When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe, PressReader found itself in a strange new world where normal modes of operating our business no longer applied. Almost overnight, three of our travel-related partner verticals (hospitality, airlines, and marine) were suddenly out of commission: shut, grounded, docked.
Meanwhile, many of our publishing partners were entering what Digiday called the “Unknown Unknowns,” leaving it in a catastrophic crisis beyond anything 9/11 or the 2008/09 financial crisis dished out.
Massive pay cuts, furloughs, and layoffs spread like wildfire, while advertising revenue took a nosedive, with no promise of recovery in sight. Printed media started facing early extinction in many parts of the
Our industry and sales channels were under attack, and it was scary; I can’t deny that. And as we tried to make sense of this new normal and saw how too many companies were paralyzed by fear and uncertainty, we knew we had to act differently, and act fast. But how?
The existential crisis forced our executive team and investors to step back and look at our company, our mission, and our vision with new eyes. We needed to question everything and re-examine what was really important today and in the future. We had to face hard truths about revenues, profits, and people. We started with people.
PressReader is blessed with a fantastic group of talented and diverse employees across all segments: R&D, Sales and Partnerships, New Business Development, Marketing, Design, Operations, and Finance. They not only know our industry inside and out, they could pivot to a new industry and new markets if that was what was needed. They had to be protected; no layoffs or furloughs would happen on our watch.
Next, we looked at revenues and profit. We knew we were going to take a hit on both fronts, at least in the short term. The question was, would there still be a future for what we do and what we stand for in the post-pandemic world?
To make a long story short, what we came away with after much soul-searching was a new appreciation for two fundamental truths we’ve always believed:
- Quality journalism must be available to every person in the world, regardless of their willingness or ability to pay for it; and
- Quality journalism deserves compensation.
These two seemingly conflicting statements have been our mantra since we launched the company 21 years ago, and are the foundation upon which our Sponsored Access business model was built. As the World Health Organization finally declared the novel coronavirus disease a global pandemic in March, we chose to double down on those truths, democratize access to content for those in need, and pay for it ourselves until our channel partners could once again. Because we knew deep down that goodwill is good business.
Sounds crazy, right? Let me tell you a little bit about our experiences so far in this COVID-19 world. It’s been a wild ride…
When one door closes…
In March 2020, thousands of our channel partners closed their hotels, grounded their airplanes, and docked their ships. Our sales funnel for the travel sector that usually overflowed with leads was leaking badly. At the same time, we saw our library and education sectors grow as digital media (newspapers, magazines, books) became a priority among patrons and students in lockdown.
What surprised us, however, was the wealth of new opportunities in healthcare, property management, loyalty programs, and seniors residencies/care homes. As they say, when one door closes, other doors open. And open they did…
Despite the massive spikes in unemployment and lost income by consumers, subscriptions to PressReader skyrocketed, and average session lengths doubled as more people were hunkering down and hungering for stories that mattered to them – content they could trust.
Recent reports from Reuters saw a similar uptake in news reading and the willingness to pay for it by people in select countries – a large percentage of whom expect to be still paying for it this time next year. I’ll believe that when I see it, but it’s good news today.
In January, our users read about 350K articles about health on PressReader. In March, the number jumped to over 1.4M!
Along with interest in COVID-19 articles, mental health stories ranked much higher in the health category than in previous months, relationships & sex made the front page of our NativeAI’s content analytics platform for the first time (Hmmm…;)) and of course, entertainment and sports increased as boredom escalated.
The heightened interest in all pandemic-related news prompted us to create a COVID-19 daily compilation in the form of a digital edition. It included the most trustworthy information about the virus and crisis from around the globe, with expert analyses, opinions, and interviews, not just sound bites, and summaries of press conferences.
We call these publications Compiled Editions, and a number of our publishers are using them to build digital replicas out of their website content. The Guardian in Australia and the US, and Deutsche Welle in Germany are just a few who are having success repackaging their website and video content into the digestible, finite format for those readers who prefer not to live in a 24-hour news cycle.
Goodwill breeds more goodwill
The publishing industry has been challenged for years. The new crisis wreaked new havoc on our publishing partners. Despite that, many of them asked us to open up their content for free on PressReader even though it cost them money – something that our readers and we very much appreciated. Here are just a few of our very generous publishing partners who opened their content and wallets for readers.
The Toronto Star also reached out to us and asked whether we would be willing to forgo the Newspaper in Education (NIE) fees we charge for their digital editions because they wanted to give the content to school children who were now learning at home. This was a no-brainer, of course.
Something else that surprised and delighted us was the rush by publishers to create digital editions of their content. In the past, many newspaper and magazine publishers thought digital replicas would cannibalize their printed products. But as print became unavailable or taboo with people, publishers realized they needed to get their printed editions digitized and distributed.We were inundated with requests for our Branded Edition technology to build enhanced digital replicas for publishers all over the world. Editorial Televisa is just one example of many.
Editorial Televisa is the largest Spanish-speaking magazine publisher in the world with more than 30 titles, including Esquire, Fortune, Marie Claire, and National Geographic, published in Mexico, Central and South America. In March, they asked us to build them a digital kiosk as fast as we could so they could offer free issues of their publications to people in isolation. We had the HTML5 site up and running in a couple of weeks and the apps shortly after that. That felt good in more ways than one. Digital editions, the ugly ducklings of digital news, seem well on track to become more strategically important for publishers in the post-COVID world. About time!
Libraries went above and beyond, AGAIN!
World peace advocate and author, Norman Cousins, once said, “A library is the delivery room for the birth of an idea.” And when COVID-19 struck these amazing institutions all over the world, forcing them to close their doors, the librarians and their staff kept their hearts and their minds open and came up with many innovative ideas on how to serve their diverse communities in a time of crisis.
Many treated their constituents with free Wi-Fi access from their parking lots. Others across the globe served their communities that weren’t digitally inclined by delivering boxes of books to members in isolation. Some helped patrons fill out reemployment assistance applications and submit them to the relevant authorities.
Then there were those who risked their own safety by turning their buildings into homeless shelters and food banks.
In a true testament to resourcefulness, there were libraries that used their 3D printers to print face shield headbands for healthcare workers. There seems to be no end to what libraries and librarians were willing to do to keep their communities safe and sane.
Libraries also invested heavily in promoting trusted media to patrons with lots of time on their hands — creatively suggesting digital content to help educate, entertain and distract their communities from the fears, frustrations, and mental health stresses of being isolated.
This led to a massive increase in demand for Pressreader publications. And it wasn’t just COVID-19 news they were craving. There was a marked increase in magazine reading, particularly those titles that fed people’s passions or opened up new interests and skills that helped them escape reality for a while. One UK library, for instance, reported that access increased by 259% in just one month. And they were not alone.
Hotels became second responders
Our brand partners, most of whom were being walloped by the pandemic, didn’t sit back and lick their wounds (and they were wounded badly); they started serving those in need as “second responders.”
Many of our partner hotels became containment zones for health professionals, patients, and some of the less fortunate populations in highly affected areas, offering a place to stay and complimentary access to PressReader to those housed there. Here are just a couple of examples.
When the Palladium Hotel Group, with properties in Spain, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Brazil, and Italy, closed its doors to keep their guests and staff safe, we offered PressReader to all their employees to keep them informed and entertained while they self-isolate.
"Today we would like to thank our provider PressReader in a very special way, who in an act of generosity has given us more than 16,000 connections to their platform so that all our collaborators in Europe and America have free access to newspapers and magazines from all over the world during these weeks of confinement."
Palladium Hotel Group
Meliá Hotels International converted their Mallorca hotel into a hospital, making rooms available for authorities, care workers, social workers, and patients who’d been , or who needed a safe space to self-isolate.
“Heartfelt thanks to...PressReader... and all the partners that will continue to join us in helping medicalized hotels.”
Gabriel Escarrer, CEO
Meliá Hotels International
And don’t forget, publishers were still compensated for the content consumed through all of these goodwill programs.
Travel brands rewarded loyalty in lockdown
The travel industry also opened up PressReader to their loyalty program members. Turkish Airlines, Air Canada, and Diamond Resorts did just that for their valued customers who found themselves sitting at home instead of flying the skies or enjoying warm hospitality.
We also saw travel companies focus on more sustainable and healthy media solutions knowing that the days of printed in-flight entertainment magazines and gateway media drop-offs were a thing of the past.
Cruise lines and ferries also jumped on board the goodwill train offering PressReader to their loyal members and crew whether they were isolated at or quarantined at sea.
Giving the gift of escapism when there’s no escape in sight
The British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS) provided PressReader access to 2,000 British Forces troops stationed in the Falkland Islands, Singapore, and Cyprus through their MiPlayer app, and the 30,000 British Troops who returned to the UK to assist and support the COVID situation.
To help our global medical communities stay informed and entertained, we provided complimentary PressReader access to staff, support workers, residents, and patients in hospitals and care facilities throughout the UK, and across two of Spain’s largest hospital groups — HM Hospitales and Vithas.
Give a gift with ribbons, not strings
Goodwill is not charity, and it’s not a one-off gift. It’s a seed that, once planted and nurtured, can grow into lasting relationships that bring value to all involved.
Many of our partners and we offered free access to PressReader during COVID-19 because it provided both quality content + escapism at a time when people needed access to trusted information and a disconnect from the stresses brought on by the pandemic.
We’re in this for the long term, and we’ve planted a lot of seeds in new markets not on our radar before. COVID-19 opened our eyes to new opportunities we might have never seen – opportunities to give gifts with ribbons, not strings, and build new relationships with businesses and consumers.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we must change ourselves and our business practices. And that going it alone is a lonely proposition and not a very fulfilling one.
As we navigate the proverbial new normal, we will continue to look for ways to partner for success and develop goodwill programs that help people, gain their trust and loyalty, and inspire them to pay it forward to others. Because if we all work together, we can do so much!
I hope this peek into our journey through COVID-19 (which is far from over), will encourage you to do something different in your business. If you’re interested in learning more, let’s talk!