The New EPG: Every Media Company Must Master the Science of Programming

This article was published as a guest post in AllThingsD, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

Web, mobile, and social platforms have created a huge conundrum for media companies: we are experiencing an explosion of content, and yet it is harder than ever to find an audience.

It’s a stark contrast from the glory days, where distribution was fixed and scarce, and all we had to do was put a great product out there! At the time, all content had its own native distribution outlet — a channel on the dial, a spot on the newsstand, a movie theater, video store — that delivered it to the bulk of its audience. That distribution was beautifully limited — there’s only room for 12 channels on a VHS dial, 16 movies at a multiplex, and maybe several thousand titles at video rental stores.

But today, where distribution and consumption are in constant flux. Look at TV. To be truly “Everywhere” these days, a TV show has to be on network, cable, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Facebook, and Amazon, have its own native app in Apple and Android stores — at a minimum — and a presence in Google’s mighty search index.

To succeed today, digital media companies need to get control of their distribution. The opportunity for savvy media companies is to abandon the outdated if-we-build-it-they-will-come mentality, and master the craft and science of programming.

Programming is the skill of matching content to audience. Programming is what built the global TV and film industry from $200 billion to $300 billion in the last decade. If you want to succeed in digital media going forward, programming is everything.

I spent time recently with a friend from CBS and told him about what my company Wetpaint does to program social as a channel:  In short, we deterministically deliver the right content to each audience at the right time. That might mean, for example, a recap of yesterday’s news timed for the morning bus ride, a short-form video clip posted to coincide with a mid-morning coffee break, a gossipy tidbit just as lunch begins. “That may work in entertainment,” he said.  ”But it would never work in breaking news.  In news, everything needs to go out immediately.”

So I did some research, and it turns out he’s wrong. When you look at what our editors consider breaking news within the entertainment category, the vast majority of stories — more than 75 percent — perform better when they’re packaged and presented at another time of day, and not when they first break.

While immediacy became the mandate in the ages of CNN and Google, smart programming is far superior in an age of multiple distribution outlets.

The expertise of digital programming is in its infancy, but some of the secrets for success have emerged. Here are a few:

1. You don’t have one big audience. 

Digital media companies need to know who their audience is and what they like, and then customize their product and pitch accordingly. But convention on the web has been to serve everyone the same thing — and the folly of that is a massive missed opportunity. Instead, understand your value to all your major audience segments. After all, each person you reach thinks of herself as an audience of one.  Meet her where she’s at, and you’ll find your resonance — and performance — will be much greater.

For decades, the National Football League operated on the basic assumption that football is for guys. That conventional wisdom was upended in 2010 when research by the NFL and Nielsen found that more than 40% of the league’s fans were women. (It’s upwards of 44 percent now.) Of course, football fans (both male and female), segment along many lines — and NFL marketers will have to find ways to speak to, sell to and grow all those demographics. But acknowledging women was a huge and lucrative step to grow the league’s opportunity massively.

2. Learn what will resonate. (Hint: In the battle for consumer hearts and minds, heart wins every time.)
Once you know who your customers really are, and can group them by their common interests, the world opens up.  You have the freedom to design new content and experiences to delight them. It doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all any longer; your brand doesn’t have to be watered down to its most basic and neutral. Many brands and publishers struggle for relevance — but once you articulate who your audiences are and understand what they’re interested in, the door is open to all kinds of new conversations. Research, feedback and analytics can help you become expert in each of your audience segments. Then use those insights to grow your brand.

Sticking with the NFL as an example, when the league learned about its popularity with women, it took that finding and ran with it, introducing a new website, ad campaign and product lines — all aimed at the now 80 million women who tune into NFL games each weekend. Female fans rewarded the new attention by dropping millions on NFL apparel, jewelry, nail polish, yoga mats, etc. The league went further and partnered with the American Cancer Society to raise awareness about breast cancer, which explains all the pink flourishes (gloves, socks, wristbands, etc.) on the field and the sidelines these days. This overdue — and heartfelt — outreach strengthened the bond between the NFL and its huge female fan base. The league’s bottom line smiled. In 2012, NFL fans spent $3.2 billion on consumer products.

3. Timing is everything.  
Of course, the most basic element of the art of content programming, one that’s been mastered by the TV networks, is knowing what performs when. Prime time shows don’t work in the mornings; re-runs would squander the huge opportunity of evening viewing. There’s a time for opinion and a slot for hard news, and reversing them tanks performance and tunes out audiences.

But on the web, well, somehow the only rule of thumb our industry seems to know is “the best time to post is now.” And it’s preposterous.

In terms of social, the state of the art sounds better, at least at first:  There are lots of generalizations out there about when to post content: Mornings are better than evenings, Facebook sharing spikes on weekends, tweeting peaks on Fridays. Well that’s all great in theory, since it documents average behavior of average audiences. But the point isn’t to get it right for someone else’s average consumer.  Whether we’re talking about work or play, we all develop our own individual routines and habits. Discovering the personal quirks of your particular audience is a goldmine for programmers.

How powerful is it? Several years ago, a UK content agency called Collective Content was helping a small management firm develop its programming strategy. Traffic to the client’s website waned on weekends. Nothing surprising there. But Collective Content began to notice an uptick in Sunday visits. “Sunday evenings had become the new Monday morning,” wrote Collective Content founder Tony Hallett. “Execs and other managers were getting a jump on the working week. This was a great time to feed their need for information.”

At Wetpaint, we try to time content delivery to the distinct habits of our audiences, which vary from show to show. The very young (13-24) Pretty Little Liars audience likes a fast-paced, high volume content diet, so we serve them fresh stuff all day long. Older (55 percent are over 24) Greys Anatomy fans catch up on new content in the evening, just before they get into TV-viewing mode. So we freshen our Grey’s Anatomy pages late in the day.  If you program according to someone else’s guidelines, all your best shots will miss your target.  Instead, know your audience and you will hit the mark.

4. Like it or not, people judge books by their cover. Design your packaging to resonate.

In pre-digital days, content packaging discussions went like this: How long is the story? Do we need photos or illustrations? Today, fuhgeddaboutit. Digital editors have lots more arrows in the quiver. They can trot out old packaging chestnuts like long-form profiles or Q&As, or they can present content in slideshows, video, audio, polls, quizzes, clickable infographics, Spotify playlists, etc. The packaging options just keep growing — and so does the menu of social media megaphones you can use to trumpet the final product.

Working all those levers in a way that engages your audience and exploits the strengths of each packaging and delivery option is an art and a science. BuzzFeed is one of its master practitioners. In its self-proclaimed rules for “How to Go Viral” (an infographic, of course), Buzzfeed recommends making lists (“9 out of ten Internet lists go viral.”), using quizzes to appeal to user vanity (“People online love talking about themselves.”) and staying relevant. We won’t quibble with the BuzzFeed rulebook. But in our own experience, packaging — like timing and just about everything else — is audience-specific. Fans of Vampire Diaries like to vote, for example; so we give them polls. And it works — to the tune of more than 2,500 ballots cast for Vampire star Nina Dobrev in our sexiest legs poll.

5. Test, test, test – for insights you can use.
If you follow my Digital Quarters blog and Media Success newsletter you know I’m a nut for data. I firmly believe that the only way you can truly know your audience in all its wondrous eccentricity is to embrace testing with a gusto that borders on obsession. (Yes, I am seeing somebody about this.) Every shred of content you produce, from the glossy video to the tiniest tweet, is an opportunity to learn something about the consumers who visit your site. Don’t waste it.

As you generate (via surveys, focus groups or, our favorite, A/B testing) and then sift through the mounds of data, trends will unfailingly emerge. These insights into user preferences help drive programming decisions here at Wetpaint.

Testing tells us that our Bachelor and Bachelorette fans revel in relationship gossip. Stories about dating, cheating, break-ups, pregnancy rumors, etc. perform four times better than episode-related news like recaps or sneak peeks. But within that relationship news subcategory, the two audiences diverge: Bachelorette watchers are scandalmongers. Bachelor fans are sentimentalists. We tailor our content accordingly. Testing has also made us smarter about social media. Facebook posts with photos work best when we’re promoting content for scripted (Grey’s Anatomy) or reality (Bachelor) shows. For breaking news, text-only posts do just fine. If the news is big, words are enough to catch the eye.

6.  The Newsfeed Is the  new EPG – and you must be present to win. 

The greatest opportunity of all in digital media is the chance to be relevant to your audience — not once a day, not on an appointment basis once a week, but minute by minute. To do that means being where your users are at all hours of the day — with exactly the right content at the ready. For consumers, it would be like the “Electronic Program Guide” that we’ve had on TV for the last 20 years – only it would be completely personalized and constantly refreshed. Quel fantasme, n’est-ce pas? 

Lo, there’s an app for that — and it’s the #1 app on every smartphone. Yes, Facebook is the new Electronic Program Guide. Consumers check Facebook many times a day — usually just briefly, sometimes longer — to see “what’s on” in their lives. In fact, 23% of all time spent on smartphones is spent on Facebook mobile apps.

For media companies, the great opportunity here is to cement your relationship with your audience by getting in their network — and then turning up the content they’ll enjoy to whatever frequency interests them. Do it right — with great audience targeting, insight, timing, packaging and testing — and you earn a position at the top of the newsfeed hour after hour, day after day.

Who understands this well in media? Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer talks about building a “daily habit” with consumers. Why not twice a day, or more? That is the power of presence in the feed. And it comes from meeting each member of your audience where she is.

Smart programming is like a good relationship. It requires paying attention, being responsive, trying new things. It’s hard work, but the rewards are enduring — a loyal, ongoing relationship with a growing audience.  And that surely makes it worth the effort.

11 thoughts on “The New EPG: Every Media Company Must Master the Science of Programming

    • All of them. There’s a tremendous amount of data right in Facebook Insights and (or whatever shortener you use) for example. And you can use that with your own Excel or Google Docs to set up, monitor, and assess your own tests. The most important thing is to be deliberate about what you are testing.

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  2. Ben,

    I initially found the following passage confusing, but now I see merit in both you and your CBS friend’s position vis-a-vis asynchronous delivery of entertainment news vs immediate release of breaking news.

    “That may work in entertainment,” he [your friend from CBS] said. ”But it would never work in breaking news. In news, everything needs to go out immediately.”

    So I did some research, and it turns out he’s wrong. When you look at what our editors consider breaking news within the entertainment category, the vast majority of stories — more than 75 percent — perform better when they’re packaged and presented at another time of day, and not when they first break.


    You claim your friend is wrong, but he distinguised between “entertainment” and “breaking news.” Your rebuttal is based on breaking “entertainment” news, but I think he was referring to breaking “hard” news. I agree with your position that the delivery of breaking entertainment news can be de-coupled from its real-time occurrence. But wouldn’t you agree that breaking hard news is too important for people not to be informed as it’s happening? Of course, your friend’s next statement “In news, everything needs to go out immediately,” is too all encompassing and does not square with his reference to breaking news, nor your research into breaking entertainment news. Perhaps that’s the point: Breaking news is too high-priority not to be delivered ASAP. The rest of the news (including entertainment), can be asynchronously delivered according to the interests of specific targeted customers.

    • The media’s patterns around ‘breaking news’ have changed drastically due to cable and internet. While the term may to some still be restricted to “news that really matters,” we’ve gone through a period where being first — about anything — has been found to be critical to draw audience. The result is that cable channels and internet publications treat dozens of stories a day with the banner that signifies top priority. Gene, your comment shows the commingling of the old and new ways of thinking about it. Just because news is breaking – no matter what the category – doesn’t mean it’s truly urgent. A programming strategy that delivers it to audience at the right time pays off better than the bombardment of “everything as soon as possible”; and that’s backed by hard data. Ben

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