How community building helps publishers weather a recession

Between concerns about inflation, the supply chain and interest rates, publishers have started bracing themselves for a recession. MediaPost recently quoted an analyst suggesting that if a recession does happen, advertisers will likely pull away from publishing and concentrate their spending on platforms like Meta and Google.

Publishing veterans will recall the dark days of the last recession. Back then, newspaper ad spending dropped by 27%, speeding up the end of the print era. Even in the digital era, there’s no question that another recession could have dire consequences for an already-struggling industry. For many publishers, even a minor dip in ad revenue could have catastrophic consequences.

Nothing is set in stone; things could always rebound. But given the above odds, publishers are working on getting ahead with their just-in-case planning. No publisher can recession-proof their business, of course, but many are taking steps ahead of time to make their outlet stand out to advertisers. And increasingly, what stands out to advertisers are engaged communities of people with deep relationships with a brand.

Getting ahead by building community

Cultivating dedicated return visitors means creating authentic communities on publisher sites and retooling offerings to maximize reader engagement. 

First, they are considering two types of media consumers. There’s the casual grazer — the person who logs onto social media and skims some eye-catching articles, barely paying attention to who published them. Then there’s the aficionado — this person is a fan of specific sites, returning to them daily. All told, the casual grazers outnumber the aficionados, but from an advertiser’s perspective, it’s the aficionados that matter most.

One way for publishers to reel in those aficionados: diversify content offerings. In addition to the usual articles, writers and editors who make a conscious effort to provide interactive experiences for their readers are, in effect, creating content that will keep them on-site for longer and draw them back regularly.

As Twitter has demonstrated, digital journalists are fully capable of becoming popular online personalities in their own right. By helping journalists build their brands on-site — instead of building large followings on third-party platforms — publishers encourage readers to associate their brand with the writers they love, returning to the outlet more regularly.

How to maintain community engagement

Any on-site community robust enough to catch advertisers’ eyes will need constant maintenance. For editors and writers, that means making community engagement a proper part of the job description, as central as writing articles.

What might that look like? On the most basic level, the approach includes engaging with the comments. A thriving comments section is key to an engaged community, and staff participation in the comments goes a long way toward strengthening that community. 

Editors and writers don’t have to spend all day engaging with readers. Still, even a small interaction here and there demonstrates to audiences that they listen and care about reader input. For instance, they can thank a reader for a valid correction or thumbs-up a particularly astute take.

Routine Q&As serve a similar purpose. The idea is to make the staff seem accessible and collapse some of the distance between reader and writer. Publishers make their outlets stickier by giving readers multiple reasons to regularly check back.

Publishers that succeed there will be much more appealing to advertisers if and when the next recession arrives. And if it doesn’t arrive? Publishers will still be doing themselves a favor. In boom times or bust, an engaged community is a key to the next level.

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