Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
Regular readers know that I love Facebook, and that I think they are well on their way to building what could be the largest media business ever created.
That said, one of their recent advertising offerings – Reach Generator – has struck me with incredible irony. Lots of other people have already noted the paradox in its most basic form: after Facebook sells you a cost-per-fan acquisition program, they then sell you a cost-per-fan reach program to reach the very same fans you’ve already paid for.
But what’s a publisher to do? The average brand reaches only 16% of its fans, and Facebook controls the aperture of the fire hose.
So should you pay up?
Not unless you’ve tried everything to relate to your audience organically. The most social publishers have demonstrated reach above and beyond Reach Generator’s promised 75%, simply by understanding how social distribution works and then systematizing it. That’s right – it’s better than the paid offering, and better than that, it’s free!
That’s the great irony here: for brands, Facebook Reach Generator doesn’t give you anything you couldn’t get yourself – if you think of yourself as a publisher, know your audience well, have meaningful content, and a strong audience development system. These will take investment from brands and publishers, but that investment is absolutely critical anyway. (After all, content is turning out to be the currency of connection on the social operating system). Indeed, every brand that wants to connect to its audience on the social web MUST master the new skills of content programming and audience development. It isn’t as simple as just hiring a great agency – it’s about knowing your audience and delivering great content that fits your relationship with them.
The alternative? Pay Facebook to force less relevant content on your audience. Think of Facebook Reach Generator as a tax paid by lazy brand managers – get the results without the effort. But it sure will be expensive.
This article was published as a guest post at PaidContent, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.
Media companies have collectively spent billions of dollars on content management systems. As they upgraded their offline businesses to the digital world, they turned to big enterprise systems to organize their content in an orderly digital database. And whether via internal systems or a purchased system, each piece of content knows its place, and the digital migration of media is a fait accompli.
But after so much investment in such important systems, why are media companies still miles away from a profitable model? In part, it’s because these intricately designed systems have been based on one big misunderstanding: that a media company’s most valuable asset is content.
Content is just a means to an end. The end – and media’s greatest asset – is audience.
Advertisers don’t pay to reach content – they pay to reach audience. And building an audience that will earn you advertising is only partly about content. In truth, just as much hinges on distribution. If your delightful content can’t find and catch the attention of your audience, the value of your content drops to zero. If a tree falls in a forest…
Media companies over the last 10 years have invested in an enormously expensive card catalog, while spending only pennies to bring people into the library. The big opportunity with digital media is not to organize your content closet or have efficient workflow – it’s about driving demand and building an audience using digital channels and all of the rich data that comes with them. That’s the way to use systems to multiply the topline, not just streamline the expense line.
Other industries made the leap a decade ago. The ERP category boomed as manufacturing companies’ inventory tracking systems evolved to fully manage and even stoke demand, with the realization that driving sales is far more valuable than just knowing what you’ve got in the back room.
The time has come for companies to step up from tracking data to driving results. And over the last 24 months, huge advances in technology have enabled us to not just capture, but harness, data. The next generation of CMS won’t be CMS 2.0. The technology that powers media companies going forward will be ADS: audience development systems. And it will help media companies that use it multiply their topline and improve their offering to their audience.
What does it take to add the last, most important part to your systems? Here are five steps every content manager needs to take to make the shift:
1. Manage across the many channels of distribution.
Stop thinking it’s just “the web.” Today’s web is composed of myriad channels: Google’s search index, Facebook’s news feeds, Twitter’s tweets, and YouTube’s video marketplace, not to mention pins and tumbles. Each of those channels is more than a dumping ground – it’s a pipeline that, if well optimized, can deliver compounding results for your audience. The TV networks have recognized this for decades: they carefully arrange lead-in and lead-out to maximize audience compounding. Now every content publisher has the opportunity to maximize channels this way – alas, their CMS isn’t built for that. Shift your systems to be oriented around the channels, not the asset.
2. Adjust the focus from audience to individual.
The idea of publishing once for “the audience” is absurd today. In the past, we didn’t have the ability to see the “I” in audience. Today, technology enables us to connect with individual users, and to actually get to know them. Showing the same featured article that you showed me last time I visited your home page is a waste of precious attention. Your users expect better, and you should too. A CMS that knows and exploits the differences between you and me will dramatically enhance the value of any media company’s content.
3. Use abundant user data to know what works.
Thanks to the social rewiring of the web, Big Data technology, and real-time analytics, data is available to provide feedback and allow programming on all major channels in real-time. Everyone recognizes the incredible audience-building potential of behavioral data, but most companies still don’t know how to leverage it. It’s time to measure not just what you publish, but who interacts with it – and how. Use that data to know what content works for what audience, and what audience works for what content. Personalization is the future of media – and it starts with data.
4. Make your systems look forward, not back.
The CMS model of the web is retrospective: it’s a trackling log of content, created, edited, and published once and forever, set on a URL and then forgotten. But today’s web prizes relevance – and relevance right now – above all else. Past performance should impact all your actions – in real time. Predicting, programming, and optimizing your distribution can multiply your ROI on content by many times.
5. Fully socialize your distribution.
According to comScore, audiences are spending 1 in every 5 minutes of their online lives on social networks. Social will soon surpass search to become the #1 traffic source to companies’ websites. It’s not what’s published to the web that matters, anymore – it’s what’s published to the newsfeed. A CMS built with Google in mind will soon become irrelevant, while one built to optimize social distribution can capture growth to the tune of many millions of users.
Digital distribution, when done right, can have a multiplicative effect: a great piece of content delivered to the right person at the right time in the right package is worth 10x that same content paired with the wrong (or non-existent) distribution strategy. A company that can fully incorporate social, real time, data, channels and personalization into their distribution strategy will dramatically enhance the value of their offering by developing a loyal audience relationship.
You heard it here first: the Audience Development System will be the killer app for web companies in the next five years.
“Content is king” has been a long-lived mantra of media. And in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was true.
But over the last several years, the Internet has upheaved the aphorism.
It used to be that media was linear. And in that world, content and distribution were married. The HBO channel had HBO content. A New York Times subscription bought you New York Times content. And Vogue and Cosmopolitan each month delivered exclusive and proprietary content from … Vogue and Cosmopolitan.
Until the Internet came along. In every single one of the varied businesses the Internet has touched — from commerce to media to communications to payments — there has been one common impact: disaggregation.
Content and distribution have parted
In the case of the hundreds-of-years-old media business, the Internet has fundamentally separated content from distribution. Today I can watch hundreds of South Park and Jon Stewart clips, all without a cable box — on my Apple TV, my Android phone, or YouTube on my desktop.
But wait, South Park and Jon Stewart? Content is king, you say. It’s now even more free to reign, unfettered by distribution channels!
No; because content is no longer enough. Content has always been a means to an end. And the end has always been audience.
Content isn’t the goal. Audience is.
When it comes to the business of media, there’s no question: advertisers don’t pay to reach content. They pay to reach an audience.
What’s the first item in every brief from every advertiser? It’s not Target Content, it’s Target Audience.
Media has been slow to adjust to this new dynamic. Companies have sunk billions into content management systems — using CMS as the cornerstone of their modernization — under the impression that they traffic in content.
But they don’t. They traffic in audience. And how much have they spent on audience development systems? Not much, if any at all.
Now that distribution of content to audience is no longer linear, distribution decisions are suddenly more complicated. And, at the same time, they are immensely more important — and more dynamic — to create the impact media companies are looking for: drawing an audience! Social distribution can outperform search, if you use it wisely. Day-parting your postings can boost post performance by 100 percent or more. Packaging can triple the effectiveness of content in reaching an audience.
And yet, few in media have even begun to optimize these decisions.
Who’s your Chief Audience Officer?
Distribution decisions are just as important as content decisions in building and serving an audience, and yet they are being largely ignored. Everyone has an Editor-In-Chief or a Chief Creative Officer. But how many have a Distributor-In-Chief? Or a Chief Audience Officer? A Head of Digital Programming?
The myopic focus on content over distribution is widespread, and it’s a bad business decision. It ignores a critical access of leverage, and one of competitive advantage.
The smartest media companies will do three things to take control of their digital opportunity:
1. Put someone in charge of audience development.
Give them latitude to think about the interplay between distribution and content, so that they can marry the two. Like a head of programming for a cable network, they should be tasked to realize the full potential of your digital channels. They should support the delivery of your content, and they should also provide back pressure to your content creators. Don’t merge it into your editorial jobs — that’s too precarious. Make it its own discipline.
2. Adopt an audience development strategy.
There are three basic components you have to master: insights (know your audience segments, and what each one will like); channel selection (identify the highest value distribution outlets for your brand, whether it’s search, social, YouTube, Hulu, or your own channels); and optimization (use data to create a feedback loop and tune your content, packaging, and timing to what works for your audience).
3. Systematize it.
You have sunk millions into content management systems. But how much have you spent on your most monetizable asset, your audience? You should be as systematic in audience development as you are in content creation, if not more so. Whether it’s with established processes or dedicated algorithms, make audience development a competitive advantage. Get so good at it that you truly know how to maximize every piece of content you create — and multiply your ROI. Use technology for what it does best: Systematize your advantages over your competitors.
With the rise of new distribution platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Hulu, there’s no question that the next generation of digital media is as much about distribution as it is about content. Media companies that orient their organizations to prize audience development above all (with distribution as a key component) will catch the upside of these tectonic shifts. And they will be the ones that survive and thrive in the digital age. After all, audience is the ruler of media companies’ fortunes.