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The Independent opens up about the past, present and future of its digital-only strategy

It may have shocked many observers but the Independent’s decision to scrap its newspaper was neither rash nor quick, having been considered by executives for five years. Now it’s made the jump, the newspaper is exploring as many revenue streams as it can.

It’s a commercial charge predicated on two objectives; one is how to preserve and grow the Independent brand and its journalism over the next 30 years and secondly to build a sustainable business. For the latter, programmatic has been identified.

The dynamics of the advertising market alone have changed significantly over the last five years - particularly the direct relationship with agencies - to a space that is now traded programmatically. It’s why the publisher has grown its media trading manpower six fold in 12 months.

While the company still trades through direct media buying to big scale operations, its managing director of digital Zach Leonard admitted “that is not where the money is”. Its consequent investment in programmatic is forming part of ESI Media’s ambition to become a digital-only media owner that trades 100 per cent of its inventory using programmatic media buying technologies, an ambition voiced by its group commercial director Jon O’Donnell speaking to the Drum earlier in the year.

The move to digital, which editor Christian Broughton said was a “no brainer” since 99 per cent of the Independent audience was already online, has also opened up new opportunities for the media group to produce journalism in different ways that in turn could bolster its brand.

It has also committed to improving its digital product by redesigning the website and launching a new 'Daily Edition' app. The app is consciously designed to keep the newspaper going in a format that is as close to the design of its physical form possible.

Relying solely on digital revenue raises questions as to whether the media owner will introduce a paywall to the Independent site. Those observations were quickly quashed by Leonard, who said it is ‘hard to justify introducing a paywall at a consumer level’. The group had previously experimented with a paid-for structure for non-UK readers, which it dropped last year, seeing advertising revenues increase as a consequence.

“We realised by removing our paywall and freeing up our inventory in a very high quality audience into the marketplace we could actually fight with the big guys” said Leonard.

Further revenue streams for the publisher include e-commerce, operating under IndyBest, which allows it to make commission on sales clicked through from site, as well as in native ads

Native is “not a new concept at all” according to Leonard but what is new is how luxury brands are employing their own content teams to improve the quality of this advertising format.

The Independent’s move to digital comes amid the clearest threat to ad revenues in recent years – ad blockers. While the publisher has diverse revenue streams, advertising is still the dominant one. Right now, 10 per cent of the Independent’s inventory is ad blocked.

To tackle this, the publisher is focusing on engagement; encouraging ad blocker users to whitelist the site, benchmarking from City AM’s model, as well as directing users onto its owned apps This process is set to go underway in the next 30 days.

Shortly after the independent closed its print editions Trinity Mirror unveiled a new national newspaper, the New Day. The proposition of the New Day is based on the same premise for the i; snackable content to appeal to an audience saturated with news but with less time to read it.

However, Leonard said it is very important for smaller titles like the New Day not to lose any intelligence in their journalism. This is what he cites as the “critical difference” between the i and the New Day, saying “when you are trying to break into a market that is in decline, you need to create a reason and a concise read”. He added Trinity Mirror is not “packing the content” of the New Day in a way that would resonate with audiences, and explained that while the i was “priced perfectly”, the New Day after it raised the launch price is not.

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