In pivoting to paid, publishers run into tech headaches

For years, publishers cobbled different tools and services together into a stack that would help them scale their audiences — and make money from advertising — as much as possible. Today, many of them are finding those tools fit poorly into their plans to build consumer revenue streams.

For example, publishers are discovering that many email service providers, such as Campaign Monitor or MailChimp, do not connect easily to the products they use to manage their relationships with subscribers. Instead of being able to sync lists of subscribers with lists of people that should receive certain kinds of emails, staffers have to enter them manually, creating hours of extra busywork.

Conversely, publishers with legacy print magazine businesses are frustrated by how difficult it is to connect those operations to their digital infrastructure, thanks partly to fulfillment providers, who are loath to surrender information that might make them less important to their customers. One fulfillment provider recently took more than nine months to build an API that would give a client access to information about their print readers, said Melissa Chowning, the founder of audience development consultancy Twentyfirst Digital.

These challenges underline an issue that could plague digital media for the next several years: The consumer revenue stack is still coming together, and it may take years for the publishing industry to develop the corpus of knowledge and tools needed to pursue those revenues effectively.

“We [as an industry] are still learning on the consumer side,” said Fran Wills, the president of the Local Media Consortium, a trade group that helps negotiate pricing and deals on products for local news publishers. “Just like the tech stack in advertising evolved over time and there are some best practices that publishers subscribe to, the consumer tech stack is evolving.”

While the digital advertising ecosystem is constantly changing, its list of dominant players and tools is largely settled, which compels vendors to build products that play well with key ad tech products. The consumer revenue space is different, with only a few 800-pound gorillas setting the rules for how publishers might build or manage relationships with consumers.

What’s more, the few end-to-end solutions that are available in the market can be pricey — choosing to use Salesforce for email, CRM, DMP and other services can cost more than half a million dollars a year. Most of the companies in the consumer tech space are handling just one facet of that process. That creates both more uncertainty and more work, as publishers and vendors look to stitch products together.

“It’s too soon to know which tools are going to work together and really support one another,” Wills said.

Google and Facebook, meanwhile, have both launched sets of tools to help publishers drive subscriptions. But both companies remain in the testing phase, and many publishers are wary of giving the duopoly any form of control over the customer relationship.

Google’s and Facebook’s subscription products also remain too cumbersome for small or midsize publishers. One year after launching Subscribe with Google with 17 publisher partners, around four dozen publishers have begun integrating the product into their operations, but fewer than 20 have fully implemented it. To help smaller publishers hunt for consumer revenue, Google instead launched a subscriptions lab in partnership with the Local Media Association, Local Media Consortium and FTI Consulting.

Other consumer tech vendors are trying to expand their products so they can solve for more of publishers’ problems. For example, Piano, which began as a paywall technology, acquired an ESP called Newzmate in February. In early 2019, BounceX, which got its start with a pop-up tool designed to help publishers acquire readers’ email addresses (back when it was called BounceExchange), began pitching itself as a device identity resolution provider.

“Our vision is that should all be a seamless experience,” said Piano svp Michael Silberman.

But adding tools that replace existing ones, however imperfect, may not entice everybody. Most publishers — particularly those short on development resources — are reluctant to switch away from one system to another. A large publisher that commits to re-platforming, or migrating from a mishmash of third-party services to a single, integrated one is setting themselves up for a process that can take years and cost millions of dollars, said Pete Doucette, managing director of FTI Consulting’s technology, media and telecommunications practice.

Look past the sticker shock, and such a move might be worth it, Doucette said. But in most cases, publishers lack the flexibility necessary to make bold moves like that. “Most publishers are making incremental decisions, not strategic ones,” Doucette said.

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