Digiday Research: The pandemic sped the wrong things up for publishers

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This research is based on unique data collected from our proprietary audience of publisher, agency, brand and tech insiders. It’s available to Digiday+ members. More from the series →

Over the course of 2020, media industry analysts and observers started likening the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic to a time machine, one that had transported people five or 10 years into the future.

If that’s true, publishers might not like where they’ve been taken, according to new Digiday+ research. At the start of the third quarter of 2021, publishers are more reliant on direct-sold advertising than they were a year ago, and many incremental or complementary revenue streams now play smaller roles than they did 6-12 months ago.

While some of those changes are unsurprising — events were a tough business to grow in 2020 — others serve as a reminder that publishers have a long way to go if they want to truly diversify their revenue streams.

In early July, Digiday polled 126 publisher professionals about how their companies make money. The survey presented a list of revenue sources and asked respondents to indicate how much of their revenue came from each, using five options that ranged from “none of our revenue” to “an extremely large portion of our revenue.”

The survey marked the third time Digiday has asked its research panel these questions; it previously asked them in the first quarter of 2020, and the third quarter of 2020 prior to that.

While the respondents — and the exact number of them — in each sample was not identical over time, their composition was similar; in all three samples, Digiday received at least 30 responses from publishers that generated less than $10 million in revenue per year, 30 responses from publishers that generated between $10 million and $50 million, and 30 responses from publishers that generate more than $50 million per year. 

The results showed, more than anything, that direct-sold advertising has become significantly more important to publishers than it was 12 months ago.

It also showed that many areas of strategic importance, such as subscriptions, are basically flat compared to where they were 12 months ago as at least “large” sources of revenue. Others, such as branded content, actually slid backward from that perspective.

Signs of more modest progress could be found if the results were examined from another angle. For example, affiliate commerce now represents at least a “moderate” portion of revenue for 30% of publishers, up from 18% in the first quarter of this year and more than double the 12% it represented in the third quarter of last year. Similarly, video advertising now represents at least a “moderate” portion of revenue for a majority of publishers for the first time. 


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