The climate is tough for publishers. Digital ad revenues continue to be swallowed up by big tech giants, while publishers still need to rely somewhat on platforms for reach. Yet publishers have an air of realism despite the challenging conditions and looking to non-ad revenue streams like subscriptions and commerce to protect their businesses.

In Milan, Italy, 150 publishers gathered at Digiday’s Publishing Summit Europe this week to discuss their growing reader revenue strategies, difficulties with attracting and keeping talent and the changing programmatic landscape. Focus groups and town hall sessions were conducted under Chatham House Rule. Highlights below.

How to convince readers to pay
“As premium publishers, we’ve made a huge mistake in allowing consumers to believe they can consume content for free. I can have the biggest brand but still be competing with all the content for free online. Two years ago, we gave away content on Facebook Instant Articles; it increased traffic but revenue was significantly cannibalized.”

“As a subscriber what can we give you that is special? Sometimes that’s early access. It’s about keeping premium, premium.”

“It doesn’t matter how cheap it is, €1 or £1; if you’re not using it there’s no value. Subscriptions sound more transactional; memberships are more inclusive.”

“Reconciling members versus subscriptions, some of our sites have really hardcore tech readers, that can lead to a level of toxicity. We need to balance subscribers and members and building a community people want to engage in.”

“There are hard paywalls and soft paywalls, but there are culturally different approaches and reading habits across Europe.”

“Spotify for news can’t be done. There’s too much free-to-air news; it’s too fragmented. Effectively we have moved away from nano payments with newspapers.”

“There’s still a premium niche. There are people interested in not just eating the sausage but how the sausage is made. There’s a niche in the behind-the-scenes.”

“It’s tough moving revenue generation from advertising to subscriptions.”

“For us, of course, the challenge is conversion. What kind of content is working? A lot of it is free; it’s hard to find what readers need and where to get that content from.”

“Our coverage is B2B and B2C. B2C relies on reach, and we have to watch out we don’t lose reach in subscriptions.”

Getting tech talent to stick
“We aren’t the Googles of the world. We’re publishers. Keeping talented tech people is a challenge. I hear the story all the time: How can we be innovative in publisher technology? But you can’t keep people just with money alone.”

“For us, it helped giving more senior people more control and management over the product, so it’s not just the editorial team who have the final say. Younger people will fly away easily.”

“We create great media; we can still be cutting-edge and focus on those great aspects of our creativity; that’s what we should be seeing them on.”

Programmatic revenue struggles to fill the void
“Planning cycles at agencies are not translating into a $50,000 IO. There’s a sequence of events on the agency side that doesn’t translate to the pipes being connected and you suddenly being higher up the hierarchy if you were in a private market place. Programmatic direct is the closest thing to direct, but anything beyond that, even by the agencies’ own admission, is that they are not joined up enough because there are too many people involved in the process that it doesn’t translate to the same meaningful revenues.”

“In the old days, people would phone you up saying, ‘I’ve bought some digital stuff from you; here’s another massive IO because we like you.’ Those days don’t exist anymore, and management believe they should. You still want to continue to grow digital, but the scale of how we do that is proving more difficult than it used to be.”

“You need a balance of open, PMP, PG and direct to have competition; it’s direct buys that are pushing yields up, not just the competition between demand sources.”

“The challenge a lot of us have is you’ve got salespeople selling print and those same guys selling digital, and they’ll always go down the path of least resistance, so you have to try and upscale them to go and sell a PMP. At the end of that month, somebody’s only bought 500,000 impressions with you because they’ve bought with loads of other people as well.”

“We aren’t very good at joining up the direct part of the business and the programmatic part. We think of them as two separate revenue sources, but we’re all selling the same thing. I don’t think we have the right skills in house to take that message to the market.”

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