by Ben Elowitz

Maybe the most remarkable thing about 2012 was how unremarkable a year it was for digital media. No dizzying successes or embarrassing blunders. (Well, unless you count Facebook’s lackluster IPO or the Apple maps fail.) But even a mediocre year can produce a few shout-out worthy performances. Here are a handful of digital media players that deserve kudos for their 2012 showing:

Best Job Squeezing Blood from Rocks: Hulu.

The video service gets consumers to actually pay for that which all consumers expect to get for free—and makes itself successful in the process. Great content and a great user experience keep Hulu’s subscription business cranking strong. Now, if only it can survive the departure of CEO Jason Kilar and the animus of its principal owners (Disney, Comcast and NewsCorp) who are, after all, uneasy competitors.

Best Reanimation of a Zombie: Yahoo.
A cultural reboot courtesy of new CEO Marissa Mayer gives the tired portal some speed (up from zero), while a new demand for fast-paced decision-making raises the bar on time to market.  With COO Henrique DeCastro’s focus on the things that will move the needle the most for the company, they have a serious shot of getting some quick success – even if the odds of any massive turnaround like this are inherently long.

Most Dogged: Amazon.
Continually tweaking the Kindle, faithfully chipping away in the video arena. These guys are indefatigable and relentless when it comes to achieving their most important goals. They get a little bit better every quarter, and it compounds to mean the are making a lot of progress.

Most Aggressive: Hubert Burda Media.
Full disclosure: Hubert Burda is a Wetpaint partner, so I’ve gotten to know them closely. But of all the offline-rooted companies I’ve spent time with, Burda is singularly fearless about making a strong and swift transition to digital. They’re not on everyone’s radar here in the U.S., but this $2.5 billion-plus German publishing powerhouse has been aggressive about exploiting not just advertising, but subscription, commerce, licensing and other revenue streams. It’s a smart way to run the portfolio.

Spaghetti Award: Facebook.
Not the best year for the social media giant, with its disappointing stock debut and ongoing monetization crisis. But Facebook gets my Spaghetti Award for its willingness to throw all kinds of monetization ideas at the wall to see what sticks. Think Reach Generator, Promoted Posts, Facebook Exchange, Facebook Gifts, Paid Messages, Sponsored Stories (in user newsfeeds and mobile) and most recently an announcement—then a recall—of its off-property AdSense equivalent. I get tired just listing all those initiatives. Facebook hasn’t abandoned creativity or quality in its quest to monetize. But it has left other initiatives—Open Graph and Social Reader, for example—in limbo. I wonder whether its standing as a platform among publishers, partners and users can recover when Facebook decides to resurrect those priorities down the road.

Give ‘Em What They Didn’t Know They Wanted: Apple.
Duh! Apple continues to rule the industry by seducing consumers with novel experiences. That is Apple’s secret weapon, and it gives them the market power to earn more growth in media than pretty much anyone else out there. Even with the maps debacle and the struggle to manage without Steve Jobs, 2012 unleashed yet another wave of Apple products that wowed consumers and guaranteed their loyalty and—especially compared to Android—downstream spend. There were lots of iPhone5s, iPad Minis, new slimmed-down iPod touches and nanos, and other Apple gizmos sitting under Christmas trees last year.

And As For 2013…

2012 didn’t exactly dazzle, but it didn’t fizzle either. I head into 2013 with an open mind, but here’s what I’m keeping my eye on for next January’s list.

  • Facebook: With search and monetization the clear priorities, will Mark Z put content back on the front burner? A long shot, yes. But if a novel strategy can strengthen connections between users and content they love—and yield better search results in the bargain—the pendulum may start swinging back content’s way.
  • Yahoo: Marissa has Yahoo’s re-animated product groups marching to her techie tunes. Now she needs to reinvigorate Yahoo’s media properties. It won’t be all of them, and they won’t get as much love as search, but to succeed with display advertising, Yahoo needs to invest in its media properties and its users.
  • Magazine and newspaper publishers:  Mobile apps generated modest revenues in 2012. With more app publishers looking for more ways to wow consumers—and charge for it—2013 revenues could take off. Publishers will need to focus on what really hooks consumers and upgrade the experiences they offer, not to mention changing their cost structure.
  • Digital media companies: Will the pure-plays’ platforms perform?  Startups are set up to build structural advantages, not just publish content. When they succeed, the new platforms can be secret weapons of choice for digital success—and not just for the startup. Look for startups to leverage their technical chops into partnerships with major media providers who need some tech magic when it comes to content selection, creation, distribution, audience loyalty and more. For the old giants, most know they can’t build all-new platforms; they need to partner or buy.  The upside for the upstarts? A chance to break into new levels of scale.

 

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