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Pugpig’s 2022 State of the Digital Publishing Market Report: Puzzles, personalisation and audio as engagement and revenue drivers

The report looks at what was driving success for publishers this year and their plans and for 2023.

In the Pugpig weekly media bulletin, Pugpig’s consulting services director Kevin Anderson distills some of the best strategies and tactics that are driving growth in audiences, revenue and innovation at media businesses around the world.

Publishers: Digital growth is driving revenue and investment

This edition of the Media Bulletin is a little different because it is coming out on the same day that we’re releasing our second annual State of the Digital Publishing Market report, and we want to whet your appetite for what’s in it. Three ingredients went into this year’s report: interviews with media leaders, case studies and data, including aggregated data across the more than 350 media brands that use our platforms. As our CEO and co-founder Jonny Kaldor says, we have a unique insight into mobile publishing. And after literally months of digging into that data and slicing and dicing it in ways that we haven’t before, we uncovered a few things that surprised even us. I’ll talk about that more in a minute. If you want the report, please sign up here.

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But first we want to thank the media leaders who spoke to us across a range of great media brands from The Economist and Condé Nast to the New Statesman, The Spectator and Warner Bros. Discovery. We asked them what the last year looked like and what their plans were for the coming year. Most of the publishers we work with employ some form of subscription or membership revenue strategy so they were focused on a number of high-engagement digital products including newsletters, puzzles, audio and apps. They said that newsletters and apps were the fastest growing products in their digital portfolio, and they expected them to continue to lead growth in 2023. And in their apps, puzzles and audio were two standout features that were engaging audiences.

And these leaders are optimistic about the coming year. More than 70% of the leaders saw subscription growth in the past year, with almost 17% seeing growth of more than 20%, and they told us that this was allowing them to invest in the digital tools and talent that will allow them to build on their success even during times of economic uncertainty.

That’s not to say that they don’t have challenges, and competition for talent was one of the challenges that they highlighted. The other challenge was inflation, with one media leader saying that their costs had risen by a fifth. However, a couple of them saw a silver lining. With inflation driving up the costs of print products, they hoped more of their audiences would be encouraged to transition to digital. 

Publishers’ innovation roadmap: Personalisation and audio

We also asked media leaders what had been working for them in the past year and what their plans were in the coming year. In terms of success in the past year, audio stood out, and we have a case study about Foreign Affairs, the leading forum for the serious discussion of American foreign policy. They updated their app this year, and one of their main goals was to improve the in-app audio listening experience. “That was our biggest objective, and we passed with flying colours,” said Carlos A. Morales, Director, Digital Analytics and Audience Development at Foreign Affairs. In-app audio listening more than doubled since the release of the new app, and we have more data on how the new app is driving engagement in the report.

We also asked media leaders about their product roadmap and what innovations they planned to focus on in the coming year. Mark Zuckerberg will be disappointed that not one person we spoke to said that they were looking to explore AR/VR or the metaverse, and NFTs are so last year. “Many people tried them but will not be doing them again,” said Nic Newman with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford. Instead, they are focused on improving customer experiences and delivering more relevant content. These efforts include a range of personalisation features from multi-variant newsletters to automated content curation that deliver specific experiences based on the interests of various audience segments.

For instance, during the pandemic, Golf Digest benefited from new interest in the sport, especially amongst young people, Amy Hartford, senior director of product management for Golf Digest, said. They have identified a number of audience segments from “course nerds” to equipment geeks and then those who love the pro tours or the gossip around the new Saudi-funded LIV tour, she said. This year, Golf Digest will look into ways to deliver personalised content experiences to those different audiences. Personalisation or customisation were themes that we heard over and over. The idea is that by delivering audiences more of what they want that they would be more engaged and either more likely to buy a subscription or keep the subscription that they had.

What surprised us: The high-engagement in-app subscriber

And speaking of engagement, as I said before, our best data minds dug into the analytics we have across our portfolio of apps, asking questions of the data that we hadn’t before. One thing that we weren’t expecting was the noticeable and statistically significant difference between the engagement of existing subscribers who got access to the app through a digital or print-digital bundle and subscribers who bought access in the Google Play and Apple App stores. In-app subscribers were significantly more engaged, and it makes sense. These subscribers had made the choice to specifically get the app and would be more focused on it. App users are seen as representative of a publisher’s most loyal audience, and from the data, in-app purchasers are your ultra fans. Bundled subscribers account for a much larger part of app users, but these high-engagement in-app subscribers are an important segment to consider.

That’s just a taste of what we’ve got in the report, and we hope that we’ve whetted your appetite. If you want a copy of the report, please head on over here.

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Here are some of the most important headlines about the business of news and publishing as well as strategies and tactics in product management, analytics and audience engagement.