How Content Publishers Are Impacted In 2020

how content publishers impacted coronavirus pandemic online advertisers covid-19 economic recession

When I first started documenting the impact of content marketing during what I like to call “The Great Upheaval” of Coronavirus and the economic recession it has caused, its initial mission was to examine, on a weekly basis, the dynamic nature of the crisis from a publisher’s perspective, and to share our bird's eye view. Three and a half months later, and what we initially thought may be temporary is slowly becoming a permanent transformation. 

A couple of weeks ago, I talked about that transformation in the context of eCommerce and affiliate efforts. This week I want to talk about what that transformation looks like for paid subscription campaigns. Let’s dive in. Steady As She Goes is the mantra for content publishers and online advertisers during the pandemic and recession

I tend to use March 15th as the point of inflection, when the world started turning sideways and the rule book was thrown out the window. There was a lot of volatility in the ensuing few weeks, but somewhere around May things started to steady and become consistent. Let’s look at the spend on subscription campaigns - which is a clear illustration of this shift: As you can see, May-June, compared to March-April, are far less volatile. There are no huge peaks and valleys that are outside the norm. 

Now let’s look at volume. Publishers reported a spike of subscribers coming in as the crisis was unfolding. There was some worry that this number would go down, but when you look at the data, the volume hasn’t decreased at all. In fact, it’s on a slight upward trajectory: Another interesting point of note: CPCs are still low, but are increasing gradually over time. The fact that spend continues to be high despite the increase means that CPAs are still trending low across the board. So volume is still high, and costs are still low. But what about quality? 

Content Publishers And Advertisers Adjusting During The Age Of Covid-19

At the beginning of The Great Upheaval, publishers were worried about user retention, fearing that readers wouldn’t stick around once they subscribed. That never materialized either. The chart below shows user average user retention over 12 weeks after the initial subscription date: I find this data point to be particularly telling. No huge drop-off at all. Users, on the whole, are sticking around. Seeing all this data together indicates that this is a full-blown transformation rather than a passing trend. 

There have been millions of words written over the last few months about content consumption being on the rise, and people willing to open their wallets for content that they find worthwhile, so I won’t take up more space on the topic. 

The TLDR is that this is happening, and it seems like it’s here to stay. Planning for the Long Haul Given this landscape, it’s time for publishers to start making the most of it, and plan an effective strategy for the long haul. This means opening up their data and looking at how to structure their campaigns to maximize ROI during Covid-19

Today, I want to look specifically at strategies for retention campaigns. Setting aside a budget every month to ensure your subscribers return is an important factor ensuring a high lifetime value per user. 

As I mentioned above, retention numbers are steady, but to keep them steady, publishers need to invest in a long-term strategy. When it comes to retention campaigns, there are three primary targeting strategies that can be used: 

1. Starters 

This strategy targets recent subscribers to ensure that they return to the site regularly and create a reading habit that encourages loyalty and increases the likelihood of renewal. It’s important to take reader habits into account for this strategy. Let’s say a subscriber initially came in as a result of COVID-19 coverage, but has since spent more time reading sports articles. They should be presented with sports content, because that’s the core of their interactions. 

2. Sleepers 

This strategy targets users that haven’t been active since they initially subscribed. They have a high likelihood of churning, so setting aside budget to encourage engagement from this user segment proves to be effective. For this scenario, it’s worthwhile to promote content that really speaks to a publisher’s unique tone of voice and value proposition. 

3. Low Propensity Readers 

This strategy targets users with declining engagement numbers that haven’t gone dormant but are in danger of doing so. For this, a combination of unique content and frequently visited content provides a good mix for many small businesses

Content Consistency

At this point, it’s common knowledge that The Great Upheaval in March caused a huge spike in traffic across the board for publishers. Whether that spike was going to result in long-term growth has been the subject of some debate. The truth is that the answer isn’t clear-cut. As with most things in life, it’s a bit of a grey area. For example, as I’ve written in the past, paid subscriptions have clearly benefited in the long term, and costs and retention are in a really good place. On the other hand, it seems that for other publishers, those users haven’t really stuck around. That’s what I want to address this week, so let’s dive in. 

The Rise and Fall of Organic Traffic & Paid Subscriptions

A large percentage of publishers that we work with - around 70% of them - do some form of Audience Development i.e. acquiring traffic for the sake of traffic) to fulfill monthly visit goals, increase their Comscore ranking, make sure direct-sold ad inventory gets the right amount of reach, and a host of other goals. In March, the spike in traffic really benefited these publishers, and their organic reach went through the roof. This led to a decrease in paid campaigns because they just didn’t need to supplement their traffic as much. You can see the decrease in paid campaigns clearly over time: Of course, March caused a lot of publishers to lower their media spend. 

But the decrease in Audience Development campaigns was far sharper than other types of campaigns. And where others recovered fairly quickly, Audience Development campaigns kept their spend low. This was a huge indication of the overall health of publishers’ organic traffic. If they weren’t spending money to acquire users, that means they didn’t need to — their organic traffic was unusually high. Loyalty and Retention Now it seems like the party may be coming to an end. Over the past few weeks, a lot of new Audience Development campaigns have been launching. Organic traffic is slowing down and beginning to come back to pre-crisis levels. The best place to actually see this is if we look at overall user retention trends. As time goes on, you can see that two and three-week retention rates (and beyond) are becoming lower and lower. In other words: fewer people are coming back to these sites than they did a couple of months ago at the height of the crisis. 

This puts the onus back on paid acquisition to bring back users. Fortunately, CPCs are still incredibly low, so starting Audience Development campaigns now means way more bang for your buck. This return to paid acquisition brings us back to the ages-old problem with these campaigns: cost versus quality. When you’re trying to drive traffic, there are really only two optimization levers you can use - CPC and CTR. You’re looking to get eyeballs on your site, and to do so at the lowest possible cost. The problem here is that the users don’t necessarily stick around. They’re fly-by-night, and most of them don’t come back.

Trending Close to Home So now that traffic campaigns are coming back, what’s driving the highest quality users? Looking at the Loyalty Scores of our top spending campaigns, here’s a taste of what’s been working: Local news: This seems to dominate across the board for publishers. National news usually dominates the conversation and takes over the feed, but keeping it local allows publishers to stand out from the crowd and show their value clearly. Healthy Lifestyle: With the continued lockdowns and health crisis, people are seeking out reliable information and guides to self-care. Financial how-tos: In light of economic uncertainty, guidance and authority when it comes to financial planning keeps users engaged and coming back for more. I think the most interesting thing to note here is how much things have changed. Local news has always been a big driver of loyalty, but health and finance used to take a backseat to other pursuits. 

The world has changed, and with it, people are seeking out certainty when it comes to their basic needs: Community, wellbeing, and financial stability. We’ve been in this crisis for months now, so it can be easy to forget just how different things are and how people have fundamentally changed. They’re looking for comfort, and they tend to turn to publishers they trust to get just that. If publishers keep that in mind, they’re sure to see their loyal readers increase.

Content Publishers Bouncing Back

We’re living through a volatile period, and through it all, it’s clear that users are turning to content publishers to provide steady, reliable information and entertainment. It’s also clear that these users are ready and willing to open up their wallets for these things. The key to making the most of this transformation is having a solid strategy that is ready for the long haul. Measurement shouldn’t end at the first conversion event. Users are ready and willing to stick around, and it’s critical that publishers encourage them to do so by creating as many engagement opportunities as possible during this age of Coronavirus and economic recession.