A new Folio: survey and eight company leaders reveal where the industry will be placing its bets this year.

“Digital media brands have to make continuous investments in talent and digital platforms to stay successful.”

 

Folio: by Caysey Welton and Greg Dool; 2020 is underway. Budgets have been established. Strategies have been mapped. And now publishers are pushing forward on what most of them tell us will be a good year for an industry that’s had its share of ups and downs over the past decade.

As the sector continues to diversify and transform at a rapid pace, we felt it was important to get a quantitative and qualitative sense of where things are heading, exactly where companies are investing and what their outlook is for the overall health of their businesses this year.

We began this exploration with a survey of our readership, and culled a representative sample of 182 industry professionals from various company types, including mass and niche consumer, B2B and regional publishers. This sample also included companies both with and without print magazines.

Following the survey, we then reached out directly to eight company leaders, who were willing to go on the record to add context to the same survey questions we asked our anonymous respondents.

In general, the data and responses we received are promising, especially for an industry that has been in a state of dwindling returns since the 2008 recession .

Less than 5% of our total respondents said they expect top line revenue to decline this year. Just over a quarter (26%) expect it to remain flat, meaning more than two-thirds of the publishing community are forecasting some degree of revenue growth this year. The biggest chunk (43%) expect that growth to fall in the single-digit range, while 26% anticipate double-digit growth

We also asked respondents where they expect that growth to come from, and gave them the ability to choose multiple options. Ink and paper enthusiasts will be happy to learn that a solid 36% of respondents see print advertising as a source of revenue growth this year. However, digital advertising, including branded content, was the overwhelming growth catalyst for 58% of our respondents. Live events (43%) and marketing services (38%) were also noted as growth engines. Less than a quarter (23%) expect paid content (in the form of print or digital subscriptions, single-copy sales or online paywalls) to support revenue growth in 2020.

With advertising still being a key component of growth, we wanted to see how that translated to audience growth. Interestingly, nearly the same number of publishers expecting their revenue to grow by over 10% are expecting their audience to grow at a similar clip. While those expecting either single-digit audience growth or no growth were nearly evenly split and accounted for 70% of respondents.

Once again, print performed better here than one might expect, with 39% of our respondents saying print will help them reach new audiences, more than the number of respondents who cited search as an audience growth platform. Video, which for select publishers has been growing like gangbusters for the past five years, is only expected to generate new audiences for 31% of our respondents. Email (54%) and social media (53%) are expected to be the strongest audience development platforms.

Our data also prove that the old cliché “you have to spend money to make money” still rings true. Again, less than 5% of respondents indicated they will not be reinvesting into their businesses this year. More than a third of respondents (34%) said they will be making tech investments—both on the back-end and the front-end product side. Here is where video performed the best, with 35% saying they plan to make an investment on that platform this year. Still, the responses are a mixed bag, as the graph below shows.

Perhaps most interesting of all the investments our respondents plan to make this year is in talent. More than a  quarter said they plan to onboard new talent. Of course, that doesn’t mean layoffs will stop. It’s likely that this number will be closely tied to technology investments, because as new processes and strategies are implemented, new skill sets are needed. The silver lining for those who work on print magazines is that 13% of respondents also plan on investing in print, however, that is still significantly fewer than those investing in technology or digital products. And while 44% of respondents named events as a growth platform, only 12% say they will be investing in events in 2020.

With all of this data to unpack, we felt it was equally important to get some real-world examples of where the growth will come from, what exact investments will be made and, of course, why. So let’s hear it from the presidents and CEOs themselves.

Erin O’Mara
President, The Nation

What will be your company’s most significant investment in 2020?

As always, we are thinking about how to best support our mission and have the greatest impact. The Nation’s robust political coverage during the Trump administration has won awards and accolades, exposed widespread injustice, and spoken truth to power to champion progressive ideals. We will continue to invest in quality editorial, our bread and butter. We’ve made some smart hires and are poised for a strong 2020.

But we are also thinking about the platforms that support our editorial and, this year, we will be digging deep into what “digital” means to us. A storied print history remains central to our identity—it’s in our DNA—but The Nation has seen its online audience grow exponentially year over year.

Digital is more than just a website or video or audio, and because we are reaching so many of our new readers online, we will be investing in the user experience. We are looking at how and when stories are surfaced, what drives people to read more and engage more and what encourages readers to join our community of subscribers, donors and travelers. We are also reinvesting in our digital edition. We know the user experience of the digital magazine can be as meaningful and enjoyable as that of print while taking advantage of the bells and whistles technology offers.

Primarily, where will your company be focusing its investment in digital media or technology this year?

The primary investment will be in the evolution of thenation.com and the development and redesign of our digital edition.

Do you anticipate that your top-line revenue will increase, decrease or remain flat?

Increase—always increase!

What will drive that revenue growth?

As a mission-driven organization, The Nation‘s goal has never been to make a dollar but to make a difference. But being mission-driven doesn’t make us immune to the need to create a sustainable business and every dollar, in and out, counts.

The key to our security and growth is a revenue stream that has long been diversified. In addition to the traditional pillars of circulation and advertising, The Nation was an early adopter of donor-supported journalism, decades before it was a business model embraced by others.

We’ve also created unique ancillary projects to support our journalism: The ever-popular Nation Cruise—once called “the love boat for policy wonks” by The New York Times—and an expansive travel program; The Nation’s Wine Club; and a more traditional product shop. We believe nurturing new paths for revenue, brand and voice are vital.

Last year, we created a prototype teaching resource, The Nation Classroom. Developed for high-school students and designed to adhere to common core standards, the first module, mined from our archives, focuses on race and civil rights from 1865 to the present. Our ultimate goal is to scale The Nation Classroom to a profitable product, allowing us to use our archives to support our journalism and eventually, to make it available free of charge to schools and institutions that otherwise can’t afford it. We also plan to develop additional modules focused on climate change and the environment, feminism and women’s rights, and war and peace.

Which brings me to our next plan for growth and change.

Challenging markets and a turbulent media landscape means rethinking and reimagining how we work from every possible angle. To that end, we’ve applied for 501c3 status, and when granted, will spin off our educational initiatives into a new and separate entity—The Nation Fund for Independent Journalism, Inc.

The new non-profit’s core programming will center on elevating and expanding representation, authenticity, integrity, truth and diversity in journalism. Once approved, The Nation Fund for Independent Journalism will ultimately take over the stewardship of our internship program, our StudentNation vertical and fellowship, our annual Student Journalism Conference and TheNationClassroom.

What will be the greatest threat to your business in 2020?

By building a multi-pronged business strategy, we’ve ensured that The Nation will not be cratered solely by the whims and algorithm gods of Facebook or Google, but we also recognize that the ever-changing technical landscape poses challenges—challenges nearly impossible to predict. Rising costs, competition, and the threat to news media in general, and even the threat to the perception of “truth,” multiply annually. The resources necessary to be nimble in the face of change are harder to come by.

Is your company forecasting audience growth? If so, what will fuel it?

Grow—always grow!

The Nation, like many in media, experienced incredible increases in traffic, subscriptions and donations in the wake of the 2016 election. But as real as the Trump Bump was, Trump fatigue was a challenge. Still, it’s exciting to be on the left right now and during this presidential campaign cycle. The progressive ideals we’ve long championed are at the forefront of the conversation. People are hungry for hope, action, change and authenticity. For journalism with values. Ideas that were unthinkable a few years ago are part of the mainstream lexicon and showing signs of real political possibility.

The Nation has always been the go-to place to read about these movements early and often. Our politics are in and of this moment, and we hope to better capture that audience and fuel growth through investment in our user acquisition, experience across digital platforms, and through community outreach, including an expanded newsletter portfolio.

Andy Clurman
CEO, Active Interest Media

What will be your company’s most significant investment in 2020?

In 2020 we will be investing in people and marketing to further our new business initiatives. In 2019 we dramatically improved our tech stack and enterprise planning system which was a major investment in technology and our digital infrastructure. Starting late last year, and into mid-2020, we are launching memberships and e-commerce programs across many of our brands. To support these launches, we are hiring dedicated staff and investing in an array of marketing programs.

Primarily, where will your company be focusing its investment in digital media or technology this year?

For 2020 our technology investments will center on advancing our marketing automation capabilities and content management systems to support memberships and paywalls.

Do you anticipate that your top-line revenue will increase, decrease or remain flat?   

We’re projecting top-line revenue growth in the mid-single digits.

What will drive that revenue growth? 

Memberships, marketing services, e-commerce and digital advertising.

What will be the greatest threat to your business in 2020? 

Prospective rising costs of postage, printing and paper.

Is your company forecasting audience growth? If so, what will fuel it?

Yes. We continue to experience robust growth in audience particularly across mobile web and social media. Greater emphasis among our content creators of serving the audience on these platforms continues to be rewarded with growing numbers.

Tim Hartman
CEO, Government Executive Media Group

What will be your company’s most significant investment in 2020?

We’re investing heavily in building our podcasting capabilities.

We see open space in our market for news podcasts and in-depth, narrative podcasts. Our audience has shown a hunger for audio content. Our podcasts received over 500,000 listeners last year. This is a huge number for a niche audience, so I believe we have become a dominant player here. Very soon we will be launching a daily news podcast that we anticipate will garner a huge government audience. In addition, we have built a studio to help clients produce custom podcasts and audio advertising spots. Overall, it’s a significant new space for us, and I believe most B2B companies should consider their play in the podcasting space.

Where else will your company be focusing its investment in digital media or technology this year?

We also are making significant bets in marketing automation. We have developed a proprietary lead-nurturing and lead scoring system, which allows clients to follow up with custom and personalized messages to leads. We have built a fully-automated solution on top of our own email and targeting capabilities. Our clients are struggling to maximize their investments in CRM, and this new proprietary system allows us to support their sales and marketing goals and integrate more deeply into their CRM capabilities.

Do you anticipate that your top-line revenue will increase, decrease or remain flat?  

We’ve been in high-growth mode now for the past five years, increasing revenue by an average of 10% per year. We see 2020 being consistent with that trajectory.

What will drive that revenue growth?

We see the main drivers and greatest opportunities in digital media and events. In events, we launched the Government Hall of Fame last year, which was a huge success. We expect to build on the incredible foundation we built and scale it in 2020. We also expect our State and Local brand, Route Fifty, to achieve significant growth. We’ve had a lot of success in the State and Local market and see a huge opportunity there.

What will be the greatest threat to your business in 2020?

For us, the biggest challenge remains scaling our business smartly in times of high growth. It takes a combination of world-class talent and operational excellence. Recruiting and retaining top talent is a huge priority. All media companies should expect that your best people are going to be courted, so you also need to create compelling reasons for them to stay with you. It isn’t just money… it’s flexibility, mission and engagement with jobs. Then, it’s giving them the tools to be successful. So we are looking to automate certain operations to allow our people to work on more impactful things.

Is your company forecasting audience growth? If so, what will fuel it?

We are very hungry to grow our audiences, primarily in events and digital. For digital engagement, this will be driven by a combination of editorial tactics and audience acquisition marketing. We know our journalists are producing compelling content. We just need more potential readers to be exposed to it. In events, we have built a new capability to recruit public sector influencers to attend and promote our events. We are very excited to pair that with some of our new events offerings. The combination should grow the number of attendees and build buzz around the events themselves.

Catherine Levene
President, Chief Digital Officer, Meredith Corp.

What will be your company’s most significant investment in 2020?

For the 90% of American women coming to Meredith’s brands each month, we are investing in technologies and capabilities that provide content and experiences that satisfy their intent today, anticipate their needs tomorrow and drive high consumer engagement and action.

This year, one of our most significant investments will be the launch of our new technical platform, which includes a common backend and content management system, as well as our innovative first-party data and insights platform. We are creating content and experiences that drive engagement and are offering predictive advertising that achieves results for our marketing partners.

All these competencies enable Meredith to develop an extremely strong permission-based consumer relationship and cultivate significant partnerships with advertisers.

In addition, we continue to invest in our print portfolio. This includes the introduction of new titles, such as Reveal with Drew and Jonathan Scott and a new magazine from Ayesha Curry.

Where else will your company be focusing its investment in digital media or technology this year?

In addition to our technical platform previously mentioned, we’re making significant investments in video production and distribution, as well as content-to -commerce capabilities.

Do you anticipate that your top-line revenue will increase, decrease or remain flat?

We expect digital ad revenue and commerce revenue to increase, and we are also seeing heightened demand for our print products.

What will drive that revenue growth?

We believe growth will come from increases in audience and engagement and from higher rates. We also continue to grow our portfolio by launching new digital and magazine brands and investing in existing titles by increasing trim size and upgrading paper stock.

What will be the greatest threat to your business in 2020?

There’s no crystal ball in this business. We are focused on innovation and on providing the best content and experiences for our consumers and advertisers across all platforms—from print to all forms of digital media. In the era of new privacy regulations and upcoming browser changes, which will limit third-party cookies, we see our scale and the number of users who find our content organically as a big differentiator.

The investments we’re making seek to drive deeper engagement with consumers and marketers in the most transparent, responsible way. By making these changes, we will be poised for growth and opportunity. It’s not only the data that is important; it’s the predictive insights gleaned from deep consumer interaction that will separate the good from the great.

Is your company forecasting audience growth? If so, what will fuel it?

We expect audience growth to come from a variety of places, including social media, video, audio, email and distribution partnerships across channels, as well as print products we are launching this year. For example, readership of our print brands has grown 4% to a record 186 million, according to the latest data from MRI-Simmons.

Paul Miller
CEO, Questex

What will be your company’s most significant investment in 2020?

Questex’s most significant investment in 2020 will be in both acquisition and organic. Acquisitions will be in the area of the ‘Experience Economy,’ which we define as verticals that support living better and living longer. We will also be investing in elevating the customer experience through talent and tools to support our focus on the ‘Experience Economy.’

Primarily, where will your company be focusing its investment in digital media or technology this year?

We have invested in a customer data platform. Audience is our product. We need to understand that product and how to better serve and engage our audience. Additionally, we are building out a new event/media platform to launch in the March timeframe and will roll it out across Questex in 2020.

Video is rapidly growing at Questex; we expect this trend to continue.  

Do you anticipate that your top-line revenue will increase, decrease or remain flat?

Our top-line revenue will increase in 2020 both organically and through acquisition. Our verticals, which include life sciences, technology, hospitality, wellness and travel, all sit in industries that are expected to grow in 2020.

What will drive that revenue growth?

We are an event company first. We are launching new events and many of our current ones are already showing growth for 2020. We will continue to roll out new content and data programs built around our attendees, which gave us a significant lift in 2019 revenue and we expect that trajectory to continue.

What will be the greatest threat to your business in 2020?  

Our greatest threats are external risks. There is a lot of uncertainty around the economic and political future. The potential threat of trade tariffs and turmoil would be the biggest threat. The American election plays a big hand in business spend and the travel climate change is also a concern.

Is your company forecasting audience growth? If so, what will fuel it?

Yes. The growth will come from strategic audience development plans focused on a data-driven content strategy (content defined by event content, influencers, social and editorial). We have organized our team into a content-first strategy, [in which] content is responsible for organic acquisition of audience and is measured. In addition, we have a strategic audience development team focused on nurturing the audience for continued engagement and insights.

We leverage all of these holistically. We have a strong social media presence and social media best practices that sit at the center. Additionally, we have launched a reporting tool that is reviewed weekly (using Google, Parse.ly and Bombora) by vertical that measures topics, behavior and interest for both content and marketers to leverage through our content platform and email marketing (currently done through Marketo) and activity measured in BlueConic.

Adam Sandow
CEO, SANDOW

What will be your company’s most significant investment in 2020?

People are our single biggest investment, and we are hyper focused on retaining the absolute best talent in the industry. Given our recent acquisitions and the opportunities we have to harness our powerful assets in design media, services and technology, I see this becoming even more important in 2020.

Primarily, where will your company be focusing its investment in digital media or technology this year?

Naturally, we are investing significant dollars to product development and technology to support Material Bank, which is experiencing exponential growth each month. On the media and services side of SANDOW, we are also allocating resources to product development, with new launches planned beginning Q2 of 2020. Additionally, are investing across the board in strategic tools, including CRMs, marketing automation, and other systems that enable greater efficiencies in the way our teams work and handle outreach. As it relates to our digital resources, we will continue to scale those as the business dictates. However, we remain deeply committed to investing our print and events platforms, as well.

Do you anticipate that your top-line revenue will increase, decrease or remain flat?

We anticipate growth in 2020.

What will drive that revenue growth?

Again, Material Bank is growing exponentially, in terms of user base, partners, and revenue. With regards to other areas of our business, we expect to drive revenue through new offerings.

Interior Design will launch a new revolutionary product accelerator platform in a few months that we are very excited about—we look forward to sharing that with Folio:.

ThinkLab will offer their first bundled, subscription-based offering in June. Metropolis will introduce new franchises and partnership opportunities in 2020, and NYCxDESIGN will publish their first ever magazine. Luxe and NewBeauty both have newly designed websites and expanded events programs.

Material ConneXion is expanding its research team to accommodate intense demand for its Sustainable Innovation programs as global brands seek out sustainable material solutions for their products.

The demand for SANDOW to produce custom content, including custom publications, has also increased considerably and will result in greater revenue in 2020. Really, across the board, we are doing new things and leveraging our powerful ecosystem to drive more opportunities for our partners and for SANDOW, as well.

What will be the greatest threat to your business in 2020?  

The greatest threat to our business would be if we stopped thinking ahead and innovating, and certainly if we became complacent. I’ve said this before, but thinking differently isn’t ‘a’ strategy, it’s ‘the’ strategy. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or a giant corporation, if you’re not focused on innovation and thinking differently, you are going to be roadkill—fast.

Is your company forecasting audience growth? If so, what will fuel it?

Yes. We do expect to experience audience growth in digital and social media, particularly at newly acquired brands, like NYCxDESIGN, Metropolis, ThinkLab. Material Bank’s audience/user based will continue to grow at a rapid rate, simply due to the demand of the platform and our highly engaging content on Instagram.

With regards to print, other than NYCxDESIGN, which will access a new audience in print in 2020, our goal for existing titles is to continue to invest in circulation strategies that allow us to reach the right people—not to just grow our print circulation. To support that qualified readership, we will continue to invest in and expand our proprietary private airport distribution network, MediaJet, which gets our magazines in the hands of an ultra-affluent captive audience. Our content always has been and always will be very targeted in nature, and it’s about quality over quantity for our titles.

Bonnie Kintzer
CEO, Trusted Media Brands

What will be your company’s most significant investment in 2020?

Trusted Media Brands’ two biggest investments are in database development for machine learning/AI and digital marketing automation. Having said that, we are continuing to invest in things like product improvements for audience experience enhancement (by adding features/functionality/widgets that delight our audience), and investing more in content creation (written, video, and audio). We’ll also be looking for acquisitions to augment Trusted Media Brands’ organic growth.

Where else will your company be focusing its investment in digital media or technology this year?

Digital media brands have to make continuous investments in talent and digital platforms to stay successful. For us, product development (both consumer and commerce), testing and developing in audio/video, marketing automation, and data science will all be priorities in 2020.

Do you anticipate that your top-line revenue will increase, decrease or remain flat?

We expect top-line revenue growth to increase in 2020.

What will drive that revenue growth?

Our diverse revenue streams and continued efforts to experiment and explore new ways to monetize will be a big driver of growth in 2020. We certainly expect to see growth in the programmatic, direct and consumer sides of the business, but we are also quite bullish on affiliate and consumer products.

What will be the greatest threat to your business in 2020?

I would reframe the word threat to challenge. We’re quite confident that Trusted Media Brands is poised for success in 2020; however, all media companies are facing headwinds. Making sure the advertising community understands that there is value and ROI in investing in brands that have staying power and true 360 platforms—from print, to digital, to experiential—is certainly a challenge. But, given the concerns around brand safety and trust, I think the pendulum will swing back to investing in revered brands that consistently produce quality content that keeps consumers coming back for more.

Is your company forecasting audience growth? If so, what will fuel it?

Yes, we’re forecasting growth of our audience base. Growth rates may not be as high as in recent years and will vary by site, as does the audience mix, but generally speaking, we expect to see growth across all digital channels (social media, email newsletters, SEO, partnerships, etc.) at varying rates.

Chris Ferrell
CEO, Endeavor Business Media

What will be your company’s most significant investment in 2020?

Audience database improvements, a marketing automation platform, and event launches.

Which will be the primary technology investment?

Marketing automation.

Do you anticipate that your top-line revenue will increase, decrease or remain flat?

We budgeted single-digit growth in top-line revenue.

What will drive that revenue growth?

Events and marketing solutions revenue.

What will be the greatest threat to your business in 2020?

Tariffs impacting the industries we serve.

Is your company forecasting audience growth? If so, what will fuel it?

Yes. Print, events, search and social media, but primarily email marketing.