The most innovative initiatives at the 2019 Mega Conference were dominated by the increasingly massive survivors of media transformation.
With a few notable exceptions, the smaller publishers who popped up in the Q&A sessions sounded perplexed at how to get a foothold on new revenue streams.
Meanwhile, technology partners on the show floor were both busier than ever with new deals, the size of which more than made up for frustration over the slow pace of some their increasingly large corporate partners.
Another change this year was a shift in focus towards B2C monetization - transactional, events and subscription models - which had equal weight in the conference programming for the first time.
While the 2018 Mega Conference included few exceptional personalization initiatives, the 2019 conference devoted an entire track to B2C sales.
I wound up mostly attending this track.
Clearly, the Washington Post with its expanded resources and double-down on political journalism is the new darling of the local media industry.
Scott Gillespie, VP and CTO of the Washington Post, which runs a SAAS business as well as advanced use of data to power subscription sales, voiced that, “We put our reader experience at the center of everything we do.”
“If we are not the Washington Post, what do we do first?” One publisher asked during the Q&A.
Gillespie advised starting with load speed - the Washington Post loads in, literally, two seconds, and using email to sell subscriptions.
Lee Enterprise’s corporate audience guru, Bridget Sibthorp-Moeker, advised publishers to “start by asking for the sale.” She noted that one of the first things Lee did in their own subscription relaunch was to create multi-media advertising campaigns to sell subscriptions, including email, in addition to print and online ads. “Do it now,” she said, about creating online ads for digital subscriptions.
She also showed campaigns for “Digital subscriptions sales” timed with seasonal sales like Memorial Day.
“Don’t worry too much about putting on an end date to create urgency. I’ve never had anyone question if we left the sale rate up past the end date.”
Google and Facebook also had a big presence this year, sending about a dozen people between them.
Google reported on its up-and-coming Google Subscribe button, a slick two clicks to purchase widget developed with input from “60 newspapers in 18 countries,” according to Gordon Saft, manager of business development and partnership initiatives for Google’s Global Partnership team. He showed how media subscribers using Google Subscribe, will see paid content in a new module on the first page of relevant Google search results.
“I have 60 media in Long Island alone," a cantankerous publisher shot back in the Q&A.
The publisher wanted to know if Google had done anything to make its search engines crawl content behind a paywall. “I’m glad to see what you are doing but you can understand why publishers feel your engine is rewarding bloggers over journalists,” he said.
Saft didn’t seem to understand the issue. One problem Google is attempting to address is how to adapt Google Subscribe to the vast array of digital subscription systems - from hard paywalls to meters and data-driven special offers - in the industry. “It’s not going to be plug and play for everyone,” he concluded.
The first Google subscription test at the McClatchy-owned Miami Herald, is going well, Saft said. He pulled up a slide with a quote from Dan Schaub, Corporate Director of Audience Development for McClatchy, vouching that early tests of Google subscribe have “outperformed our traditional channels.” Full metrics will not be available for a few months.
Facebook also sent a bevy of people representing Facebook’s $300 million Journalism Project, analytics and its own up-and-coming subscription program.
Publishers in the room seemed to remain skeptical of Facebook too, in part because the $300 million invested in Facebook’s journalism project is a “drop in the bucket” compared to the hundreds of billions Facebook takes out of the local advertising market and how its newsfeed strategy has de-prioritized journalism-based media.
An increasing number of audio initiatives are also in play. While in 2018, SpokenLayer had just debuted its first case studies at the SF Chronicle, by 2019 it had acquired more than 1,000 newspaper partners. A newspaper based in Austin, Texas had capitalized on the music scene by creating Austin 360 Studio sessions, a live streamed music and interview audio show sponsored by BudLight. Another publisher had turned its new podcast studio into a co-podding workspace, renting out both the studio and production services. He had just signed a real estate company that wanted their own podcast.
Even tech companies were getting into the smart speaker game; over in the technology area, CitySpark, an events aggregation platform, had its own Alexa turned on and taking orders like ‘where should I go at 8 p.m. in Las Vegas?”
Of all the new initiatives in the B2C space, however, it was hard to compete in sheer revenue generation with Gatehouse Live. The corporate events division has grown from $1 million to $44 million since 2015.
Stay tuned for reports with practical, actionable takeaways as we follow up on the conference in the months ahead.