Like other industries confronted with a new paradigm, publishers felt challenged as digital media began overtaking traditional publishing channels. But digital is here to stay.

Now it’s time for publishers to truly own it – capitalising on content, implementing new revenue models, and making them work.

The key to success? It’s all about the audience and the context.

Gone are the days when geography alone helped assure a valuable audience. Today’s successful publishers actively seek site visitors, and have figured out how to keep them on the site and engage them with premium content.

The result is readers who are more likely to become repeat and loyal visitors and potentially paid subscribers.

Seeking out audiences can be time-consuming and difficult for publishers, who are clearly faced with a variety of other challenges, including steeply declining print circulation and advertising revenues. But it’s definitely doable.

Publishers must think differently – perhaps foregoing the quick buck from intermediaries like Taboola, Outbrain, and Google – to build and sustain long-term reader engagement that will lead to revenue growth.

That means doing away with these middlemen that are eroding publishers’ value and pulling readers from their sites. It also means making a stronger push against the digitally native companies that are shifting the entire business landscape, experimenting with paywall strategies, and better understanding consumers’ rapid adoption of technology (knowing who is on what device and when).

For publishers who are ready to start seeing revenue growth again, here are five steps to kick-start the process:

  1. Understand your audience members, no matter what device they are on.

    This sounds simple, because with the right technology, it is. There are real-time analytics tools and data management platforms available that help publishers gather and analyse audience data.

    Your users are moving to mobile? No problem. The right systems can analyse user behaviour on any device across your sites and over time, and also often link the users cross-device.

    By knowing who accesses your site, you can make better-informed decisions on what content, advertisements, and subscription promotions to target them with.

  2. Stop leaking data.

    In the rush to have a digital presence, virtually all publishers allow third-party scripts from intermediaries in exchange for some type of payment. The problem is that many of these scripts are using the publishers’ own data to lure away publisher profits (think Google).

  3. Don’t just look at your data – use it to your advantage.

    Once you know who you want to target, understand how you can better deliver an individualised and personalised experience to those site visitors.

    Use personalised content and push highly-targeted ads by using the audience data you’ve gathered. Then offer access for advertisers to these highly prized audience segments at a premium – advertisers are willing to pay for good targeting and good results.

  4. Look for additional ways to build your audience.

    For example, increase engagement for those “transient” visitors referred by Google or social platforms by recommending content better suited to where they are coming from. Context matters! If a reader has clicked through to your site to read an article about acrobatic kittens, don’t suggest articles on the Syrian crisis straight away.

    Look into your content base and find articles of a similar tone that might catch the reader’s eye. I’m not suggesting click-bait here, but rather a content recommendations tool that understands the context and the mood the user might be in.

    By delivering one additional page view for each of these visitors, publishers can significantly increase ad inventory and begin developing a larger, more loyal user base.

  5. Take opportunities to develop new revenue streams.

    Learn from publishers who are starting to use their audience data to build new money-making opportunities, such as entering the world of e-commerce.

    By better understanding the audience, it’s easier to recommend relevant products and increase the users’ likelihood to buy. And it can make your site a “go-to” resource, which will drive new traffic.

European-based Styria Media Group has had considerable success developing new revenue streams using audience analysis and targeting solutions from Cxense. The publisher introduced a “daily deal” e-commerce site, offering promotions that are really relevant to each individual user, while building a closer relationship with the audience.

There may be big questions swirling around Big Data and how it is used, but taking control of data and making it actionable is the key to helping publishers come out on top.

Publishers can and should take a leadership role in responsible data stewardship, keeping and guarding data ownership, aligning themselves with audience interests while building the kind of customer intimacy needed to harness but not violate their trust.

It is possible to find new audiences, give them what they want, and still be on their side.