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August 27, 2020updated 30 Sep 2022 9:32am

Strong subscription growth softens Covid-19 advertising blow for UK publishers

By William Turvill

UK digital publishers’ subscription revenues increased by 19.3% in the first three months of 2020, softening the impact of the Covid-19 advertising hit.

The online subscription boost meant the turnover decline for publishers “wasn’t as severe as had been expected” amid the coronavirus crisis.

The survey of 21 Association of Online Publishers members found that overall their revenues fell 2.3% year-on-year during the first quarter of 2020 to £117.1m.

Coronavirus began to severely impact the UK economy from mid March onwards, with lockdown imposed from 23 March – so the survey period was only partially affected by the pandemic.

According to the AOP, subscriptions today make up 22% of online publishers’ revenue, up from 7% ten years ago. Display advertising has fallen from 58% to 42% during the same period.

Press Gazette reported in June how several major news publishers in the US and UK – led by the New York Times – have enjoyed double-digit subscriber growth this year.

During the first quarter of 2020, display advertising fell 13% from the same period in 2019. Online video turnover was down 7%, sponsorship was down 9% and recruitment advertising fell 23%.

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The survey was conducted with 15 consumer publishers and six B2B firms. AOP members include: News UK, DMG Media, Guardian Media Group, Telegraph Media Group, Dennis,ESI Media, Future, Haymarket, JPI Media, Immediate Media, Bauer and Autotrader.

January-March 2020 year-on-year revenue change
Display advertising -13%
Online video -7%
Sponsorship -9%
Subscriptions +19%
Recruitment -23%
Other classified No change
Miscellaneous (undefined in report) +54%
Total -2.3%

The survey was conducted in May and June by the AOP and Deloitte. They found that most publishers “remain pessimistic about the industry and the impact of Covid-19”. 

The researchers also reported that members are increasingly prioritising non-advertising revenues. Some 89% of publishers said non-ad revenues are a “high priority” over the next 12 months, up from 78% in the second quarter of 2019.

AOP managing director Richard Reeves said the data “demonstrates the challenges to revenue in early 2020 wasn’t as severe as had been expected”.

“Subscriptions in particular were already playing an increasingly essential role in the monetisation of online content and look set to become even more vital as publishers adapt to the new landscape,” he said.

“As income from display continues to decline, the shift towards subscriptions and other diverse revenue sources is only set to grow, accelerated in part by the pandemic. The publishers that adapt to this change will be the ones that have the most to gain when the storm passes.”

Dan Ison, Deloitte’s lead partner for telecommunications, media and entertainment, said:Purse strings may be tight, but sustained growth in subscriptions, up by 19% year-on-year, demonstrates that consumers are ready and willing to invest in quality content.”

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