By Antoine Boulin

Guest column: Antoine Boulin, President, Media at the digital content company Purch, discusses why some new media companies are receiving eye-popping valuations

This past year was a major year for deals and financial activity in the digital publishing industry. From huge funding rounds for the likes of BuzzFeed and Medium, to M&A such as Axel Springer’s acquisition of Business Insider for $343M, it’s clear that there’s a great deal of investor interest in the space. Yet, at the same time, many publishers have spent the year dealing with well-chronicled obstacles to monetization such as declining referral traffic and ad revenues, not to mention ad blocking and fraud. Gigaom’s (temporary) shuttering highlighted that, as much as demand exists for innovative publishers, it’s still a difficult business to succeed in for the vast majority of players.

So, what’s led to some of the eye-popping valuations we’ve seen this year? The most obvious answer is that advertisers spent about $140B on digital advertising in 2014, and that number is expected to continue to rise for the foreseeable future. Investors are understandably looking to grab a piece of the pie by pouring capital into buzzworthy digital publishers. This, however, doesn’t explain why some publishers are thriving while many struggle. Shouldn’t we assume that a rising tide lifts all ships?

The problem is one that any Econ 101 student could easily recognize: as supply rises in the form of digital content, prices for the ads that publishers sell against that content predictably decline. At this point, it’s so cheap for marketers to reach vast audiences that even publications with millions of monthly unique visitors are seeing their ad revenue decline. There’s simply too much supply.

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By Antoine Boulin

Antoine Boulin is president of media at the publishing company Purch.

The overwhelming majority of digital publishers (90 percent) have adopted or are considering adding native advertising to their sites. It’s seen as an effective tool by brands and advertisers, garnering 4.1 times more views on average per session and improving purchase intent by 18 percent compared to banner ads. And with spend forecasted to grow 33 percent to $5.7 billion in 2016, it may seem like a very viable option for publishers.

Native is still in its infancy, though. While two-thirds of advertisers are increasing their native budgets, it still only accounts for less than 5 percent of the average total ad spend. And many publishers pursuing this business model have come up against its flaws. Scale and cost of execution is one. Consumer trust is another – when editorial-looking content is controlled by a brand there can be backlash, as seen with The Atlantic’s sponsored content from the Church of Scientology lauding its leader David Miscavige.

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By Antoine Boulin

Whether shopping for shoes or reading up on product reviews, site visitors are there to accomplish a task and expect a seamless, non-disruptive experience. However, if ad placements are disruptive, slow a page’s load time, or are irrelevant to the reason they’re on the site, those users are likely to seek out alternatives.

This is why ad blockers have become such a hot topic and concern.

There are nearly 200 million users of ad-blocking software, which is expected to cost online publishers nearly $22 billion in advertising revenue this year. These numbers are sure to soon skyrocket, with ad blockers becoming available in the next version of Apple’s mobile-operating system, iOS 9, which is set to come out as early as this month.

A major reason behind this adoption is the vicious cycle publishers get stuck in when relying on display advertising for monetization. As CPMs decrease, they publish more ads to their pages, in addition to the dozens of hidden trackers and cookies. That, in turn, violates user trust, detracts from the user experience, decreases the number of visitors, and ultimately lowers ad costs that drives lower quality ads onto a page.

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Antoine Boulin se considère comme un leader de l’industrie digitale. En 2013, alors âgé de 35 ans, il devient président média de la société américaine Purch, issue de la fusion entre Bestofmedia qu’il dirigeait depuis 2007 et Techmedia Network. Mêlant contenus et e-commerce, Purch fédère des marques médias et des services online, facilitant la décision d’achat de 78 millions d’utilisateurs par mois. « Le chiffre d’affaires du groupe est réparti équitablement entre la publicité display et la génération de ventes », explique-t-il. L’entreprise, qui compte 365 employés, mise sur cent millions d’euros de revenus pour 2015. Les 135 millions d’euros levés au début du mois de juin l’aideront certainement à atteindre ses objectifs.

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By Antoine Boulin

Tech publishing has seen something of a shakeout in recent months.

In January, AOL shuttered both Joystiq and TUAW, combining both sites with Engadget. In February, ReadWrite was sold off by SAY Media. And, most recently, GigaOm abruptly stopped publishing. The shutdown was so sudden that many of its reporters were still covering the launch of Apple Watch when they received word.

Each of these situations is unique, of course, but they demonstrate some of the challenges inherent to tech publishing today. To survive, publishers have to recognize the direction the industry is headed.

Here’s what to expect moving forward, both this year and beyond.

  1. “Specialized” publishing will trump web culture.

Tech media is fiercely competitive, with no shortage of content. To offset competition, the landscape has shifted into two camps: There’s the “web culture” tech publisher, which covers essentially anything web-relevant, from funding announcements to the latest memes. That camp includes Mashable, The Verge and Gizmodo. In covering a broader topic set, these publishers can pull in a wider audience. The goal here is scale.

In the second camp, you’ll find the “specialized” publisher. The specialized publisher covers a particular subject within the broader technology category. Specialization allows them to focus and differentiate content while building a specific audience that can be mapped and monetized. It’s not a universal or general segment – it’s more targeted, making it desirable among brands and marketers, despite the smaller audience size. This camp includes sites like TheWireCutter, Android Central, and AnandTech

Today, more tech media have adopted the former model. The appeal is understandable because this broader range of content has social reach and drives raw scale. But as more take on the web culture approach, uniformity among competitors undercuts each. On top of that, a broad scope burns resources. News cycles turn quickly, and if you’re not the very first to break a story, your clicks and CPMs suffer.

Given the challenges of this type of breadth, specialized publishing is poised to become more attractive over the long-term. Of course, success as a highly-focused content provider requires achieving balance. As an example, TUAW and Joystiq faltered because they were too narrow. TUAW covered one specific brand, not a subject, offering little incentive for competing brands and advertisers to give them ad dollars. Joystiq, on the other hand, covered a very attractive category, gaming, but reached just 1% of the category’s massive audience.

The lesson here is, if you go specialized, make sure it’s an important and attractive category to advertisers and one you can really “own” – meaning you need to reach at least 10% percent of each category’s respective audience.

  1. Intent-based content drives a premium.

Being successful in a specific category or sub-category means more than just offering narrowly-focused news content. Today, in the age of social media, dedicated news destinations are becoming redundant. As an example, when the Apple Watch made its debut, rather than follow one site’s live blog, Twitter offered a range of opinions in real time. This is why younger generations in particular are turning to social media, not news sites, for their news. There’s greater breadth and more varied points of view through these networks that publishers can’t always deliver (without a robust community).

Specialized publishing today means a shift toward what I call “intent-driven” content. Intent-driven content is designed for readers who have specific needs or questions – questions about buying or troubleshooting products, for example. It’s developed to address a particular purpose for the reader. For a specialized tech publisher, this might mean detailed reviews and how-to content on 3D printers or drones.

There’s obvious value in this type of coverage for brands and marketers. Readers who seek it out are generally in-market buyers who are in the consideration phase for a product or service. They’re further along the funnel, with the content influencing the latter stages.

Even better, changes in our advertising ecosystem have amplified the value of intent-driven content. As programmatic has scaled, it’s now easier for brands and marketers to target specific demographics across publishers. What they can’t do – at least, not accurately – is target intent. This often requires direct sales alignment to identify the best strategy to tackle in-market buyers, raising the value of intent-based media for the publisher.

For these reasons more and more tech publishers will be focusing on intent-based coverage to succeed. We’ve led that editorial shift, but we’re seeing others take this on, too.

  1. Diversification has its limits.

A third challenge for technology publishers is diversification of revenue sources. Any publisher who relies solely on advertising or one particular source of revenue above all others is at risk. Diversification is necessary for a healthy business. But, in recent years, diversification has become a unicorn that tech publishers chase too hard, with too little understanding of what their primary business or revenue model is or should be.

In our business, it’s best to excel at one core revenue model, than to be mediocre at three. It’s here where many publishers struggle by not understanding what is additive or foundational to their business. Reliability allows for experimentation, without fear of losses, which is critical for keeping up with category changes. The same applies to audience: don’t try to broaden your base too much. Otherwise you will lose focus, and in return the performance of whatever it is that you sell will diminish.

It is becoming increasingly difficult for independent players to compete in today’s tech publishing landscape. As the market becomes more and more complex, tech publishers need to focus on what makes them unique and either target smaller, but more lucrative, specialized audiences, or partner with emerging powerhouses to provide the scale, resources, and ability to adapt in today’s ever-changing media climate.

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