The past decade hasn’t been an easy one for the publishing industry, but Richard Reeves sees signs that things are picking up for the next one.

The last decade has proven digital publishers can be an irresistible force when they work together, and harnessing that shared power will be essential as we move forward. Emerging digital technologies, changing consumer behaviour and evolving advertising buying habits won’t slow down as we enter the twenties – and neither will challenges with data privacy, transparency, and monetisation. Media owners have what it takes to make the future a roaring success, but they must bring their talent for adaptation and innovation to the collective party.

Overcoming differences to face a common threat

Weathering seismic change has a way of creating unexpected unity. Where few publishers would have agreed they were facing the same issues in the past, recent years have seen growing recognition of a common enemy and a drive to come together to fight their corner. Now, there is unanimous agreement on the need to tip the balance back in favour of quality independent media.

Encouragingly, we have already seen some pioneers striving for successful collaboration. The Pangaea Alliance was the first to demonstrate that coming together can help premium publishers achieve greater reach, while retaining their own personality and voice. Since then, initiatives such as the Ozone Project have made great strides in enabling access to high quality, GDPR compliant, digital media. These steps, however, are just the beginning and it is critical for all publishers to continue to focus on enhancing their strength by joining ranks.

The fall of third-party cookies may force a level playing field

Third-party cookies will continue to crumble as implementation of data privacy regulation and tighter browser policies reshape the digital landscape. But rising demand for targeting alternatives will also offer opportunities for publishers to level their footing with social media giants.

Although access to closed stores of log-in data has previously given social platforms an edge, that advantage is slipping. The search for new ways to monetise media and deliver tailored advertising has fuelled the emergence of unique identifiers. Early signs are promising, with the accuracy of standardised identification measuring up well to traditional tracking. The full potential of single IDs, however, will only be realised as more publishers add their audience insight to the shared pool and reap the rewards of rising advertiser interest.

Publishers break free from the confines of ad-only revenue

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge the growing necessity for a broader range of revenue sources. While advertising still offers vital support for online media, its value is declining – with the latest Digital Publishers Revenue Index (DPRI) revealing a 15% drop in display yield – and forward-thinking media players are exploring other avenues of income.

Marie Claire, for example, has illustrated that publishers can boost their bottom line by moving away from solely relying on advertising and harnessing the trust they have built among loyal audiences. Through multiple e-commerce ventures, the iconic fashion title has extended its reach and revenue across channels: branching out into physical retail with beauty store Fabled and partnering with major brands to launch Marie Claire Edit – an online shopping platform that offers access to brand-approved items, and has grown to drive £2 million in sales per month.

It’s therefore no surprise that many other publishers plan to follow suit, with 50% of AOP members set to prioritise non-advertising revenue and new products in the next 12 months.

Technology paves the way to viable transparency solution

As transparency remains a key concern, industry leaders must start harnessing the advanced tools at their fingertips to drive positive change. Distributed ledger technology, for instance, has the capacity to shine a light into the darker corners of digital advertising; providing clarity into where advertising spend flows increases confidence between buyers and sellers.

As well as collaborating with ISBA and PwC on the ‘Transparency supply chain’ study, the AOP has also teamed up with Fenestra to test whether distributed ledger technology could help build a more accountable ecosystem. Aimed at giving publishers a better window into their own supply paths, the trials are centred on ensuring any discrepancies are instantly highlighted, alongside opportunities to limit costs, and prompt investigation as required. Most crucially, the insights gained from these particular trials will help inform future publishing activity and best practice guidelines; working with AOP’s cross-industry partners, through forums such as JICWEBS, it is expected that these results will help form the foundations for future, wider studies.

While premium publishers have viewed collaboration with hesitation in the past; fearing the repercussions of working with their rivals, we now see evidence that there is strength in numbers. And certainly, working as a collective doesn't necessarily mean conforming to a one-size-fits-all mould. By pooling strengths, abilities, and learnings, publishers can become well equipped to tackle the current and future challenges we may face. At the AOP, we believe that makes unity more than worthwhile; it’s a survival essential.