it will be service and disruptive innovations that will be the crucial differentiators in this maturing market.
Finally, with advertising so susceptible to changes, publishers are looking to stabilize their revenue with a more diversified revenue strategy. 88% of AOP board members regard non-advertising growth as a ‘high priority in the next year’.
The New York Times has shown publishers how one-off products like it’s crossword can actually become valuable revenue streams. Other strategies like live events have also shown that when publishers change the format, people are willing to pay again.
There is a sense that publishers don’t struggle when it comes to monetizing online content. Readers aren’t familiar with the mechanics of the transaction. By diversifying into non-advertising based growth, publishers can give their readers a way to support them that feels more like a traditional quid pro quo.
Just as eCommerce companies have realized they can dip into creating content, publishers such as Marie Claire have also seen success from leveraging their reader relationship to provide tailored products. Curated retail partners were brought in to develop an affiliate commerce product that resonated with its audience.
2020: The year of unique content and discarded technology
Here are just 20 of the possible twists and permutations that publishers will have to negotiate in 2020. Many will fail to launch, some will zig when we expect zag, and new, ugly problems will arise.
But, there is a common theme publishers can take from every trend in this list. That is the need to offer content that their readers can’t find anywhere else. Through this, they will be able to reduce the effects that industry changes have on their bottom lines. They can be less reliant on third-party traffic and cookies and lure readers towards new formats for their readers.
2020 will be the year where we start to see clearly which publications, which technology we don’t want to do without and which are becoming expendable.