The state of publisher revenue | Pathways to total revenue optimization in 2024

This State of the Industry Report, created with our partner, Piano, dives into how publishers optimize revenue, specifically how they incorporate total revenue management into their organizations and how they’re optimizing revenue streams if total revenue optimization (TRO) is a priority this year, along with the tactics they plan to implement to support those initiatives.

Introduction: The rise of total revenue optimization

Over the past few years, publishers have been increasingly focused on diversifying their revenue streams. At the same time, many have experienced declines in traffic, slows in ad buys and pressure to maintain revenue growth. Furthermore, based on a new survey by Digiday and Piano, 2024 presents a trifold set of chief concerns for our publisher respondents: evolving consumer demands of their favorite media channels (topping the list at 81%), the economy (80%) and stricter privacy regulations (72%). 

Considering declining revenue and the rise of these challenges, changes to social media algorithms, the final deprecation of third-party cookies in Chrome and more, publishers are prioritizing total revenue optimization (TRO), a comprehensive approach to maximizing revenue across all business areas. The process includes strategically managing and optimizing all revenue streams to appropriately balance tradeoffs and user targeting, eliminate audience cannibalization and maximize total revenue.

“Publishers are broadly thinking about total revenue in a way they weren’t a year or two ago,” said Michael Silberman, executive vice president of media strategy at Piano. “The market is waking up and saying, this is really important; we need to think about this differently.’”

In this new State of the Industry report, Digiday and Piano examine how publishers optimize revenue and, specifically, how they incorporate total revenue management into their organizations. This report highlights what fueled publishers’ revenue last year compared to 2024, how they optimize revenue streams with TRO strategies and the tactics they plan to implement to support their initiatives.

The role of total revenue optimization

Virtually all the publishers in our survey (98%) said a total revenue optimization approach is essential to their 2024 plans. Over half (53%) said the strategy was “very important” to 2024 revenue outcomes.

As an essential measure in their plans, most (83%) of our respondents said they meet at least weekly to work on the strategy.

In most cases, the CMO (51%) and CRO (49%) were identified as being responsible for revenue optimization. Diving into this a bit further, 20% only selected CMO and 11% only selected CRO, while 19% of respondents selected both. Everyone who selected cross-functional team responsibility (24%) also selected another option, indicating revenue optimization is largely a shared responsibility among leadership roles and within the various organizational structures. 

“We have teams that are focused on different revenue streams, the most obvious are ads and subscriptions where there’s a trade-off happening in the use of the inventory on the website… It’s a constant conversation and requires very close collaboration. It needs to be an ongoing conversation across teams to make smart decisions and to look at what is driving total revenue and how you’re optimizing it across the business.” 

Michael Silberman, executive vice president of media strategy, Piano

As teams meet to discuss TRO goals, strategies and successes, they must consider numerous factors to ensure effective results.

“We have teams that are focused on different revenue streams, the most obvious are ads and subscriptions where there’s a trade-off happening in the use of the inventory on the website,” Silberman said. “Are you using that inventory to drive a subscription or advertising? There are also demands on inventory for event promotion or if you have an affiliate commerce business and whether any of that content should even be subject to a paywall. It’s a constant conversation and requires very close collaboration. It needs to be an ongoing conversation across teams to make smart decisions and to look at what is driving total revenue and how you’re optimizing it across the business.” 

How they reach total revenue optimization in 2024 represents a holistic approach. All our respondents said they plan to use ad revenue optimization platforms, machine learning user propensity models and AI-powered personalization engines in 2024. 

After that, virtually all the other options are cited as top contenders for second place, including social media management platforms, SEO/SEM tools and ad-blocker mitigation. If there are any outliers in their 2024 plans, it’s only to an extent. CMS systems and content recommendation engines are the lowest at 76% and 77%, respectively. 

The clustering of these approaches at the top of all our publishers’ responses supports a prediction from Silberman that 2024 will be the year publishers seek more dynamic tech solutions. He noted that publishers are looking beyond just propensity, such as considering ad demand and ad revenue per page when designing their paywall rules. Silberman also underscored the importance of looking at ad revenue and subscription revenue strategies as optimization opportunities instead of a trade-off and looking for tech solutions to help support that. 

Furthermore, in some cases, these plans represent a significant change from 2023, when only 29% used AI-powered personalization engines and 28% used machine learning models. CRM systems and GDPR/privacy compliance tools also saw a sizable new focus between the years, each seeing an approximately 45-point increase in intended uptake by our respondents.

With these changes come budget shifts as well. Most of our respondents (84%) allocated up to 20% of their annual budgets to the tech that drives total revenue optimization in 2023. In 2024, the 21%–40% range topped the list as the yearly allocation 71% of the respondents pegged as their tech-solution spend.

The state of publisher ad revenue

While ad revenue rose in 2023, most noted modest increases. Eighty-three percent of publishers experienced ad revenue increases, and the majority of those that did (75%) saw it increase moderately by 1%–20%.

“Ad revenue was down in 2023 — and down in particular for news publishers while the pure-play digital media companies such as the Googles, Facebooks and TikToks of the world all saw revenue growth — but publishers were impacted significantly,” Silberman said. “Traffic declines, such as those due to Facebook pulling back from news articles and changes to Google’s algorithm, hit the ‘helpful information’ publishers in particular. But it wasn’t just the traffic decline — programmatic CPMs got softer. And while I haven’t heard as much from publishers about their direct business, broadly, ad revenue is down.” 

Our respondents’ expectations for 2024 are optimistic regarding advertising revenue. Nearly all (89%) expect revenue to increase, and 67% of those publishers think it will increase slightly more than in 2023; they anticipate a 21%–40% uptick.

Publisher revenue streams

Two channels stand out as top revenue grossers: digital advertising (67%) and social media monetization (62%). Email marketing and SEO/content tactics are virtually tied for third on the list, at 42% and 45%, respectively.

In light of their second-most-citied revenue channel, publishers have increasingly allocated resources to social media over the past year or two. Social platforms such as Instagram and TikTok have also become go-to places for many people to search for information, from looking for specific products to video content and anything in between — many are using it over Google Search. As these social platforms become more popular among consumers for all sorts of content, many brands realize they can adapt their content to the platform too, as Paramount did with its ‘Mean Girls’ release. Additionally, some respondents may have interpreted “social media monetization” as efforts spent improving or increasing search traffic, which can lead to increased revenue

Publishers also seem to be trying almost anything regarding supportive revenue channels — showing their eagerness to find new pockets of opportunity. Seventy-four percent of respondents selected between three and seven different revenue types, with 7% selecting eight or more. The top selected channels are loyalty programs (71%), online courses/workshops (68%) and content sponsorships (60%). This large number of channels presents challenges for true optimization as doing so across such a large number of revenue streams might not be realistic — focusing on optimizing top revenue streams is likely a more productive strategy. 

“Our north star is subscriptions, but each business has a slightly different approach,” said Harry Fawkes, head of digital subscriptions at dmgMedia. “When looking at a new revenue stream, a lot of it is about cultural investment and what we want the teams to focus on. So, as a group, Mail has about eight different brands and they all do different things. They all have very different revenue streams but they’re coming together under single leadership to try and get certain KPIs. So, it has to be seen in brands, whether it’s a value to our customers, firstly, and whether that revenue is worth it.”

Content creation and audience development are also tactics that every publisher in the survey would figure into their ad and subscription optimization plans in 2024.

“I think content creation is disjointed from the business, so I think you’ll hear that quite a lot through the industry,” said Fawkes. “So, trying to focus our content teams on creating the best possible content is always a thing. We’ve worked a lot in the last year on quality metrics. So, we don’t talk about sessions, we talk about quality sessions and we don’t talk about page views, we talk about quality page views and trying to tie that to the page and give you that second pageview with the correlation between subscribing, subscribers staying on the site and building out a much more quality-focused newsroom. It is still early days but we’re getting some really good questions and insights — anything from something quite basic to how many H2 posts were written to what was actually written about, how it’s distributed, all the way through format on the site. So, this raises more questions but good questions about quality rather than superficial SEO.”

Subscription models

Surprisingly, subscription models ranked farther down on our publisher respondents’ list of top revenue grossers at 11%. However, for those working on the subscription model equation in 2024, a significant majority of our respondents (86%) said freemium would receive the most testing and leveraging. Dynamic and propensity modeling came in second at 74%, and meters on pages ranked a somewhat distant third at 46%.

The low selection of subscription models is in opposition to what Piano has seen in publishing across their clients. Silberman notes that subscription revenue continues to grow. While in 2023 growth was slower than what publishers saw in 2021 and 2020, it’s clear that subscriptions remain a significant, consistent revenue stream and can drive growth with the right strategy. However, there’s also a change in approach to attracting subscribers — it’s no longer about volume but quality and lifetime retention for sustained revenue growth. 

“The big shift we’ve seen for publishers is a move toward more dynamic flexible models,” said Silberman. “Publishers are increasingly focused on finding a balance between subscriptions and other revenue streams, especially advertising. Paywalls inevitably restrict users from reading, which can mean fewer pageviews and ad impressions. Blunt instruments, like a pageview meter, are less popular. While a freemium model is effective, subscription conversions depend on how many articles are locked. Publishers are looking for a dynamic model that considers user propensity to subscribe, the likelihood of the article to drive a conversion and the potential ad revenue of the page. That model is more effective at identifying when to show the paywall and when to let users keep reading, to maximize ad revenue.”

Revenue strategies in 2024

While subscription models weren’t among the highest-grossing revenue streams for most of our respondents, the number one initiative for 2024 centers on subscriptions. 

What our respondents said would drive their revenue models in the coming year focused first on adaptive and dynamic pricing, such as paywalls and ad optimization (82% put these at the top of the list). Native advertising initiatives came in second at 68%. Programmatic and mobile advertising came close to tying for third at 63% and 59% in the ranking.

Challenges and opportunities

When optimizing anything, there are always challenges to face, and total revenue optimization for publishers is no different. The chief challenge in our publishers’ TRO efforts is around developing effective content monetization strategies, including balancing monetization and user experience; this topped the list of challenges at 91%. Second place was constantly evolving search and social algorithms (76%), and third on the list was traffic decreases due to increased paywall disruptions (68%).

Silberman highlighted two challenges: team alignment and centralized data. 

“The biggest challenge is team alignment so everyone is on the same page,” Silberman said. “The other is a lack of shared data. If they don’t have reliable data that allows them to understand the relationship between these two revenue streams [ads and subscriptions] then that’s going to make it harder to make the right decisions. If you’re not working off a common dataset, that’s a challenge.” 

Publisher teams must additionally ensure they work together to consolidate data to more effectively tackle shifting privacy regulations, third-party cookie alternatives, social media algorithm updates and more. 

According to the survey, the deprecation of third-party cookies, a contender for the most-covered topic in the media space, will impact our publishers in at least three significant ways in 2024. First, privacy compliance and the technology to achieve it top their list of impacts on TRO at 72%. Second, there will be a need to focus further on customers and fostering loyal relationships (70%). Third, our respondents say they’ll need alternative IDs by year’s end (68%).

“The final deprecation of third-party cookies is going to put more pressure on publishers,” said Silberman. “I think it probably puts more pressure on finding the right balance and being as efficient as possible with how they manage their paywall and hit those subscription goals while preserving as much ad inventory as possible. That’s going to be the big challenge.”

Contextual targeting tops the list of solutions they’re implementing to overcome the death of the cookie at 86%, and just behind that is data unification to optimally leverage first-party data (73%).

“A tool like ad revenue insights is going to help publishers with these challenges so they can understand the impact of the end of third-party cookies to see the value of these cookie replacement technologies,” said Silberman. “We’ve also been moving back toward contextual targeting of ads, and having tech that allows you to do that effectively beyond simply section-level targeting is crucial.” 

At 84%, audience segmentation and advanced personalization topped our respondents’ list of tactics to combat their challenges. Interactive, shoppable and emerging ad formats were second in their tally of 2024 responses, at 73%. Third place, at 62%, was revamping their email marketing tactics.

Silos are another challenge our respondents face in 2024 — 91% said silos were moderate to very significant issues in their total revenue optimization efforts. 

Several approaches top our publishers’ list of responses to silos: better communication of revenue goals (77%), workshops and training (76%), and tied for third are fine-tuning KPIs and reorganizing to have all revenue teams report to a single CRO, both at 70%.

“The biggest challenge is team alignment so everyone is on the same page. The other is a lack of shared data. If they don’t have reliable data that allows them to understand the relationship between these two revenue streams [ads and subscriptions] then that’s going to make it harder to make the right decisions. If you’re not working off a common dataset, that’s a challenge.” 

Michael Silberman, executive vice president of media strategy, Piano

These responses harken back to Silberman’s earlier assessment of common challenges publishers face in optimizing total revenue. Teams must be aligned in their goals and data needs. 

As for how their response to these challenges is going, in 2023, performance audits for data-driven decision-making (76%), audience transparency (73%) and diversifying their audience base (70%) topped the list of success stories so far. 

Looking ahead, those same data-driven audits will be the primary point of focus (topping the list at 74%), followed by dynamic pricing strategies for ads and subscriptions (54%). Diversified revenue streams (49%) and adapting to privacy regulations (47%) tied for third on the list regarding 2024 responses to challenges. 

As total revenue optimization becomes a primary focus for publishers this year, they’re working toward the increased ad revenue they’re predicting by incorporating content creation and audience development tactics, testing several subscription model types and expanding upon revenue strategies. 

The theme for 2024 is a shift toward more dynamic models and strategies. From implementing dynamic technologies to testing dynamic subscription and pricing models, publisher teams are working on flexibility and collaborative strategizing to build robust TRO plans for a successful year.  

Sponsored by Piano

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