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  • feedwordpress 13:34:20 on 2022/04/07 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , journalism, , ,   

    Has Innovation Died in Marketing? 


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    Caveat: This will likely be one of my longish, link-heavy Thinking Out Loud pieces, so I invite you all to pour yourselves a glass of your favorite adult beverage or rustle up a fine cannabis pairing, should you care to indulge…

    As The Recount prepares for a major launch this spring, I found myself again contemplating the state of digital marketing – a subject I’ve written about extensively over the years. To not bury the lead, I find myself profoundly disappointed in the industry, which I think believes it is innovating, but in fact, is making the same mistakes old school media companies made when faced with the rise of the internet 15 years ago. But before I get into why, some background on how I came to that conclusion. 

    The Recount will soon launch a novel live news streaming product. We’ve been working on it for nearly a year, and we’re taking exactly the kind of risks that startups exist to tackle. We’ve rethought nearly every aspect of what makes “good television” in a post-social, digitally native information ecosystem. And while it’s true The Recount has a large and highly engaged social audience (tens of millions of views and engagements each week), there’s no guarantee that audience will join us in the world of live streaming. We know we have to prove ourselves – we must build and iterate a compelling service that people will find engaging, useful, and even fun. It’s risky – hell, it’s more than risky. To succeed, we have to build a service – and a brand – that our audience will want to share with friends and colleagues. In short, we know we must deliver an experience that builds community – because no media brand thrives without community.   

    Community. The word is a bit careworn, bruised from its recent run-ins with Web2 platform leaders like Zuckerberg and the casual toxicity of places like Twitter and YouTube. But community is a fundamental element of a great media brand, and it’s central to our success or failure. We think it’s so important that we’re launching our stream on Twitch, a platform that couldn’t be more different from traditional news environments in its approach to community. With one or two rare and unconventional exceptions, news has not found its footing there. So why the hell are we trying?

    Fair question. As we thought through the implications of committing to a third-party platform for the launch of a crucial new service, and the challenges of convincing marketers that it will be worth supporting, I was reminded of a burst of writing I posted more than fifteen years ago. Back then I was struggling to navigate a similar kind of shift in how media worked. At that point, blogs and “user generated content” were an entirely new phenomenon, poorly understood and confusing to most folks in traditional media (the same might be said today of live streaming and “connected television.”) I collected my thinking in a series of posts under the loose heading of “The Conversation Economy.” The series kicked off with an insight that now feels obvious, but in 2006 was relatively fresh: Most media being made at the time was still a product of what I called a “packaged goods” mentality. Given the rise of Web2, I argued, this “packaged goods media” approach to media was certain to be eclipsed by a new, more community-driven format. At the time, blogging was several years into what turned out to be a short-lived run as the dominant form of expression on the Internet. The rise of blogs, I theorized, pointed to a tipping point in media’s evolution. Packaged Goods Media was on the decline. Long live its successor: “Conversational Media.”

    In my first post, I noted how nearly every at-scale media company – Viacom, NBC, Time Inc, NewsCorp, etc. – had recently retooled their “interactive” divisions, appointing new leaders who were less digital cowboys and more traditionally minded media execs. Even the digital giants – AOL and Yahoo! – were installing old school managers. This was 2006, mind you – Twitter didn’t exist, Facebook was two years old, Google was a search company that had just purchased YouTube. The “winners” of Web2 were still very much undeclared. 

    At the time, I questioned why the big media companies of the era were treating digital as if it were just another form of packaged goods media. Didn’t they know that this time, things would be different? For these media companies to truly win, I argued, they needed to commit to radically rethinking not only the format of their product, but their approach to community, and the business model as well. 

    So how did things turn out, 15+ years later? AOL and Yahoo! are now owned by a PE firm, Viacom is struggling to get to scale and apparently prepping itself for sale, GE sold NBC to Comcast, and Time Inc. is now owned by a billionaire philanthropist. NewsCorp relegated its digital efforts to a sideshow, and doubled down on the politics of polarization over at its subsidiary Fox News. 

    Meanwhile, the digital advertising business – a business dominated by those same large media companies 15 years ago – grew from roughly $17 billion in 2006 to nearly $500 billion last year. And we all know who reaped the lion’s share of that growth: the triopoly of Google, Meta/Facebook, and Amazon – none of which care to be described as media companies. 

    Which got me thinking: Whatever happened to the principles of The Conversation Economy? If the big digital giants beat the hapless old school media companies, did they deliver the conversational media I predicted would emerge? 

    To answer that, let’s first define what I mean by conversational media. In my post defining the term, I theorized that conversational media had at least five core characteristics:

    Conversation over Dictation. This is crucial. Packaged goods media assumes a one-to-many stance – in the case of news, that means an authoritative figure stares down the lens of a camera, telling you what’s important and why. Conversational media, on the other hand, allows for the audience to engage in a journey of discovery with the journalist, who acts more like the host of a conversation. 

    Platform over Distribution. Conversational Media are driven by network effects and the platforms that harness them. PGM products, on the other hand, are driven by tightly controlled distribution – think Comcast or DirectTV. If you make PGM, you care a lot about your distribution. In 2006, the open web was the platform, but over time, the Apples and Facebooks of the world recreated the distribution chokeholds of old media models. Bummer. 

    Service over Product. If you view your output as a discrete product (article, show, book, etc), you’re probably making packaged goods media. But if you manage your business as a service (search, social, stream, arguably even Substack), you’re in the conversational media business. 

    Iteration and Speed Over Perfection and Deliberation. By its nature, Packaged Goods Media is all about creating and shipping a highly produced product. The idea of beta is alien – it’s either ready to ship, or it’s not.  In conversational media, the key is to create, launch, and then constantly iterate. Conversational media are always in beta.

    Engagement over Consumption. Related to the first point, the model of interaction with audiences in conversational media is one of engagement – “lean forward” as opposed to “sit back.” At its peak, for example, my blog had far more comments than posts, by a ratio of about five to one. And the key to a good Twitch livestream, for example, is how the host(s) interact with the community in real time.

    So did the winners of the marketing business – Google, Facebook, Amazon – build us a conversational media nirvana? The resounding answer is … hell no. They delivered us yet another version of packaged goods media – feeds, built to be consumed. It’s true, their platforms are services, but all they’ve really done is swap traditional media-as-product models for a machine-driven model where consumers are the product. The community at the core of great media brands is non-existent. We’re consumers with a doom-scrolling feed bag strapped to our face. It sucks, and we’re starting to wake up to it.  If you’re looking for quality takes on the news, it’s even worse.

    But that doesn’t mean conversational media is dead. In fact, 15 years later, I’d say the five points above offer a good framework for a large set of today’s thriving media businesses. Substack, The Athletic, Twitch, The Information, hell, even Discord – all of them focus on their communities first. 

    And guess what they don’t depend on? Advertisers. Some incorporate sponsorship or limited-scale ad units (Twitch), but by and large the core business model of conversational media has been some form of subscription.  

    Now why is that? 

    I blame marketers, full stop (told you I’d get back to that!). About the time Facebook and Google rose to prominence, marketers began to pull back on their “innovation budgets” – a percentage of their media spend reserved for learning and experimentation. In the mid aughts, most big brand marketers reserved 10 percent or more of their budgets for experimentation. The world was changing rapidly, and marketers knew that they needed to understand that change by participating in new approaches to advertising. But by 2012, the year Facebook incorporated programmatic advertising into its main news feed, those budgets were shrinking faster than the polar ice caps. 

    In my third post of the 2006 series, the longest of the three, I opined on how marketers might leverage conversational media, and what it might take to bring it to scale. Brands need safety, quality, and scale, and at the time, there was precious little of any in the newly burgeoning conversational marketing space. Regardless, brands were funding any number of remarkable experiments. I surveyed an array of innovative conversational marketing efforts, from Dice’s “conversational banners” to Open Forum from American Express. The results of these campaigns were impressive, and augured, I thought, a renaissance in how brands might go to market. Perhaps brands, I mused, might learn how to “join the conversation” and act more like members of a community. Perhaps they might even launch their own conversational media services, in partnership with media startups. After all, your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room, right? 

    Could have been, but the history of marketing over the past 15 years has not been one of customer engagement, and as for supporting innovation in news – it’s been mostly crickets. Innovations budgets have all but disappeared – one senior media buyer responsible for billions in annual ad spend recently told me that they hadn’t had money for media experimentation for nearly a decade. I then polled another half dozen marketing leaders on the same question – and got exactly the same answer from each. Sure, they were willing to test out at-scale platforms like Snap or Pinterest – but investing in startups trying new things? Not so much. Like their counterparts in big media companies, marketers gave up on learning how to create conversational media. So what did they do instead? 

    Again, you guessed it. The majority of their budgets funded Google, Amazon, and Facebook. These large platforms have perfected their data-driven marketing services, and they offered brands an irresistible trade off: Pour your dollars into my finely tuned black box, and our machines will kick out the results you want to see. From 2012 to the present, marketers learned how to spin the dials and pull the levers of the machines, but they failed at the one thing that should be setting them apart: Interacting with actual customers. They thought the big platforms would let them engage with their customers, but truth be told, they’d been disintermediated by the machines.

    This is not an idle observation. In the past few years, top CMOs have begun to publicly break with the platforms. On the record, they’ll say they are concerned about the inability to moderate unsafe content, but privately, they’ll acknowledge the elephant in the room: They’ve become too dependent on an intermediary they don’t quite understand – and they fret that they’re about to be made irrelevant. They’re also deeply concerned about the impact of these platforms on our national dialog – the loss of tens of thousands of journalism jobs, the rise of mis- and disinformation

    They’re right to be concerned. The platforms’ algorithms are spectacular at identifying a potential customer and placing a marketing message in front of them, but intentionally ignorant as to the context in which that customer might be engaged (I’ve written extensively on this phenomenon, which I call Lost Context). The results are great KPIs, but an increasing disconnect between big brand marketers and the customers they supposedly excel at understanding. Marketers have over-rotated on media buying – to the detriment of innovation. It used to be that the people who bought media had roles that let them be creative – they took risks, they tried new things. But now, smart CMOs are investing in building sophisticated media-buying machines of their own, replete with first party data, machine learning algorithms, and endlessly complex dynamic creative optimization services. It’s as if the answer to their dependence on the big platforms is to replicate those same platforms inside their own companies. I’m all for independence, but  true innovation means trying something entirely new.  

    The media landscape of 2022 is far messier, far more complicated, and even more unsettled than its 2006 incarnation. Television, the largest and most powerful of the traditional media sectors, is in full digital metamorphosis, and once again, the winners and losers are up for grabs. If ever there was a time to experiment, to learn, to try new things, it’s Right. F*cking. Now. And to not put too fine a point on it, there’s really only one way to innovate in any business: You have to spend money on things you aren’t sure will work. So I’m here to say it, loudly and proudly: It’s time to bring back the innovation budgets in media, and it’s time for media buyers to take back their profession. Our industry can’t afford to make the same mistakes we made over the past 15 years. If you agree, you know how to reach me – and I’ve got something cool I’d really love to show you. A few brave souls just might light the path to change. 

     
  • feedwordpress 18:53:51 on 2020/11/30 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , , , , , journalism, , the press   

    Media and Marketing Leaders: It’s Time to Stand Up For Truth 


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    Why “information equity” matters.

     

    An idea has been tugging at me for months now, one I’ve spent countless hours discussing and debating with leaders in marketing, media, and journalism. And as I often do, I’m turning to writing to see if I can push it into more concrete form. I’m literally thinking out loud here, but I won’t bury the lede: I believe it’s time for all major corporations – not just the companies that pushed for the #StopHateForProfit boycott – to call for a broader, more universal movement related to their marketing practices and their “Corporate Social Responsibility” efforts.This isn’t about punishing platforms, rather it’s about reimagining our relationship to them, and shifting our focus to the externalities our collective dependance upon them has created. For now, I’m calling the movement “Information Equity” – a rather dry and academic moniker, to be sure. Toward the end of this post, I’ll ask for your help in pushing the idea forward. But for now, let me explain what I’m on about.

    ***

    Some years back I helped start a company called NewCo, an effort to identify and promote companies that view business as a force for good. The idea sprang from an observation that the most successful companies often had purpose at their core, they were animated by a desire to make the world better in some measurable way. Lately the idea of business as a force for good has found broader appeal, to the point where the Business Roundtable recently revised its definition of purpose in business. No longer would the true north of business be the maximization of profit for shareholders. In its place would now sit a new lodestar: “Creating an economy that serves all.”

    It’s easy enough to dismiss such declaratives as lipstick on the soulless pig of capitalism, but these kind of statements shift societal expectations over time, and eventually they change outcomes as well. Large corporations are increasingly being held to account by employees, customers, and the communities they impact. It’s demonstrably true that business practices have changed in recent years. And the last nine months – replete with a global pandemic and a deadly serious racial reckoning – have deeply accelerated those changes. Driven by COVID, the Black Lives Matter movement, and an impending climate disaster, “Corporate Social Responsibility” has now taken center stage in American business.

    Now that the klieg lights are on, the question rightly becomes: What will corporations do with the microphone?

    It’d be tempting to claim victory, and point to the change that’s already here. Less than a generation ago, it would have been corporate suicide to take a stance on charged issues like race, gender, or the environment. But today, the world’s largest advertiser – Proctor & Gamble – employs its marketing budgets to create and promote powerful films decrying systemic racial and gender inequality. The world’s largest money manager – BlackRock – has put climate change at the center of its investment and governance decisions. For each of these formerly third-rail issues – race, gender, climate – hundreds of major corporates have declared similar intentions.

    But while  race, gender, and environmental equity have become rallying cries for mainstream corporate America – and rightly so – there’s another fundamental human right I’d like to see taken up by our newly woke business leaders. This particular right – or its absence – drives society’s comprehension, education, discussion, debate and ultimately, society’s actions related to resolving historically intractable issues of human rights.

    In short, if we are going to solve our largest problems, we must first solve society’s problem with the truth.

    ***

    Over the past ten or so years, American society has lost its faith in a shared truth. We simply don’t believe the same things anymore. And in the battle to defend our particular versions of truth, we have badly weakened journalism – our historical institution of truth-telling.  We’ve not simply undermined journalism’s economic models, but more importantly, we’ve marginalized its impact and primacy in helping us determine the facts upon which society determines progress. We have questioned journalism’s motives, its  business models, and the social compact granting journalism the right to determine fact, establish reason, and debate course of action.

    I am not arguing these questions should not be raised – journalism is imperfect at best. But in abandoning journalism, we might have forgotten a larger question: If a free and fair press is not the answer to finding our common truth then … what exactly is? Think for a moment on what might replace journalism in our society. You’ll likely find yourself in a rather dark mood.

    Over centuries, we have built journalism as an institution of truth telling – in concert, in opposition, and even in cahoots with institutions of power in government, religion, and business. This truth-telling organ is commonly referred to as the Fourth Estate, and its record is both speckled and glorious. But it’s also the only private institution empowered by a Constitutional name check – and in the First Amendment, at that. So as far as I’m concerned, if ever there was a purpose-driven business, it’s one built around a newsroom. The mission of a news business is to fulfill the right of the people to be informed by truth. To deliver as full and transparent an account of truth as is possible. To hold truth as a mirror to power. And to demand an accounting if, once put to power, those truths do not square with the powerful’s actions.

    Without standard-bearers capable of this endless and grinding work, democracy is lost.  Without access to high-quality news reporting, the citizens of this nation will make decisions based on rumor, bias, self-interest, and fear.

    I’m all for Benkler’s concept of a “networked Fourth Estate” – that the rise of the Internet has added a multitude of actors – bloggers, non-profits, citizen journalists – to the category we might call “the press.” And the rise of social media has, indeed, given everyone with a voice an opportunity to speak. But we’ve failed to place guardrails around the institutional mechanisms which determine how these new voices are distributed in our society. At present, the inscrutable algorithms and powerful business models of our largest technology platforms determine the information diets of a growing majority of Americans. And I think it’s inescapably true that as things stand, these platforms have no incentive to change how they do business. That’s where corporations – and their advertising budgets – must come into play with a more long-term solution.

    ***

    Quality journalism at scale is under extreme duress. Yes, the Times, the Post, the Atlantic, the Wall Street Journal have all experienced a renaissance in the past few years. But all you readers of long form journalism, you devourers of words by the thousand, you are not the citizens of whom I speak. Your information equities are not in peril, your privilege is intact.

    What matters here is scale. Read Charlie Warzel or listen to Kevin Roose, and ponder the citizen who can’t afford (or simply doesn’t wish) to take their news from high-quality print outlets. When more than a hundred million Americans struggle to cover a $400 medical bill, society needs an advertising-supported model that brings quality information to the masses (this of course is Zuckerberg’s favorite defense for why Facebook is ad-driven, which is one of many examples of how the company has subverted the clothing of journalism without accepting its responsibilities). When the most convenient free service for news is Facebook, then Facebook will become America’s answer to news. As a result, tens of millions of our fellow citizens are caught in the jaws of systemic information bias, of institutionally-driven information pollution. One-quarter of Americans believe the recent election was possibly stolen, and a full third of us believe that the new administration may well enslave children for sexual favors. We’re in the grip of an information-driven disease – an information pandemic –  the cancerous externality of a society which has deemed the growth of our most profitable companies more important that the dissemination of fact-based information and truth.

    ***

    So what is business going to do about it?

    Boycotts are fine, but business must make combatting the lack of quality information in our society a primary and ongoing goal. Surely if corporate America can get comfortable with activism on behalf of racial, gender, and environmental equality, it can throw its support behind every citizen’s right to quality information.

    But how? How might business lead when it comes to addressing this fundamental issue?

    There are scores of ideas yet to be imagined, and plenty of think tanks, non-profits, and other organizations already working on important parts of this problem. But for all its skill at communication, the media industry has been far too silent in advancing solutions. It was just last month – last month!! – that the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, a working group comprised of leading platforms, media agencies, and brand advertisers, added “Misinformation” to its long list of “harmful content.”

    That’s progress, but democracy can’t wait for a committee report sometime next year. The most important step we can take now is to declare information equity an issue worthy of support by the business community. Marketers must dedicate a small but substantial portion of their budgets – which in aggregate equate to hundreds of billions of dollars each year – to a stated commitment supporting the creation and distribution of quality journalism at every level of society. I’ve written extensively elsewhere about how this is possible without abandoning the benefits of scale, targeting, and efficiency that platforms unquestionably bring to our industry. Not only is it possible, it’s also good for business results – and society at large.

    The media industry helped to create this problem of misinformation – by funding the rise of platforms, by ignoring the externalities these platforms foisted onto society, and by growing addicted to the results the platforms delivered to our bottom lines. If we don’t renegotiate the relationships between marketers, platforms, media companies and the audiences we all serve, how can we expect anything to change?

    Just as the planet can no longer tolerate the externalities of an economy driven by carbon, and just as our society can no longer tolerate the externalities of a culture driven by institutional race- and gender-based injustice, we can no longer whistle past the graveyard of truth.

    If you agree, please join me in an ongoing conversation. My email is jbat @ therecount dot com – hit me up, and I’ll add you to an engaged community of agency leaders, marketing executives, media entrepreneurs, and others who are interested in finding a path forward. I look forward to the dialog, and as always, thanks for reading.

     
  • feedwordpress 01:20:40 on 2020/10/14 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , journalism, , , speech   

    Facebook Is Finally Admitting It’s A Publisher 


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    The video above is from a conversation at The Recount’s SHIFT event last month, between Nick Clegg, Facebook VP, Global Affairs and Communications, and myself. If you can’t bear to watch 30 or seconds of video, the gist is this: Clegg says “Thank God Mark Zuckerberg isn’t editing what people can or can’t say on Facebook, that’s not his or our role.”

    One month later, with Trump down in the polls and the political winds shifting, well, let’s just say the company has changed its tune. Dramatically. Not only has it banned Holocaust denial, it’s also banned anti-vax advertising and taken steps to pro actively manage the disinformation shitshow that will be the Trump campaign post election.

    Witness this quote, from Zuckerberg himself, in his recent post framing why Facebook will now ban Holocaust denial from the platform: “Drawing the right lines between what is and isn’t acceptable speech isn’t straightforward, but with the current state of the world, I believe this is the right balance.”

    Excuse me while I point out the most fucking obvious thing in the world when it comes to what an editor actually does: We draw lines about what is is and isn’t acceptable, either as fact, as truth, as hypocrisy, or what is in the public interest. That’s the damn job of journalists: To call bullshit. And regardless of Facebook’s longstanding claims to not be a publisher or a journalistic entity, the truth is, these actions prove the company understands it is an arbiter of facts, truth, and the public interest. The  simple reality is this: The company has tried to have it both ways for Too. Fucking. Long. It’s time we treat Facebook for what it is: A media company, subject to the norms, responsibilities, and behaviors we all expect and demand from our media providers.

     

     
  • feedwordpress 15:31:31 on 2020/06/17 Permalink
    Tags: , , , journalism, , Recount Media, , The Recount, , ,   

    Marketers Have Given Up on Context, And Our National Discourse Is Suffering 


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    It’s getting complicated out there.

    Marketers – especially brand marketers: Too many of you have lost the script regarding the critical role you play in society. And while well-intentioned TV spots about “getting through this together” are nice, they aren’t a structural solution. It’s time to rethink the relationship between marketers, media companies (not “content creators,” ick), and the audience.

    So let’s talk about it. Grab your favorite beverage and read along. I’m heading into a bit of media theory for the next couple thousand words – I hope this will start an interesting conversation.

    For those of you who want a TL:DR summary, here it is: It’s time to get back to the work marketers used to be really good at: Deciding on the appropriate context in which to engage your audience. And it’s time to pull back from a habit most of you have fallen into: Letting the machines choose your audience for you. Thanks to new approaches which fuse at-scale ad targeting with high-quality editorial product, you can step into this renewed role without sacrificing the reach, precision, and targeting afforded by the likes of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and their kin. To understand how, let’s review some history.

    The Old Media Model

    If you read this site back when I wrote regularly on media (roughly 2003-2015), you’ll recall I laid out several basic tenets about how the media business works. It’s comprised of three core components: Editorial (the media company’s content), Audience (people who give their attention to the content), and Marketer (commercial actors who desire the Audience’s attention in the context of the Editorial). Of course, in the past ten years, a fourth component has eclipsed all three: The Internet Platform.

    Before the major Internet platforms deconstructed the media business, the three original components came together in what we’ll call a media product (I’m still partial to “publication,” but many think only of print when they hear that word). Print, television shows, and early web sites all served as vessels for a commercial relationship between  Editorial, Audience, and Marketer. The media company took the financial risk of creating and distributing the media product, and if successful, the marketer paid to run advertising inside the media product. In some cases, the audience also paid a subscription fee for the editorial. But for most media companies, advertising support was crucial to chin the bar of profitability and make a go of it as a business.

    A critical element of the media-product-as-vessel model for commercial transactions was that context matters. The media product created context for audience engagement, and if the marketer offered messaging that aligned with that context, it stood to reason that the audience would be more receptive to the advertiser’s message. Suffice to say that with the rise of audience buying on massive platforms, context has been lost, with nearly incalculable downsides across the media ecosystem (and society at large). More on that later on.

    Meanwhile, back in those pre-platform days, distribution was important, but it was also a constant. Most media companies consolidated distribution by acquiring broadcast licenses or cable networks (for television) or print distribution networks (if you were a magazine or newspaper company). And if you were a media startup, you could leverage those distribution networks for a relatively predictable rent – often without spending any capital up front. When we started Wired, for example, we secured newsstand distribution by agreeing to split the revenue earned by our nascent magazine with our distribution agent.

    I call this old-school model “Packaged Goods Media.” Fifteen years ago I noted that “PGM” was giving way to a new model, which I termed “Conversational Media,” or CM. CM, of course, was the precursor to “social media” – Twitter, Facebook, YouTube – and as I thought out loud about this new phenomenon, I noted several crucial distinctions between it and Packaged Goods Media. I predicted that the economics of Editorial, Audience, and Marketing were all going to change dramatically. In many ways I was spot on. But in several others, I was dead wrong. Here’s a summary of a few key points:

    • Editorial models would evolve from “dictation” to “conversational,” where the audience – and knowledge of the audience through data – became a central driver of editorial creation.
    • Distribution would become nearly free, obviating the rent-seeking monopolies held by major media companies. In fact, I wrote: “economic differentiation based on the control of distribution – the very heart of PGM-based business models – is irrelevant in CM-based services.”
    • Online, publications become more like a service, rather than a product. I noted that software, which was still largely a packaged product, was also heading in this direction. That means media will have different economics and different advertising models over time (I called them “native advertising” at the time).

    I’d argue that over the next ten years I got the first and third predictions relatively right, but I entirely whiffed on how distribution would play out. I simply failed to imagine how Facebook, Google, and others would leverage their newfound control of audience attention. In one piece from 2006, I wrote:

    “…finding massively scaled Conversational Media companies [besides Google] is a rather difficult search … it’s unclear whether CM companies will mature into massive conglomerates like Time Warner.”

    Well, it’s certainly clear now. Facebook, Google, and their peers are among the most powerful and well-capitalized companies in the world, and they got that way by doing one thing very well: Capturing the attention of billions of us. That gives them a near monopoly on digital distribution, which they’ve leveraged into a near monopoly on digital advertising. In the process, these tech platforms have eliminated the traditional role of publishers as a proxy for audience interest and engagement. I used to believe this trend spelled the end of high-quality independent media brands – indeed, it’s why I didn’t start a media brand after selling Federated back in 2013. But media models are always evolving, and I now see a new way forward. To understand that, we must first review where we stand today. And to do that, we must examine arbitrage.

    The Arbitrage 

    If I were writing a sequel to “The Search” focused solely on how digital media models have shifted in the past 15 years,  I’d probably title it “The Arb.”

    It would not be a pretty story. In the past ten years, audience arbitrage has become a dominant model of the digital media business. It’s an awful business practice that erodes trust, devalues media brands, and dilutes the importance of marketing. What follows is a bit of a rant, but hell, you’re still reading at this point, so refill your glass, and let’s get to it.

    The dictionary definition of arbitrage is “the simultaneous buying and selling of securities, currency, or commodities in different markets or in derivative forms in order to take advantage of differing prices for the same asset.”

    In media, the asset being arbitraged is audience attention. The arbitrageurs are publishers. Their enablers are the major tech platforms, fueled by dollars from advertisers.

    Here’s how it works. A big publisher like Buzzfeed or Cheddar sells a million-dollar advertising deal to a marketing brand. The media company guarantees the marketer’s message will collect a certain number of audience impressions or views, charging the marketer a “cost per thousand” for those impressions. (Known as “CPM,” cost per thousand pricing ranges widely, from a few pennies to $25-40 for “premium” placements). Utilizing a Packaged Goods media model, the publisher might fulfill those impressions on its “owned and operated” properties, but over the past ten years, doing so  has accrued significant drawbacks. The top three:

    • It’s expensive. Acquiring and retaining audiences on a media company’s own property is often far more costly than finding those same audiences on an at-scale platform like Facebook or Google.
    • It lacks sophisticated targeting. In the past decade, marketers have grown accustomed to the data-rich precision of large platforms. They don’t want to pay for just any old Buzzfeed or Cheddar audience member. They want their messaging to reach exactly the target they specify, and most publishers don’t have either the technology or the audience scale to fulfill the data-driven demands of modern marketers.
    • It forces extra work on the marketer. I am not the first, nor will I be the last to note that marketers and agencies don’t like to do extra work. While plenty of larger publishers have built high-quality advertising solutions on their owned and operated channels, marketers view these point solutions as  just one more channel they have to manage, analyze, and report on. It’s just So Much Easier to buy Facebook, after all.

    Because of all this and more, publishers have become audience buyers on Facebook, Google, and other networks. Enterprising publishers began packaging their own content with marketing messages from their sponsors, then they got busy promoting that bundle to audiences on Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube, among others.

    This is where “the arb” comes in: The publisher will charge the marketer, say, a $15 CPM, but acquire their audiences on Facebook for $7, clearing an $8 profit on every thousand impressions.

    You might ask why the platforms or the marketers don’t put a stop to this practice, and you’d be right to ask. But consider the economic incentives, and things get a bit more clear. The platforms are getting paid for what they do all day long: the delivery of precise audience impressions at scale. As far as platforms are concerned, the media brands are just advertisers in different dress.  Over the years, Facebook and Google have even accommodated the arbitrage by connecting all parties directly through their advertising technology systems.

    OK, so the platforms get paid to deliver audiences to marketers on behalf of media companies, but why on earth do the marketers put up with being arb’d? Couldn’t they just pay the same $7 CPM directly to Facebook, eliminate the middle man, and save the $8 spread?

    Well, indeed they can, and in most cases when it comes to buying audience on Facebook or Google, that’s exactly what they do. But remember my comments about context way up toward the top of this article? Some marketers still believe that the context of a media brand can help their messaging perform better, and they’re not wrong in that belief.  So they’ll pay a bit more to have their messaging associated with what they believe is quality editorial. And if that media brand does the work of acquiring that audience for them, so much the better – that’s less work for the marketer to do.

    But let me be clear: arbitrage sucks. Arbitrage is only lucrative in markets with imperfect information. It’s usually a great strategy in the early stages of a new ecosystem, when media buyers are less familiar with how advertising technology works. As those buyers get smarter, they start to squeeze the media company’s margins, devaluing content and context, and pressing ever closer to the price they could get directly from the platform. A good example is Demand Media – a company that, a decade ago, managed to insert itself between Google’s search algorithms and an advertiser’s desire to be associated with content around a particular topic. Demand pulled off a billion-dollar IPO based on creating advertiser-friendly “content farms” around popular Google searches. But advertisers figured out the arb, and Demand’s once billion-dollar valuation fell more than twenty fold in the past five years.  A similar fate has befallen the once high-flying arbitrageurs  of social media. Cheddar, Vice, BuzzFeed, and many others all played the game, but over time, markets will root out an arb. (Cheddar was smart enough to sell before its arb was uncovered – but it sold at a fraction of the sky-high valuations its peers once held).

    But wait, one might ask – aren’t the media companies adding true value? What about that context, which makes a marketer’s message more relevant and engaging? Isn’t that worth something?

    It certainly is, but this is where the lack of transparency around ad buying on platforms comes into play. Audience buying is cloaked in opacity – the major platforms are deeply invested in making sure no one truly understands how attention is priced. That means a media company buying audience on Facebook or Google will always be at an informational disadvantage – exposing them to a new kind of arbitrage, one executed by the platform’s own algorithms and benefiting the platform’s bottom line. Again, arbitrage works best in markets with asymmetric information features – and informational asymmetry is built into how Platforms operate. Over the past five or so years, most major media companies have come to realize they’re the ones being gamed.

    Audience arbitrage on platforms has even more destructive attributes. Because media buyers have outsourced their audience acquisition to either the media company or the platform itself, the marketer becomes disconnected from the context of its audience. Millions of impressions are scattered across millions of tiny content bundles, all of which are lost in a sea of endless posts on nearly every imaginable topic. The context and meaning that holds all brands together is lost.  Media companies, pressed by ever-thinning margins, will cut corners, buying “junk traffic” or worse, creating junk content that titillates or tricks audiences into false engagement. On the surface, boxes get checked, audiences get served, impressions get logged. But over time, editorial content deteriorates, deep relationships between brands and audiences attenuate, and the media ecosystem begins to fail.

    So what can be done about it?

    Well, at The Recount we’re exploring a way forward, through a brand new partnership we’re launching on Twitter this month. We’re calling it “Real-Time Recount,” and in the next installment of this post (I’m pushing 2500 words here, after all), I’ll explain more about the theory of the case behind it. For now, you can read more about what we’re doing in this Ad Age piece (paywalled, alas), or over on Fred’s blog. Thanks for coming along, and I look forward to the conversation I hope this will spark.

    Image: http://shop.drywellart.com/product/bourbon-empty-glass-print
     
  • feedwordpress 15:32:15 on 2020/04/06 Permalink
    Tags: , , journalism, , ,   

    An Open Letter To American Corporations: It’s Good Business (and Smart Marketing) To Support Quality Journalism 


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    Brands and journalism need each other.

    “Outbreaks have sparked riots and propelled public-health innovations, prefigured revolutions and redrawn maps.” The New Yorker, April 2020

    “Nothing will be the same.” 

    That’s the overwhelming takeaway I’ve heard from dozens of conversations I’ve had with C-suite leaders, physicians, policy experts and media professionals these past few weeks. 

    When it comes to the business practices of large corporations, there’s no time to debate whether or when things might return to normal. If corporations truly stand for something – and nearly all of them claim to nowadays –  the time to prove it is right now, as the crisis deepens and consumers look to corporations to step up and lead. Companies that wait this crisis out will learn – quickly – that once loyal customers will readily turn to competitors who made it a priority to be in service during this extraordinary moment.

    Communicating that message of service means marketing. With that in mind, here’s a list of fundamental truths given today’s media landscape:

    • Context matters more than ever. Every customer is consumed with understanding the threat and implications of the pandemic. High quality, trusted information is critical.
    • Given this new context, marketing messaging can and must shift toward communicating how a company is adding value to society and its customers. Companies must recognize the severity of our times – brand messaging becomes serious and information dense. 
    • The majority of global marketers have frozen or cancelled their marketing plans, and all are struggling to identify and roll out relevant new messaging.  
    • When those messages are ready, marketers will find that traditional vehicles for messaging have shrunk or disappeared, or seem frivolous and out of context. No NBA or MLB, no Olympics, no live entertainment, and most advertising-driven television production has been suspended. 
    • Stuck inside and online, consumers are glued to news outlets, and have retreated to streaming video for escape – and the lion’s share of those services are ad free. Those with advertising models (Pluto, Roku, etc) have previously been viewed as nascent and unproven. This will change, but at present the connected TV sector lacks the inventory to satisfy the marketing needs of the world’s biggest brands.
    • Pushing context-driven marketing messaging on audience-driven services like Instagram or Facebook Newsfeed will come across as tone deaf. Again, context is now king. Where can serious, service-driven marketing messaging find the right context?   

    Turns out, there is a massive media channel that lives in a serious and information-dense context every minute of every day. This channel has nearly unlimited inventory, deep and consistent consumer engagement, and is eager for partnership with brand marketers.

    This channel is called news. And if marketers are smart, they’ll realize that running their messaging in high quality news channels isn’t just good business, it’s good for society as well.

    For decades, marketers have been eschewing journalism as a serious marketing channel, claiming that brands can’t be built adjacent to coverage of plane crashes, natural disasters, politics, or other staples of the news business. This misguided philosophy has led marketing agencies to create massive blacklists of terms like “Trump,” “guns,” and now, “COVID.” These lists direct tens of billions in programmatic advertising away from local and national news outlets, and toward “safer” channels like live sports on television and Facebook or YouTube online.  

    But it’s time for that to change. Perhaps the most important element of society’s response to the global pandemic lies in the curation and communication of high quality information, and calling that truth to those in power. Who but journalists will hold the governor of Georgia to account for mistruths, or the President of the United States? This has always been the role of journalism – and despite decades of declining revenues, most news outlets are rising to the challenge. Traffic and engagement to news channels has skyrocketed since the COVID outbreak – at The Recount*, we’ve seen spikes of up to 10-20 times our normal viewership. 

    It’s time for brands to rethink news as a marketing channel. This doesn’t mean brands should abandon their metrics of success – but forward thinking leaders in the industry have already proven that news channels can offer more engaged and receptive audiences. A friend and industry leading marketer (who prefers to not be named) has led the way in this regard, investing at least one in three of his media dollars in news channels last year. He tells me that not only are news audiences influential and affluent, they are five times more likely to recall advertising than general audiences, and six times more likely to engage with ads when they recall them.

    Right now, we need more leaders like him to step up and support the news business. And it’s not just good business: journalists are keeping people informed at one of the most important and perilous times of our history. As our finest corporations bend to the work of finding ways to be in service to their customers, they can and should partner with the one media channel that has been committed to serve the public since its inception: Journalism. 

    ###

    *Yes, this post can be seen as self serving, and I’m fine with that. I’m convinced that the thesis is sound regardless of my position at Recount Media.

     

     

     
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