Insights & Analysis: Publicly Traded Companies in Q4 2023

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Every quarter, business analyst Matthew Scott Goldstein details and shares his insights on what he saw happen with publicly traded companies across advertising, technology, and media.

Weathering the Storm of Potential Publisher Extinction

First, a personal note to my 5,000+ readers, mostly in the digital publishing world: I’m deviating from my typical 20-page quarterly missive to bring you this urgent message. Publishers, brace yourselves — it’s going to be a wild ride and I am very nervous for your future, and I see a potential extinction-level event in the future.

At the seasoned age of 57, with three and a half decades immersed in the publishing realm, my 15-year consulting escapade has been nothing short of an adventure, helping almost 100 clients. From Daily Mail to NYT, Forbes to Conde Nast, Hearst to Arena/SI, to Time. I’ve had the privilege of contributing to these renowned publishers. Gratitude fills me for the highs of my career, where dreams exceeded expectations. 

However, a shadow looms — a grave concern for the digital publishing landscape. Despite my inherently positive demeanor, I’m compelled to address an industry-wide predicament. A potential extinction-level event is imminent for publishers, foreboding potential 30-50% layoffs in the coming years. IBM’s Weather (aka Watson), recently under private equity’s wing, could emulate Elon Musk’s drastic staff reduction, setting a precedent for others to follow suit.

Gen AI impact on the publishing industry

The publisher industry’s zenith in 2021 now seems a distant memory, as a downward trajectory marks the last two years and foretells the future. GEN AI, wielding rewriting capabilities, threatens content integrity, pushing the boundaries of copyright norms.

Google’s decision to halt traffic to publishers will be a pivotal blow, potentially propelling the industry into a downturn.

While established brands with robust front-door traffic brace for impact, but have a distinct advantage, think Yahoo!, WSJ, NYT, Daily Mail, CNN, WaPo, and Fox News as some examples all with over 50% Direct traffic according to Similar Web. 

Others like Vox Media, Conde Nast, Hearst, Dotdash/Meredith, Arena, Penske Media contemplate drastic measures, possibly halving their brand portfolios. Only focusing on those brands that have front door traffic, not the Google search drug we are all addicted to. 

Too bad publishers spent so much time hacking SEO over the past 10 years not driving home page traffic. 

Recognizing the transformative power of Generative AI, Publishers are looking for a beacon for efficiency, but its implementation is a time-consuming endeavor. 

In this chaos, survival for smaller publishers lies in essential functions, potentially outsourcing non-core operations, emphasizing editorial content in this evolving landscape.

Survival strategies for publishers in 2024

So, what’s the playbook for publishers in 2024? The answer is straightforward, but the execution will be challenging. Every publisher must single-mindedly focus on obtaining and growing front door direct traffic.

Imagine Google, the malevolent (yes, I used that word) monopoly, ceases to send you traffic. Like the banks, please conduct this stress test immediately, publishers are not too big to fail. Though Google is currently risk-averse and doesn’t need to blow up publishing right now so there may be a stay of execution. 

  • Do you still have a business if Google ceases to send you traffic? 
  • How do you make your homepage a machine for getting users to come back more often? 
  • How do you get users to visit more pages once they arrive? 
  • How is your desktop vs mobile home page differentiated? 
  • How do you use GEN AI to adjust your home page? 
  • Will community/comments help to grow your front door traffic, getting users to come back more often?
  • What content do you need to bring in more Direct traffic? 
  • How do you work with Google and Open AI/Microsoft and other LLMs allowing them to train the model in return for traffic guarantees or start/join a lawsuit?

The most important metric/KPI for publishers going forward is DIRECT homepage users with the goal to maintain existing home page users and to produce a strategy to bring in NEW users to the homepage. 

External forces affecting the publishing industry

Of note, 2024 is a presidential election year and depending on the outcome my extinction prediction may be pushed back to 2025. As GEN AI evolves and in-page summarization progresses, Google might keep publishers on life support, but just barely.

Additionally, SGE might not roll out in 2024, I think it depends on what Open AI, Amazon and Facebook do.  Google doesn’t want to blow up their Search monopoly unless they are forced to do so by the competition.

The future of the publishing industry

There is hope, these publishers need to reinvent themselves and focus on home page traffic, it will not be easy, but it is doable.

Get users to come to the home page and come back more often.

In fact, the goal of this message is to get publishers to proactively make the changes to stay relevant and reinvent the business.

Publishers, it’s time to prepare for the storm—good luck!

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