Last week’s Digital Media Strategies conference was, for the most part, a brilliant insight into the successes, failures and lessons that organisations have faced over the past year.

As the conference went on, it became clear that there were a number of key themes that kept emerging. Here, we give you an overview of the lessons the top publishers have learned.


1 – Everyone’s adopting a membership-style model

The Guardian were one of the first to explicitly state that their future is in the membership model, and they are hoping that membership will make up a third of their total revenue in the next three years. “Monetising our huge anonymous reach simply isn’t going to happen” said David Pemsel, and a paywall is simply too clumsy. “Once we know who our users are, then the monetisation conversation can start.”

The funny thing is, everyone else is pinning their hopes on a membership-style model too, they just haven’t realised it yet. Almost every publisher opened with the words “We’re putting our audience first”, with Immediate Media talking about building a community of passionate people around their brands, and Ascential echoing this by emphasising that they let customers decide how they consume their information in a conversational model.

“We’ve got to let the consumer in on the process and figure out who we’re trying to reach” said Julia Beizer at The Washington Post. The bottom line is that these attitudes have successfully driven membership organisations for many years, and the audience-centric philosophy was undoubtedly the winning approach from the conference.


2 – But true audience understanding is still lacking

Despite the plethora of data available, many of the speakers still used sweeping generalisations about the generations and their digital habits. Some were laughable, like Hearst’s assertion that millennials just don’t shop in supermarkets any more. Others were outright rude. “All young people use is Snapchat” Johnston Press stated, “and they only respond to news with emojis at the end”.

We wrote a piece for The Media Briefing about the lack of audience understanding, especially about the millennial generation – take a look here.


3 – Culture change has to happen to ensure future success

This is the first step for any traditional publisher hoping to keep up with the digital world. “We literally had to break down walls between departments” said The Economist’s Denise Law as she described the remodelling of their departments when she first started work. Other publishers had similar stories, including the Washington Post who described their culture change as transitioning from a content company to a product company. During the round table discussions, attendees swapped stories of the challenges they face in their own organisations, some who have successfully reinvigorated themselves, and others who are struggling with traditional models.


4 – Ad blocking is causing genuine panic

For a topic that wasn’t even a blip on the radar a year ago, Ad blocking dominated the conference. It seemed no matter what the conversation was, ad blocking crept into it somehow, and it is a real worry for publishers. The popular line that “we need to make ads better” was highlighted as being too little too late, and people now have the choice of either taking a hard line on blockers, or finding alternative ways of monetising.

Solid cases were made for both sides of the argument – Stefan Betzold from Bild stated that blocking the blockers is the right way forward. “Some traffic will be lost – but what is that traffic – is it important? You can’t monetize it anyway” he said. Others saw the breaking down of the advertising business model as an opportunity. “Ad blocking is a social issue,” one panelist commented. “The only way to combat it is with a social response, not a technical one.”


5 – Dependency on advertising needs to be reduced

Although there were many different strategies discussed to deal with the issue, one point everyone agreed on is that publishing needs to reduce its dependency on advertising in the future. Reducing dependence on advertising is one of The Drum’s four “core planks”, and this was a sentiment echoed by many of the other speakers when addressing questions around ad blocking.


6 – Everyone’s experimenting with social

The room was consistently split into two camps – those reluctantly experimenting but who see platforms as a risk, and those enthusiastically embracing the opportunities. Neither is right or wrong, and there are some tough questions that publishers have to ask themselves regarding loss of control over distribution. Nonetheless, there are some exciting things happening – look especially at The Economist and The LAD Bible as examples where teams are really pushing the boundaries.


7 – But few are sure how it’s going to make any money

Despite the encouraging signs of really successful engagement on platforms, few speakers went as far as showing how this is making money for them. “We need to be paid for the quality journalism and entertainment that we’re putting out” asserted Andy Bowers of Panoply Media, and it seems that Facebook, Apple, Snapchat and Google aren’t ready to assist with bringing in the money just yet.


8 – Different platforms need different strategies

This seems like a no-brainer, but in the case of publishers like The Economist, creating a dedicated cross-functional team has been critical to their success on social. Their overall strategy is to use platforms to drive subscriptions, not necessarily to reach the most people. “Simply taking web articles and dumping them onto platforms just wasn’t working,” Denise explained. “We had to get a team together who understood how to reformat that content for each network.”


9 – Diversification is key for survival

Many speakers touched on diversification as one of their strategies for bringing in revenue, but it was Diane Young who revealed just how successful alternative revenue streams have been for The Drum. Just 9% of their revenue now comes from print ads (compared to 100% in 1985), with awards ceremonies and events bringing in the bulk. A word of warning from Diane though; she admits that “We can’t be good at everything”, so a careful approach is needed for publishers looking to diversify into a few key areas.


10 – The next few years will be a battle for the future of the mobile web

Google’s AMP talk did little to soothe the nerves of publishers, and the subsequent Q&A session brought some of these issues to the forefront. What became clear was that there is a huge battle ongoing for the future of the mobile web, with the Silicon Valley giants going head-to-head with their own ecosystems. One speaker pointed out that we will soon be building for mobile first, and optimising for desktop later as the minority audience.

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