Media Briefing: Overheard at the Sept. 2022 Digiday Publishing Summit

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This article is part of Digiday’s coverage of its Digiday Publishing Summit. More from the series →

In this week’s Media Briefing, the Digiday media team recaps the top challenges and areas of innovation that publishing executives discussed during this week’s Digiday Publishing Summit.

  • Survey says: ‘This quarter sucks’
  • BDG lays of Mic staff and shuts down Input, the LA Times staff express frustrations with billionaire owner and more

‘This quarter sucks’

Publishers had to be on high alert following the second quarter, which brought with it decreased advertising revenue and fewer commerce transactions. But reflecting now towards the end of the third quarter, many execs are saying that there are myriad of problems they have to deal with on top of an economic slowdown. 

At the Digiday Publishing Summit, held in Key Biscayne, Fla., from Sept. 19 through 21, publishing executives compared notes and shared advice on everything from hiring challenges to measurement complications in closed-door sessions. The discussions were conducted under Chatham House rules, meaning Digiday can share what was said while maintaining the executives’ anonymity. Here are some highlights from the conversations subject-by-subject. — The Digiday Media Team

Downbeat businesses

“This quarter sucks for everybody.”

“It’s kind of like enhanced seasonality. Everyone I talk to at pubs and partners we work with, it’s like, ‘Yeah, I think Q4 should be better again like it always is.’ But it’s always, who knows?”

Messy measurement

“One of the biggest challenges we’re seeing is being able to show attribution, or return on ad spend, for our KPIs of clients that are buying other media. There’s this conflation between the affiliate business and direct business for media.”

“A lot of retail media networks come into play. Amazon has their own [demand-side platform] and being able to serve ads in front of users already shopping and then show attribution for that — that is something that publishers can’t do. But that’s not really our job. Our job is to show influence and consideration.”

“Attribution and measuring it and trying to get what the publisher wants to express to your partner is really muddy. It’s subjective to the partner and what they are actually being mandated to do.”

Analysis paralysis

“It sucks for me internally because I have other people looking at the analytics up to the minute, [asking] ‘Why did this drop yesterday?’ I’m like, ‘Did you look at any other data yesterday other than my programmatic data? Like, we had a huge takeover or something.’ So it’s great for me when I’m looking into patterns in data, but when I have people who are looking at it at a higher level, it’s really annoying because it doesn’t give me a chance to dive into more trends from the last seven days, last month.”

“I feel like I’m defending myself against people internally and against clients.”

“You have to do it before the campaign starts. You do it afterwards, and it’s like a self-interest thing. But if you can tell them what’s going to happen beforehand, they’re like, ‘Oh, he was genuine. He was invested. I expect this.’”

“A little analysis is terribly dangerous for our business because of the people who are looking at things in ways that doesn’t actually capture reality.”

“I had to work with our ad ops to create a dashboard for our CEO. Like, listen if you want this, here it is. I purposely organized it in a way that’s confusing, solely so he would stop looking at it. And he was like, ‘Whatever. I need you to explain it to me.’ Now he doesn’t look at it. But I had to do that.”

The Great Resignation

“I work in direct-sold. For entry-level positions, what we’re finding is six to nine months in they’re getting scooped up by tech companies paying them double.”

“Give them the benefits that these other big tech companies are. I mean, TikTok has been grabbing people left and right. Sounds like a shitty place to work, but they’re paying them. Same with Amazon. The thing that people aren’t getting, especially publishers, is they don’t pay people enough. They pay more than the buy side. But the tech companies are next, and if you’re going to compete with them to talent, you have to pay them.”

“I think the market is a little inflated. I’m not going to pay a 24-year-old $100,000 to copy and paste.”

“Wages are up over the past 10, 20 years. So if you’re a company that is still paying people like you were 5, 6, 7 years ago, you’re going to be behind. It’s just the reality. It’s going to be more expensive to keep people. That’s why our boards keep raising our goals every year. It seems crazy, but we need to bring in more money to keep this talent.”

“You need the institutional knowledge to stay with you and not leave.”

“It’s really hard for publishers to compete with those tech companies. Just saying that TikTok hit you up for a job, millennials and Gen Z in the workforce are going to be like, ‘This is cool as hell.’ When I started out, I wanted to work for Google so bad. It’s kind of the same thing for them.”

Publisher 1: “Does everyone have a price that they would be willing to stop their jobs?”

Publisher 2: “Oh hell yes.”

Publisher 1: “That’s what I mean. It’s really easy for them to tell me, ‘I love you. This is such a great company. But I’ll go to a bank or a tech company, and I know they’re going to make me cry during the week and work on the weekends, but now’s the time to make money.”

Cookie-pocalypse when?

“I think [Google deprecating third-party cookies in its Chrome browser] is never going to happen.”

“I’m not convinced it’s actually going to happen. Too much risk [for Google’s advertising business], and too much equity in [Google’s ad exchange] AdX.”

“One of the frames for timing and why [the third-party cookie’s deprecation] should matter now is the difference in performance between Chrome and Safari traffic. If you’re open-market mostly, the rates are so drastically different that you’re already losing a ton of money by not having a solution for better valuation of inventory in cookie-light environments.”

“If we get people to test these [cookie-less] methods out and buy above open-market rates, it’ll greatly benefit Safari traffic. Safari and Firefox together are about half my readership. So there is a great reason to start working on this now, not just for Chrome down the road.”

“You’re going to see a 50% delta in CPMs between [cookie-enabled and cookieless impressions] for the same ad unit.”

“It requires the bidders and the marketers to put a value on what we’re considering non-addressable. It just doesn’t translate. And it’s crazy because some of the highest-value opportunities are probably the ones that reside in Safari. Yet we see half the yield.”

“If you’re going to try to monetize that [cookieless] inventory, it’s got to be viewable. Because low viewability plus no user-agent is almost borderline unmonetizable.”

“It’s not actually helpful that Google is delaying it. If you scramble and at the end have some half-baked solution or even a really good one, there’s still this long road to convert casual readers into known readers. And it’s going to underwhelm expectations if you don’t get started on that early because those conversion rates are going to be pretty weak.”

“If the third-party cookie goes away, it’s an opportunity for real editorial brands to say, ‘We have real users, we have a great audience, and you can just use our contextual signal.’”

“How do advertisers know that their ads are working when the third-party cookie goes away? That’s going to be a big problem.”

Cracks forming in registration walls

“We’ve got the mechanics in place [to put up a registration wall]; it’s really about, when is it appropriate to do that with free ad-supported content?”

“Frankly, a lot of the times when you’re like, ‘Well, what else can we give a reader for the sake of registering,’ it’s junk. It’s not anything they’re interested in.” 

“Some of the incentives that you’d offer as features are pretty weak. They’re often things like, this will allow you to comment or bookmark. At a stakeholder expectation management level, how are we going to convert our readership? It just doesn’t work that way.” 

“Finding features and reasons for people to return more – that’s basically my biggest problem that I want to solve. Especially if you’re really focused on SEO and that doesn’t necessarily [get] users to come back.” 

We need “something that is of actual value to exchange [for] emails [that has] real value behind it, rather than just getting a newsletter that you might not really care about.” 

“A lot of our traffic is one and done and we don’t want to interfere with that traffic. But is there a way to only target that group of people that [comes to your site] five or six times? And ask in a way that’s not completely in their way?” 

The most loyal return readers “might be willing to give us that information without it being a big deal [and] without feeling like we’re going to block them from doing something they want to do that they weren’t blocked from yesterday.” 

Stuck in the conversion funnel 

“We’re probably going to try [a paywall] soon, but I don’t think everybody is ready to pay for accessing recipes and home decor ideas.” 

“We’ve got a very stringent paywall and we’re trying to work out whether giving someone a newsletter for free was a way in for them and then getting them to convert. It’s actually a really tricky journey to build. We ended up scrapping it.” 

“We mined Facebook and [we] converted almost 3 million of our Facebook users to newsletter [subscribers]. That’s been a huge win for us because newsletters [are] monetized much better.”

The problems with personalization 

“A lot of [newsletter subscribers] don’t want anything super custom. They don’t want a personalized briefing. They just want an update of everything that was published on the site during the day and those readers are super loyal for a very long time. They have more pages per visit than any other type of audience, but everything that we thought would grow loyalty [hasn’t].” 

“[We tested personalized newsletters] over a few months, you know, testing handwritten letter style emails, but we got really direct feedback from those loyal readers and they just made it clear through replying and also through surveys that [they didn’t want that].” 

“It’s an interesting line between commercial and editorial because editorial are the ones who want the front page to be the front page. But then [the homepage will be customized for a user] with a random article from page five, if [it’s] actually thought [to be] really important to this person. There’s an interesting sort of dichotomy between what editorial wants and what commercial wants.” 

Hitting some hurdles with affiliate commerce 

“We’re trying different [ways] to present [e-commerce content]. Google is really nailing us and trying to make sure that you have experts talking about [products], and it’s real and it’s not repetitive.” 

“We’re slowly concerned [about our commerce revenue]. [This year is] not really going to compare to two years ago or a year ago… it’s a concern about how we keep that growth trajectory going.” 

Another publisher said they’re not seeing a dip in e-commerce revenue but because Google has been a driving force behind its affiliate commerce business, they need to be proactive about figuring out a content distribution strategy considering the changes to the platform’s algorithm. 

“We’ve really tried to do original photography. Our experts looked at what tends to perform better and original photography was one.” 

“The sincerity principles are really huge with Google, who wants to know that you’re not just regurgitating specs for products but are creating your own PDPs and being hands-on. That’s worked for us here and there, but it hasn’t lifted all ships.” 

“As a user, I don’t need you to give me 20 things that I might want to buy. I want to know what the top three are and why you should consider them in different ways. So from a user perspective, I find anything over a couple clicks of my mouse to be really fatiguing. “

“There’s a lot of legacy content out there that just kind of churns in the background. And the question for us is always, [how much should we] touch it? If it’s a seasonal product, is once a week going to gain you in Google’s eyes? We’re still trying to figure that out a little bit.” 

“I would love a clear answer for that in terms of principles like, here’s your window [for how often you should update commerce content]. Here’s what a true refresh is. Here’s stuff you should just leave alone. You know, that’s the data that we’re really hungry for.”

“We found it’s important to refresh, but there’s no way we could do it on a timely basis, like every month or even every quarter. We tend to [update posts] seasonally in terms of making sure all the products are still available and often adding something new that’s hot or [just] come out. And we found that that’s helpful and it seems to strengthen the posts.” 

The dos and don’ts of desktop push notifications

“We’ve had a good experience with our push notifications, but just for news. We have to be careful not to send too many and do segments, but when there’s news our readers seem to really want to know about it and appreciate it. I wish there was a way to do it on mobile that was cost effective and because so much of our audience is on mobile.” 

“We were testing them in 2019 and they did not work well for us. They ultimately were not worth the time that went into it and some of the technical issues that came with them. Our vendor was great, but even with a great vendor, sometimes things go crazy.” 

“The conversion rates we never really saw improve. It just sort of decreases with each message.”

“On paper, the conversion rates are good. But when I looked at how many people that percentage applied to, it just didn’t feel worth the effort.”

What we’ve heard

“This concept of efficiency that media planners are asked to find for their brands, often, I think, is actually laziness. And I don’t think it’s efficient to just scale shitty ads.”

Shira Atkins, CRO and co-founder of Wonder Media Network on the latest episode of the Digiday Podcast discussing why programmatic advertising in podcasting doesn’t work.

Numbers to know

<$100 million: The amount of annual revenue a company earns that would make it small enough for BuzzFeed Inc. to consider it for acquisition.
~$10 million: The amount of money The Atlantic expects to lose again this year.

What we’ve covered

The Rundown: How the ad tech market is moving in the absence of public market exits:

  • Two acquisitions announced last week are indicative of the M&A activity for ad tech still on the horizon, sources told Digiday.
  • Financial details of both transactions were not disclosed but what’s telling is how each of them signifies simultaneous M&A trends that have emerged as ad tech companies press pause on thoughts of raising funds on the public markets.

Read more about the changes to the ad tech market here.

How publishers are circumventing the rising cost of in-person events: 

  • A number of publishers have found the costs associated with hosting in-person events have gone up as a result of inflation and the lasting impacts of the pandemic.
  • To mitigate the increased prices of services like shipping, materials, catering and labor, publishers are taking a variety of approaches — from increasing ticket prices to planning earlier and determining what’s superfluous for each event.

Read more about how publishers are handling the cost of in-person events here

Publishers are struggling to keep commerce shops open, but creating brand identity in products holds promise:

  • Online commerce shops aren’t turning out to be the golden ticket to revenue diversification that some publishers were expecting. 
  • The media companies that are still operating storefronts on their owned-and-operated sites are not trying to compete with the Amazon model of having everything for every reader. 

Learn more about the state of publisher-owned commerce shops here.

How The Washington Post is taking a different approach to its new wellness desk:

  • The Washington Post launched a health and wellness hub called Well+Being on Sept. 12.
  • Well+Being has eight reporters and writers contributing to the vertical, an expansion from just one wellness reporter and editor on the lifestyle desk. 

Learn more about the Post’s new wellness vertical here

True to form, sports publisher Minute Media has built its own SSP: 

  • The publisher is now the proud owner of its own supply-side platform otherwise known as the marketplace advertisers go to buy ads on its sites.
  • Minute Media is trying to create a premium publisher network via the SSP.

Learn more about  Minute Media’s SSP plans here.

What we’re reading

How a podcast helped to overturn a murder conviction: 

Adnan Syed, subject of the first season of the hit podcast “Serial,” had his 23-year-old murder conviction vacated on Monday, reported The New York Times, which acquired the podcast series’ parent production company Serial Productions in 2020.   

Tensions at the Los Angeles Times: 

Employees of the LA Times are fed up with the news publisher’s billionaire owner Patrick Soon-Shiong and family over accusations that he and his daughter were meddling in news coverage, according to Politico. 

How journalists and publishers can combat online abuse:

The Press Gazette interviewed Rebecca Whittington, an online safety editor at Leeds Trinity University, about her efforts to help journalists move away from the idea that abuse is “something you should have to put up with.” 

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