Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
This post was originally as a contributed piece to Fortune. It is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
Tech’s top firms — from Apple and Google to Amazon and Netflix — are vying to reshape media with different game plans. Here’s what they each need to know.
Digital media has the power to change the world. Actually mastering this 21st century business (and art) is unbelievably hard, however. That begs the question: The top media companies all know they need to make changes — but how do they find the right change and execute well? Let’s look at this question through the lens of six key players in the digital media revolution.
Apple (AAPL): Transform the rest of our digital experience.
It may seem arrogant to give advice to the one company that has surprised everyone again and again by being light years ahead of the industry — as well as the consumer. Yet, in a new era of leadership, the most important thing for Apple will be holding on to Jobs’ core values and strength. As corporate leaders go, Jobs was always the best change agent on the planet, and he was never willing to accept the status quo. That’s why Apple is a perennial leader when it comes to devices and distribution for premium media content like music and movies.
The Apple crew must extend its golden touch to the rest of the digital media device world. It’s time to supply the living room with a first-class TV experience; and to seamlessly flow all entertainment between the mobile, iPad, TV, and desktop worlds. AirPlay, iCloud, and AppleTV aren’t all the way there yet. Apple’s next challenge is to make devices that leap forward and bring entertainment and applications wherever I am, and to know me as one person across all of these environments. To do so — and to do so well — will take a huge imagination. And, even without Jobs himself, it’s clear that if anyone can do it, it’s still Apple.
Facebook: Be everywhere the consumer is.
More than any other company on the Web — even Apple — Facebook has changed the nature of digital experiences. It’s already established itself as the dominant social operating system for consumer audiences. And yet it has the potential to go much, much farther. If you need more proof, just this month Facebook announced that it will be facilitating the spread of mobile applications, not to mention linking into them — finally bridging the gap between Web and app. It’s invading Apple iOS’ and Google Android’s territory, providing the cross-application linkages that have always unequivocally been the job of an operating system.
Increasingly, Facebook has the opportunity to wire consumers, applications, data and devices together. But for Facebook to do this, Mark Zuckerberg will need the kind of imagination that Steve Jobs had. Indeed, Zuckerberg will have to imagine a whole new ecosystem, this time one where Facebook facilitates all connectivity. He’s proven he can execute already. But can he take on a vision this big?
Google (GOOG): “What got you here won’t get you there.”
This trademark phrase from Wetpaint COO Rob Grady is particularly apt in Google’s case. Google is the undisputed king of finding answers to questions — as long as they’re being asked from desktop and laptop computers. But when it comes to applying its great search strength to mobile environments, tablet devices and communications, Google is still lost. While the Android operating system is clearly one of the winners, it doesn’t give Google the essential financial success in mobile that it has on the desktop. Google needs to reinvent itself. It needs to make a bold “burn-the-bridges” move, adopting a Reed Hastings-like philosophy that the company cannot rely on search alone. Only, in Google’s case, it’s even harder.
Here’s why: Hastings had already clearly identified the next wave’s product at Netflix (NFLX) — streaming video over the Internet — but Google has to find a new vision altogether. This is not to say that Google needs to exit the search market by any means. But, instead, it must reinvent its own search portfolio, the way Intel (INTC) reinvented the microprocessor generation after generation, always allowing its newest chip to put the last one out of business, before the competition did. Indeed, Intel’s sustained success was built, in part, on destroying what worked and replacing it with something that worked even better. Google’s new vision should surely have three components: mobile, search and social. The good news is that, thanks to Android, Google already has A+ platforms to build on the first two.
But search needs to get beyond the query box, and the mobile device can be more than a phone plus PDA. Google’s challenge — and its opportunity — is to reinvent it as a completely connected device that is woven into the fabric of daily living. It should know where I am, who I’m with, and what I’m doing — or at least have some educated guesses. It should make the next interface leap that helps us leave the thumbs behind. And, it should be a digital companion that picks up on environmental cues and helps me live my digital life. Siri has opened our imagination; but Google has amazing voice recognition, algorithmic and platform strength to accomplish these things. Now it sorely needs to understand people. That’s the most pressing — and most problematic — task for Larry Page and his team in 2012.
Amazon (AMZN): Fully bridge digital media and commerce.
If Facebook is the ultimate platform for social connectivity, it’s pretty clear that Amazon should be the ultimate platform for media and commerce. Amazon has already made amazing progress in redefining itself. It started as a bookseller, became a retailer, began representing other retailers and, most importantly, has morphed into a media and device company. And, as if that’s not enough, its Web Services power tons of other companies that make the Internet fascinating.
That said, a scattershot approach won’t help Amazon become the single defining platform that bridges digital media and commerce. Amazon has tremendous assets in its catalogue, in terms of both physical and digital goods. And it also has devices that give it a unique channel to the consumer — for the time being, at least. But to fulfill its true potential, Amazon needs to extend its platform all the way to commercial transactions, wherever they happen.
Beyond digital goods, Amazon should be working on digital currency and customer management; an acquisition of Square would be a tremendous accelerator here, and it would ultimately help Jeff Bezos and his team power transactions wherever in the world they take place. What Facebook is to our social transactions, Amazon should be to our commercial ones — an OS for commerce. Indeed, Amazon has the opportunity to provide OpenTable-like services, for all commerce, not just for the restaurant industry. It’s already got the goods and the customer relationships. <ow it just needs the focus on the bigger opportunity.
Yahoo (YHOO): Decide what the brand really stands for.
On one hand, Yahoo is the most impressive all-digital media company there is. It has tremendous access to a huge audience of consumers, a broad product portfolio, an unrivaled heritage as a first-generation superstar and a unique reach into Asia. And yet, it’s also the most disappointing digital media company in the marketplace, so much so that its brand increasingly stands for nothing in particular to most of its audience.
Of late, attention has been focused on Yahoo from a financial point of view. But whoever eventually buys the company must look beyond integration, splitting and cost cutting. Instead, the acquirer will have to figure out what to do with Yahoo’s core. And it all comes down to one key question: What can Yahoo provide to its audience to earn their attention every day?
To date, the hook has been email. Yahoo Mail is responsible for about 75% of Yahoo’s media traffic. But Yahoo Mail isn’t growing. In the last year, it shrank slightly (<1 %), according to data from comScore. So, for Yahoo, the choices are to innovate in communication to leapfrog Gmail, Skype, and the lot; or else to do the hard work and start figuring out again what Yahoo really stands for. The company has great roots. It has a natural brand for serendipitous discovery, for fun and interesting news to make your day. The bottom line is that Yahoo should be able to execute on both the options listed above, hopefully without waiting for the financial dust to settle.
Washington Post (WPO): Re-inventing media’s most ravaged category.
If we had to name the most ravaged sector of media, it would certainly have to be newspapers. Don Graham recently said the industry is “collapsing.” But, he’s not just watching it happen; he’s actively and energetically intervening. I’ve been incredibly impressed by the way Graham and his team are up for re-inventing the category, especially as I’ve talked to other organizations that are nearly paralyzed. Instead, WaPo is applying the greatest growth trend of the Internet — social media — to its business. With its inordinately valuable and trusted brand at stake in the Washington Post, the risks are clearly high. Rather than acting out of fear, Don and his Chief Digital Officer, Vijay Ravindran, are taking aggressive advantage of opportunities to engage, grow and retain their core audience. At the same time, they’re downshifting to the younger audience that just isn’t buying newspapers. The Washington Post Social Reader is the flagship example, and it’s a bold move to jump ahead of the consumer and create a new experience for people that they didn’t know they needed, all on the social Web. [Full disclosure: My company Wetpaint works with the Post.]
We will see other awesome and amazing talents emerge in digital media over the next decade. These greats-in-the-making will help build on the staggering changes that technological change has wrought.
A couple of weeks ago, here in Seattle, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion about the future of SEO (search engine optimization) and SMO (social media optimization), along with one of the top SEO experts in the world: Rand Fishkin. The conversation was a lively one, moderated and reported –by Curt Woodward, at Xconomy.
My view is that – particularly for media – we are at a tipping moment. The web is no longer a field of static documents navigated by a precise search engine. Instead it’s a living organic distribution machine from person to person, through the ether of “social operating systems” like Facebook and Twitter. And, as a result, I expect Google will be losing ground to Facebook.
It’s was a lively and fun dialogue.
I have a question for Jonathan Tasini, who is leading a $105 million lawsuit on behalf of thousands of uncompensated bloggers against The Huffington Post.
If you and your litigious colleagues are so good, so valuable, and so organized, why don’t you launch your own online media venture to out-compete HuffPo?
I’m sure you have your reasons – and, of course, initiating a lawsuit is so much easier than starting a digital publishing site from scratch.
But, let’s get real.
Blogging isn’t free-lancing, and it’s hard to imagine that any of the contributors who sent their material to HuffPo ever thought it was. As I wrote several weeks ago, every contributor knew the basis of the transaction: write what you have to say in exchange for being publicized. As always, the prime currency of blogging was fame – not fortune.
So who’s trying to cash in now?
On a broader, more global note: I feel sad for the desperate bloggers who are trying to shake down HuffPo; and I’m deeply sensitive to the fact that the media world is under pressure and steadily shrinking. But Tasini and his fellow litigants look like starving dogs scrapping for a shred of meat. It’s unseemly and unproductive.
Will Tasini respresent a class action suit against Endemol on behalf of all American Idol contestants, who were totally exploited as they sought super-stardom?
Or will he represent the tens of millions of users in a suit against Facebook, for advertising against their status and Farmville activities?
Both legal moves would make for entertaining blog posts, and I look forward to the juicy reading!
One of the supreme ironies in digital publishing today is that there’s infinite online space, and a desire to read rich and substantive content on mobile devices such as the iPhone or iPad; and yet, there’s still limited long-form multimedia journalism available on the Web.
That’s the subject of a fascinating feature in The New York Times by David Carr.
Always incisive, David focuses on The Atavist, which he describes as “a tiny curio of a business that looks for new ways to present long-form content for the digital age. All the richness of the Web — links to more information, videos, casts of characters — is right there in an app displaying an article, but with a swipe of the finger, the presentation reverts to clean text that can be scrolled by merely tilting the device.”
Since January, The Atavist has had over 40,000 downloads of its app; and it’s also begun conversations with publishers about the possibility of adding nonfiction books to the eclectic mix of stories it now presents.
This nascent success reinforces what I’ve been saying for a long time – give people an enhanced digital content experience, something that’s very special, and they’ll be willing to pay for it.
Good luck to The Atavist, which has the right business model, and the best of reading to all of us.
Early reports are in confirming the results of Google’s index changes. Yahoo’s Luke Beatty says two-thirds of Associated Content pages have lost traffic, while I’ve heard that total volume declines from Google search have reached 70% on some properties.
For sites like eHow and About.com, which get somewhere between 65%-70% of their traffic from search, the concentrated risk exposure that comes from Google engineers changing the algorithm makes for an unstable and uncontrollable business model.
Never in the history of media has there been such a precarious model for distribution, and the bad decision by SEO-focused sites to try and build a relationship with an algorithm looks worse and worse. The SEO-focused sites kowtow to the algorithm’s desires, as best as they can interpret them. They game their moves internally, based on what they think the algorithm wants, not what the customer wants. And they rely on the white hats, as well as all of the blackest hats they can stomach, just to please the algorithm.
But, unfortunately, the algorithm is capricious and unreliable.
What these companies should do is form relationships with consumers.
That means providing consumers what they want – and where they want it, which increasingly means in their Facebook or Twitter feed, and on their mobile phone.
In the end, this is the only way to create great experiences that are branded in the consumer’s mind today.
My advice, then, is simple.
SEO slaves, rise up – and revolt! Throw out the false God of the search algorithm and, in its place, focus on building valuable content and experiences. Win the audience, not the search.
Tim Armstrong, AOL’s CEO, has rebooted AOL with a talk-track of branded destinations, A-level journalism and sizzling original content; and early Monday morning, a full week before Valentine’s Day, his romantic media vision was considerably enhanced, when Arianna Huffington announced that she was selling Huffington Post to AOL for $300 million in cash and $15 million in stock.
For the record, that’s quite a premium price – 10 x Huffington Post’s $31 million in revenues.
Despite the cost, however, Armstrong is a very lucky man, and he received a wonderful gift from Huffington, whose hugely successful and much-talked-about Web site is a perfect match that helps “complete” AOL.
Indeed, the relationship between Armstrong and Huffington comes not a minute too soon for AOL, which is finally bringing on real creative assets and talent – including Arianna Huffington, herself, as chief editorial taste-maker.
To be honest, the media industry has been wondering whether Armstrong could actually pull off a deal like this. (True Confession: I’ve been among the doubters.)
And there’s good reason for the skepticism.
The problem, in large part, has been strategic. Since he assumed the CEO’s post, Armstrong has talked with clarity about his vision for an AOL made up of destination media brands, the way Time Inc. and Conde Nast have built their portfolios. But to date, his build-out of this city on a hill has fallen short. Instead of buildings gilded with leading journalism that attracts fame and eyeballs, his properties have largely been constructed by plumbers and mechanics laying a foundation for search engine rankings.
That’s why AOL’s recently leaked master plan, “The AOL Way,” is heavily oriented toward users’ search queries. The playbook emphasizes volume of content, page-views per post, and production cost per-piece. And, while “The AOL Way” is punctuated by periodic reminders like “quality content at scale,” the reader of the plan is left with the distinct impression that quality is a guardrail, not a compass direction for the journey to ROI nirvana.
Indeed, without a voice or a purpose other than page-views, “The AOL Way” comes off as soulless. Instead of emphasizing audience interests, an editorial point of view, or premium differentiation, it’s a volume strategy: the plan calls for the number of stories to jump from 33,000 to 55,000 a month; with median performance to go from 1,512 page-views per article to 7,000 within the quarter; all while gross margins rocket from 35 percent to 50 percent.
This Google-ingratiating strategy, at least from my perspective, is wrong-headed and short-sighted. It doesn’t do anything to help build a unique and long-lasting brand that is meaningful for audiences. And, as a result, it does very little to encourage people to eagerly and voluntarily type “AOL.com” into their browser’s destination bar. With this playbook, consumers don’t go to AOL; they merely end up there.
There’s a solid lesson here for all of us.
AOL – like everybody else in the media business – is clearly jealous of Facebook’s gravity-defying results. But it takes time for a proper media brand to achieve such stratospheric numbers. The great brands – The New York Times, ESPN, CNN, Wall Street Journal – have shown us that you build audience loyalty one positive interaction, one ambitious story, and one rich consumer experience at a time. To be sure, Huffington Post has shown us that, building its audience to a reported 25 million uniques over a well-paced five years.
So, it doesn’t happen overnight, and it certainly doesn’t happen if you’re just playing for quick search engine results.
Looking forward, it will be interesting to see whether Huffington – a savvy and independent thought leader who has always leaned forward – chooses to embrace “The AOL Way.”
My sense is that she will continue to follow her well-honed consumer-focused instincts instead. She brings a strong point of view, a decidedly human nose for news, and a variety of social strategies for distribution – not to mention her considerable star power. And that’s a good thing for AOL.
It’s important to recognize Armstrong’s considerable achievements. He saw that AOL’s subscription model was a non-starter; he chose areas of core content concentration for AOL; and, unlike Yahoo!, for example, he pared AOL’s portfolio quite dramatically.
But the pre-Valentine’s Day courtship and consummation with Huffington will mean very little in the consumer marketplace if Armstrong doesn’t get rid of his seemingly unshakable Google obsession – and very soon.
Here’s hoping that Arianna can help nurture Tim’s AOL, and turn it into a true media destination.
There are plenty of naysayers who point out that Rupert Murdoch’s new initiative The Daily — the first major-media publication created expressly for tablet computers like the iPad — is an expensive and risky bet.
But here are four reasons why Rupert is right:
1) Rupert knows the ad model of publishing is doomed. Print and broadcast command the heftiest premiums, and both are at risk of price and volume erosion as consumers cut their ties to offline media. In the digital environment, online advertising is highly commoditized: the explosion of content publishers is outpacing the shift in demand, while technologies target audience ever more efficiently. Advertisers have plentiful ways to reach a consumer.
For his part, Rupert knows that his offline publications are at risk from decreasing ad revenues, and web-advertising models are hardly an adequate solution. Whether it’s out of desperation or vision, Rupert is willing to break through — and lose money in the short term — in pursuit of a better model.
2) Rupert can afford a long-shot bet — and can’t afford not to make one. He’s leveraging his considerable influence by putting something out there that can be truly cutting-edge. A $30 million investment may seem ridiculous for a new publication — and it is. But even with that hefty price tag, this is an insignificant bet relative to the industry and consumer behavior Rupert is trying to move. Throwing money at this is OK, because the possibilities are so great; if The Daily succeeds — or even provides the key insights so his next venture can succeed — it will be worth billions.
3) Rupert has influence to change consumer and industry behavior. He beat his drum loudly last year to get paywalls on the agendas of other publishers’ boardrooms. And it’s worked; just look at The New York Times’ pending move to a metered system. This is what I love about Rupert: Unlike other leaders in publishing, he uses his voice — and his treasury — to influence the industry and consumer behavior. He’s all about trying to get to a more successful model.
4) Rupert has a friend in Steve. Steve Jobs has a lot riding on this, too. Is Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) in the device business or the media business? To date, the lion’s share of its revenue and growth has come from the sales of ever-more-advanced devices. But as device categories mature, Jobs knows growth will get harder to come by: iPod sales grew at just 2% for Apple in 2010, as the venerable device line nears saturation.
In a world where mobile devices are ubiquitous and fiercely competitive, the fat margins of media revenue-share arrangements can powerfully fuel profits. But even more attractive is the tremendous expanse of the pool: Apple’s media revenues are currently around $5 billion — a paltry sum compared to the global media and entertainment market that PricewaterhouseCoopers pegs at $1.3 trillion.
Apple has already proven that in its remarkably successful closed media ecosystem, the company’s store can earn an estimated 30% of the top-line for media sales — without having to produce any media. This happens when Apple creates compelling devices, exciting user-experience platforms, and fresh marketplaces. For Steve, the upside here is huge. And so he should be happy to tie that upside with anyone who is as crazy-aggressive as he is about getting legions of consumers in the habit of paying for media. And that list has just one name on it: Rupert Murdoch.
A fresh start and a new division — with a new concept and a new design for a new platform — is the only way someone like Rupert can have the freedom he needs to reinvent media for a new age. And only Rupert can do this — without falling into the ruts of compatibility with existing businesses or holdover assumptions from old models.
Kudos to Mr. Murdoch for summoning up the courage, and putting up the money.