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2020’s media moments in numbers: print, podcasts, events, diversity and keyword blocking

Esther Kezia Thrope, media analyst and co-host of The Media Voices podcast, shares top-line findings from the Media Moments 2020 report. Buckle in for the key trends in media this year.

It was a momentous year for publishers. From Chrome phasing out third-party cookies, digital subscription surges and ad revenue collapses, to Black Lives Matter protests forcing change at the very top of organisations, the industry has been rocked like no year has before.

A report from the Media Voices team - Media Moments 2020 curated these events into nine chapters, looking at the pivotal moments which affected businesses both large and small, and how this will shape their strategies going into 2021.

Here are our key findings.

A mixed picture for print

In the first quarter, magazine newsstand sales were down 8% in 2019; bad, but not catastrophic. Then lockdown pushed the year-on-year shortfall to 20-25%.

In newspapers, downward circulation trends were amped up by the cancellation of the commute. Again, starting the year down by 8%, newspaper sales dropped by up to 40% at their worst.

However, despite the decimation of newsstand sales, the pandemic actually caused a spike in subscription revenues and drove real innovation in some quarters, from the launch of the first Black girls magazine to new home delivery deals and retail partnerships.

Condé Nast UK saw year-on-year new subscription growth of 420%. And Hearst UK had to take action to stem losses from discount magazine subscription offers as new subscribers jumped 233%.

Podcast ad spend and listenership remains resilient

Without the commute, many in the industry were concerned that podcast revenue would be a leaky ship, following the pattern of metro freesheets.

But over the course of the year, podcasting has proven to be hardy enough to weather the storm. Despite the pandemic, US podcast ad spend is forecast to rise 14.7% this year; slower than pre-pandemic predictions, but nonetheless steady.

Podcast launches haven’t slowed this year either. There were over 130,000 new shows added to Apple Podcasts in June alone; the highest number to ever be added in just one month.

Now, with eyes (and ears) looking at the opportunities presented by engaged listeners over the next decade or more, everyone is rushing to cash in on that growing audience.

Keyword blocking has exacerbated ad revenue struggles

Almost all publishers felt the effects of the coronavirus-induced plunge in advertising revenue. But many have also struggled with keyword blocking.

As the pandemic took hold, advertisers rushed to add pandemic-related keywords to their blocklists, in order to preserve their notion of ‘brand safety’. In February, ‘coronavirus’ became the second most common word on blocklists for news publishers, with the most common being ‘Trump’.

By March, ad verification agency Integral Ad Science had over 3,000 advertisers blocking the term. In one case, this resulted in it blocking 45% of ads from appearing on The Washington Post, which like many publishers, was covering the crisis closely.

Between April and July, coronavirus-related keyword blocking was estimated to have cost publishers £50m in lost ad revenue in the UK alone. The timing of this has been especially difficult, with publishers seeing huge traffic surges but reduced ad spend.

A sink or swim year for events strategies

No revenue stream was hit as swiftly and mercilessly by Covid-19 as events. Publishers were split into two camps: those who postponed or rearranged their events and furloughed staff to stem losses, and those who pivoted quickly to reproduce their events online.

Whether it’s been virtual webinars through Facebook Live or exclusive Q&A sessions via Zoom, there have been so many stories of real innovation in the space this year. Revenue has taken a little time to catch up as sponsors and attendees warm up to paying, but there have been other benefits too.

The Financial Times is just one example. They rapidly drew together a virtual Global Boardroom event in just a few weeks, which ended up attracting 52,000 attendees. Tickets were free, but crucially, three in four of those attendees were previously unknown to the publisher, and have now provided a welcome boost to their subscription marketing funnel.

The FT is now taking a freemium approach to its virtual events. Free passes are offered alongside a range of tiered tickets, which then give access to networking and extra sessions. It is far from the only publisher with a smart virtual event strategy, with others such as The Atlantic, Reuters and the New York Times evolving their own plans as the year has progressed.

BLM protests made media think harder about diversity and inclusion

Covid-19 was the dominant story this year, but in terms of impact on the media industry, the Black Lives Matter movement provoked what we hope are some lasting changes.

The upswelling of anti-racist sentiment that followed the summer’s BLM protests after the killing of George Floyd led to widespread calls for action to improve diversity and inclusion across all layers of society, not least the media.

Mr Magazine, Samir Husni, shared an image of 106 magazine covers at the end of September. He noted that Black people on magazine covers were ‘few and far between’, but in the last few months, he had been able to buy more than 100 magazines featuring Black people, and/or BLM statements on their covers. By October, magazine covers in 2020 had featured Black subjects three times more than the previous 90 years.

“Magazines are celebrating Blackness,” he wrote. “My only hope is that one day we don’t need to ask the question, is this the new normal?”

Many organisations have responded positively to calls to do better when it comes to race and broader issues of diversity and inclusion. But of course, there’s still a lot of work to be done.

The full report, which covers the role of platforms, public trust in news, data and advertising developments, opportunities for 2021 and more, is available here.

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