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By Thomas Baekdal - April 2020

Retention and focus is going to be key after summer, and publishers need to talk to brands differently

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Welcome back to another edition of the newsletter, today, we are going to talk about a few things related to what comes after COVID-19 for publishers.

I'm actually working on a Plus article just about this, where I specifically look at many of the trends and how they are changing (or likely to change ... or not). But that article is still work in progress, so for now I have this for you:

Retention and focus is going to be key after summer

As you probably already know, the media industry is currently experiencing a boost in terms of traffic and subscribers ... and some have started to refer to this as the COVID-19 bump.

Personally, I really hate that phrase. It sounds like we are just taking advantage of a crisis. I'm reminded of an old Lucky Luke comic where, during a shootout, the undertaker is standing on the sideline smiling at the whole thing. And on Twitter, I have repeatedly commented that we should never say that this crisis is "good for us".

However, I do also feel that there is a difference. What I see in the media are publishers who are genuinely trying to give people in need something of value. We have seen a lot of very good coverage, we have seen many interesting examples of audience engagement that attempts to help people, and we have seen an amazing use of data journalism and illustrations that have helped everyone to understand things better.

There are also a few bad examples and some really horrible ones. But, generally speaking, what we see is that people recognize and appreciate the value we bring. And this is reflected in the increasing subscription rate across the board.

Of course, I know that this doesn't make up for the drop in advertising, but from a trend perspective, this is an important change.

But while this is happening right now, a more important question is what will this mean for publishers after this is all over?

Well, let's talk about that.

The bump is temporary

The first important thing to understand about this whole thing is that it's temporary. Right now, we don't know how long it will last, but we are already seeing good signs across many countries. And if we look at China as an example, they got their economy back in gear really quickly.

So, while I do see so many people talking about how this is transforming the future where suddenly nobody will go back to the way things were, I'm not seeing that at all.

In fact, from a media perspective, all of the trends that I usually look at haven't changed. Some of them have accelerated, like the subscription trend, but overall, I'm not seeing anything new.

This makes this type of crisis very different from other types. For instance, newspapers also saw a bump due to Trump and Brexit, but those were long-term bumps, lasting many years (and are still going).

The COVID-19 bump is not like this at all. And, once it's over, a lot of the momentum we now have will simply evaporate.

I have a very good way of illustrating this, using the 'circles of relevance'.

Retention, focus, and relevance

A year ago, I wrote an article specifically about this, called: "Redefining Relevance: The Circles of Media".

In it, I presented you with this illustration:

These are the circles of relevance, and each circle represents a form of relevance for the individual reader, and I used to call on publishers to rank their articles within this framework.

So, for every article, ask yourself how concerned would an individual be about this one article? How useful is it for each person, and is this really something people are interested in?

In other words, the more relevant it is to the individual reader, the closer you are to the center (which is where you want to be).

The problem, of course, is that traditional news usually doesn't rank that well.

For instance, if we go back to 2015 (before Brexit, Trump and COVID-19) and we look at the type of headlines we published back then (here from the Guardian), you see a whole bunch of stories that have very little personal relevance.

There is a story about three judges who have been caught watching porn at work, and got fired. I mean, okay. Sure. But it has almost no usefulness to the reader to know that.

In other words, when we look at traditional news coverage, it usually ends up looking like this. Most of the stories are just random things that aren't relevant (and nowhere near the center of relevance).

What makes COVID-19 coverage so different is that it has an entirely different level of focus and relevance.

Think about the factors of each circle. COVID-19 is something that is deeply concerning to people individually, and it has a direct impact on everyone's personal lives. Because of this, it also has a very high level of interest because people want to (and need to) know what is happening. And we in the media have, generally speaking, been doing a very good job at reporting this in a useful way (again, with some exceptions).

In other words, it's right smack in the center of relevance, which is why publishers have gained more traffic, and got very high levels of subscription growth.

It's all about focus.

This is a good thing for the media right now, but think about what is going to happen in a few months time. By then, COVID-19 is hopefully in decline and we will start to return to normal (whatever that will mean), and we in the media will go back to just reporting random news again.

What is going to happen to all these new subscribers then? What will happen when we go back to just reporting about things that aren't that relevant to people personally?

This is the problem that publishers face in the months to come. Right now, COVID-19 is giving us a level of focus and clarity that makes us super-valuable to our readers. But once this is over, if we just go back to "what we have always done", we will have all the same problems as before.

So, my very strong advice to you is to learn from this. COVID-19 is showing us the power of focus and relevance, and you need to use this time to rethink your journalistic strategy. You need to keep up this level of relevance once COVID-19 is all over.

But this also illustrates why I'm saying that I'm not seeing any real difference in the trends. Right now, publishers haven't changed anything. The only thing that has happened is this pandemic that suddenly has caused massive levels of relevance. But newspapers are still just doing what they have always done. And once this is over, we have all the same problems again.

We need real editorial change. Don't just go back to reporting about random things again. Find ways to stay in the center of these circles of relevance for every story you cover!

Read the room. Why publishers' call to advertisers is misguided

For my second story today, we are going to talk about something a bit more uncomfortable. We are going to look at the damage that publishers are causing to themselves, particularly in relation to advertisers.

Over the past month, we have seen many open letters from publishers, calling on advertisers to 'support the news'.

These open letters always have the same type of narrative. They talk about all the important work they do, the risks and expenses involved in their journalism, and the loss of advertising income to tech companies. They use these arguments to try to convince, or even shame brands, into buying advertising space with newspapers.

This, of course, is not new. This thing has been going on for years, and most people in the media industry seem to believe this is the best way to talk to brands. It's not. It's the absolute worst way you can talk to brands. And instead of convincing brands to advertise in the newspapers, you are more likely to turn brands away from you in the long run.

And so, when I saw this happening again, I wrote a longer article called: "Read the room. Why publishers' call to advertisers is misguided" where I dissect three of these open letters, to explain why we need to change our approach.

This is important, because almost every major publisher today is causing real damage to our future.

Publishers and YouTubers

The last thing I want to mention today is reports that we are hearing from YouTubers. Like every other publisher, they too are hit by this crisis. While YouTuber viewership is up (just as it's up in the traditional press), the advertising rates have declined for them too.

Digital ad spending is down by a third, according to the IAB - a slightly less painful drop than the traditional media's 39% cut, but still damaging. YouTubers are reporting anywhere from 30% to 50% declines in their cost per mille (CPM), or the amount YouTube receives for every 1,000 views of an advertisement served against a video.

I also tweeted about this a month ago after seeing many people in the traditional media industry call on brands to "stop advertising on Google".

Remember that YouTubers are publishers too, just like you. And their livelihood is also at risk. In fact, most YouTubers are just making enough money to get by (and have seen declining ad rates for years), and so another drop is really bad for them too.

I point this out because we are all in this together. We need to think about this across the publishing industry as a whole, whether you are a newspaper, a magazine, a YouTuber, a podcaster, or anyone else.

And I want traditional publishers to stop saying that they want brands to drop advertising on YouTube. You are actually saying that you are fine with thousands of smaller publishers (YouTubers) suffering, just so that the traditional companies can do well.

As I tweeted:

Ad revenue is going to impact every publisher. It's not just affecting local newspapers. It's impacting independent media companies, YouTubers, niche sites, etc.

So, support and subscribe to your local newspaper, but also support and become a Patreon of your favorite YouTuber.

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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