Media Briefing: Publishers search for new ways to grow (and authenticate) audiences, overheard at the Digiday Publishing Summit

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

Overheard at DPS

Dozens of publishers made the annual trek to snowy Vail, Colorado for the spring iteration of the Digiday Publishing Summit this week with hopes of discussing and finding solutions to the challenges facing their media businesses. 

As both social and search platforms change their algorithms to keep users locked-in longer, media execs were eager to learn from one another which alternate routes were working to get audiences to their sites. And once on site, how they can convert those readers into authenticated audiences that ultimately can be monetized better using publisher first-party data, deterministic IDs or subscriptions.

During the town hall sessions at the summit, publishers were granted anonymity under Chatham House rules to candidly discuss what was on their minds and what challenges they were currently facing at the start of 2024.

Below are snippets of those conversations, which have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. 

Audience acquisition when social and search are stagnant 

“Social as a search mechanism or discovery mechanism — that’s been a huge way for us to also try to build our email list. We started a new series on TikTok [giving people practical cleaning advice] … that’s also been successful for us. What I think has been a bit tricky is in trying to set up campaigns that actually allow people to reengage people or get their email off of those interactions. Obviously it costs a lot more money for that level of acquisition from social, particularly on TikTok.”

“My personal favorite strategy is to look at the open market data and look at which one of my users is getting high CPMs but I have no idea why. So as soon as we find a segment of those kinds of users via the data science team, we just start digging really deep into [understanding] them.” 

“We completely pulled [our most popular coverage topic] out of the normal reporting structure and created a working group just around the [topic] across news, marketing, advertising – the whole thing – and really put the focus on that [subject] and we saw 40% year over year growth in pageviews on site, which for us is a big deal because we’re competing against [publishers] that are a lot more resourced than us.”

Digiday: “What are some of the things that came out of the working group?” 

“Speed on the social side and competing a little more for some of the commodity stuff, and also being a little more edgy with our [posts] … We also spun up YouTube [shows] and podcasts to take our online journalists and give them a name and a face for the community. We increased the total number of assets we were creating … and then we created non-CPM-based advertising opportunities for brands that wanted to align to that content.” 

“The most powerful traffic that we have is that direct traffic [that comes from] our events hugely. So we have a very strong events presence and it’s from that that we would see a spike in traffic to our site.”

“I don’t know that we’re doing this particularly well, but what we try to do is use QR codes in physical places that we have touchpoints with members [in order to drive to the membership sign-up page]. Some places that we’ve seen that work successfully, is in the retail partnerships that we have.”

“We’re rolling out a new trivia game and you do have to authenticate or give an email address to use it … We started slow with, honestly, a very basic trivia game. But people not only signed up to play, but they kept playing. So we had return traffic from having this game that we might not have if they were just reading content.”

Google Discover is the obscure bright light 

“We put a lot of investment into SEO optimization in the hopes that with the decline of what we’re getting from Facebook, we could see a lift there. It’s not clear if it’s the result of those efforts because frankly, that’s been pretty mixed. But just as a channel, Google Discover has kind of emerged as something that we are getting gains from.”

“I can’t explain when and how it happens, but when it happens [that our content is featured on Google Discover], it’s a great thing to get this huge spike and it monetizes super well. And it’s essentially lightning in a bottle that we’re trying to figure out how we can duplicate.” 

Digiday: How often does it happen?

“A couple of times a month.” 

Digiday: How meaningful is that? 

“Super meaningful for us because it’s very high intent traffic and it’s super highly engaged. Multiple pageviews, so we serve a lot of ads, and usually it’s against content that has a significant direct-sell against it, so we monetize it very, very highly.”

Realizations around registration walls

“We have an interactive game with leaderboards and things like that so we have a natural reason to sign it. What we found, interestingly, is that hard gates versus soft gates tend to perform the same. Allowing people to skip but making it seem really like you should log into continue, the conversion rates [are] roughly the same.”

“Single sign-on providers, depending on the traffic channel, help out. So if they’re coming from Facebook or Instagram, having the Facebook single sign on will increase conversions.” 

“You have to give the user a really good reason that they understand why they should [register] … What we found that worked really well is [exclusive] manufacturer coupons [for app users that load on their store loyalty cards] … That’s why we need your email, otherwise it just won’t work. Coming up with something where the user can truly understand that this is the only way of doing it will increase adoption.”

“Earning the right to users’ emails in a meaningful way so that you don’t have this inorganic experience that is tied to like, ‘Please give me your email or advertising on the Internet is dead.’ Like, consumers don’t care.”

Pushing the value of their first-party data

“[Advertisers] already pay data providers for data. So why not pay the publisher?”

“Like a data provider who tells you, ‘Of our data set, we look at 10 different data points … Nine say you’re a man, one says you’re a woman, therefore you’re a woman.’ Like that’s great data that they’re willing to pay $0.25 to $2 [on top of CPMs] for?” 

“It just feels like a lot of buyers say that their clients don’t want to [test publisher first-party data] right now. And they’re just kind of waiting for the momentum to get pushed forward. Any client that we have set up with first-party data seems to really appreciate the results that they’re seeing. [But] it is still a wait-and-see until everyone gets on board.”

“In a year where you have [third-party] cookies and you have alternatives, you have to be able to set up tests to validate that the thing that you are potentially going to use in the future [in this case publishers’ first-party data] is equal if not better than the thing that you have right now. And so in order to do that, you have to take a bucket of money and divide it into a couple of different activation methodologies that you’re willing to put head-to-head with one another. And so if you have a minimum spend threshold, you can’t really do that.”

“We offer a lot of [ads on site] in order to prove out that some of our first-party data works, in part of the campaigns – obviously, we have a minimum spend to get to that, because we’re giving away a lot of free inventory – but it helps to tell that story and show the results at the end.” 

Digiday: “What’s the minimum spend?”

“About $25,000 to 50,000.” 

“For publishers’ first-party data that’s deterministic, for example, or based on very valuable user behaviors, I’m not having much trouble getting buyers interested in that. And not [just] for trials, because it’s just the scarce and they can only get it from the source.”

Numbers to know

2: The number of brands that G/O media sold off this week, including The A.V. Club and The Takeout.

3 dozen: The number of staffers that were laid off from, as part of a larger move to eliminate the media company’s advertising team.

265: The number of former staffers of now defunct media company The Messenger that founder Jimmy Finkelstein has not yet paid severance to, despite many having severance guarantees in their contracts. 

What we’ve covered

How Forbes is testing its SSPs to improve programmatic ad revenue:

  • Just as advertisers and agencies are the clients of demand-side platforms, publishers are the clients of supply-side platforms — though it may not always seem that way. 
  • Forbes has sought to reassert the relationship through a series of tests with its SSPs to improve the ad tech firms’ contributions to the publisher’s revenue.

Read more about how Forbes is working with its SSPs here

How Hearst Magazines is using its digital membership model to grow its e-commerce marketplace business:

  • The Hearst e-commerce marketplace is just over a year old and is prioritizing the enthusiast and wellness brands in its portfolio. 
  • These tests are proving that publishers with categorical authority and expertise on topics have a better chance at selling products to readers — sometimes at a higher commission rate.

Hear from Hearst’s Sheel Shah about how he’s growing the publisher’s commerce platform here

‘For your consideration’: How Janice Min is selling entertainment advertisers on The Ankler:

  • Earlier this year, Janice Min, CEO of The Ankler, said that she’s expecting to hit $10 million in annual revenue in 2025. 
  • During a podcast recording with Digiday, Min revised that statement to say, “We have a shot of getting to that number this year.”

Hear from Min about her strategy for growth here

Media buyers don’t want to pay extra for publishers’ first-party data:

  • Amid the early stages of cookie deprecation, media buyers aren’t quite sold yet on the premiums that some publishers are placing on their first-party audience data and contextual targeting solutions.
  • One publisher who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that they usually charge at least $2 on top of their standard CPMs for their first-party data, but that is a tough sell to make to media buyers. 

Learn more about why buyers are hesitant to pay more for publishers’ data here

Why media companies are still hybrid, four years since the pandemic started: 

  • It’s been four years since the pandemic caused media companies to make the overnight switch to a work-from-home model. 
  • Though many companies have brought employees back into the office since then, most large digital publishers are still choosing a hybrid model over a full-time model, with staff working only a few days a week in the office. 

See why publishers are choosing the hybrid model here

What we’re reading

The Financial Times is beta testing a new chatbot for subscribers called Ask FT:

FT is joining the rank and file of publishers with custom chatbots for their websites, according to Nieman Lab. FT readers will be able to ask the chatbot questions and receive conversational responses that come from the publisher’s archives. 

Gannett’s CEO criticizes the newspaper publisher’s union: 

During an onstage session at the Mather Symposium on media last week, Gannett CEO Mike Reed said he thinks the union representing Gannett’s newsroom “plays dirty and lies to our employees,” Axios reported.  

In another election season, Politico is working to stay on top:

Under a new(ish) owner, Axel Springer, Politico has expanded its global focus, but it is still bracing its Washington, D.C. bureau to stand out from the competition, Vanity Fair reported. 

The EU wants social media platforms to have fact checking teams:

TikTok, X, Facebook and Instagram, among other social media platforms, will be required to put together fact checking teams and moderators who are fluent in the 24 EU languages ahead of the various European elections happening this year, according to The Guardian. 

NowThis and its nonprofit owner Accelerate Change merge:

Last April, NowThis was acquired by nonprofit media company Accelerate Change. Now, the social video brand is merging with the rest of the eight brands in the portfolio to become NowMedia, Adweek reported.

More in Media

NewFronts Briefing: Samsung, Condé Nast, Roku focus presentations on new ad formats and category-specific inventory

Day two of IAB’s NewFronts featured presentations from Samsung, Condé Nast and Roku, highlighting new partnerships, ad formats and inventory, as well as new AI capabilities.

The Athletic to raise ad prices as it paces to hit 3 million newsletter subscribers

The New York Times’ sports site The Athletic is about to hit 3 million total newsletter subscribers. It plans to raise ad prices as as a result of this nearly 20% year over year increase.

NewFronts Briefing: Google, Vizio and news publishers pitch marketers with new ad offerings and range of content categories

Day one of the 2024 IAB NewFronts featured presentations from Google and Vizio, as well as a spotlight on news publishers.