The Four Opportunities of 2010

December 21, 2009

It's Twenty-TenEverybody goes though it, the process of grieving. My most recent experience was the death of Allie, and while I don't look forward to the next time I must grieve, at least I know I can get through it. Grieving is a process, I learned. There's no way to shortcut it. You can't go around it, above it, or below it; you must go "through" it, and that means surrendering to the process.

Modernist media institutions are grieving, and in my discussions with leaders and groups, I think we've advanced up the ladder created by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance) and are now in a position to do something about it. Acceptance is the final stage of grieving, and I think we've arrived. Oh there's still a lot of bargaining going on — case in point: Rupert's war of words with Google — but the people I regularly hang with seem to have gotten past that.

So what's ahead? What will 2010 bring?

Firstly, I think we'll climb out of this nonsense of calling the year by its numerical name and finally usher in the millennium of the Twenties. It'll be "Twenty-Ten," not "Two-Thousand and Ten." But I digress.

Seriously, though, four themes will dominate media growth and development for those in the know in 2010:

  • The news becomes Web-Centric
  • Data is our business
  • Personal branding is our urgent task
  • Mobile opportunities lie beyond our content

We simply must understand that advertising is the real disruption that media companies must study. Nearly everything written about disruptions to media is about content, but content is not our business — advertising is our business, and in 2010, that's never been more important to understand.

THE NEWS BECOMES WEB-CENTRIC

The Web must come firstAfter years of playing around with the Web, local media companies will finally shift enough resources and attention to the Web for it to become the central focus of smart newsrooms in 2010. As more and more attention shifts to the Web, we have no choice but to respond or risk downstream irrelevancy.

One of the central tenets of a Web-centric newsroom is that we use the Web to drive traffic to our legacy or "finished" products, whether those are in print, on TV or even on the Web. The Web is one of the most marvelous marketing tools ever created, and its strength is not branding — it's the "call to action" messaging of direct marketing. Once those who run the promotion side of any media company have this revelation, the opportunities will explode.

For example, we know that one of the online traffic spikes for media company properties is late in the afternoon. People are checking in to get caught up on the news before heading home. For TV stations in the past, this has been problematic, for who needs to watch a newscast when you already know what's going on? In a Web-centric news world, however, we use that daypart to give people reasons to tune in when they get home. We never "tease" people online, but we can say things like this:

"When you get home tonight, turn on your TV, because you won't want to miss Jim's interview with Coach Phillips and catch the facial expression when he asks him about T.O."

The whining about "giving away stories to the competition" will give way to excitement coming from the instant feedback of breaking stories online. Good grief, we're "news" organizations, aren't we? We break stories when we have them. It's the only way we can ever be expected to be taken seriously in the only place where it matters, on the Web.

The online audience for news is Monday through Friday, 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. We know this from studying server logs of media companies. It's so important that we've labeled it "the new prime time," and our best effort to meet the needs of this group is to create an ongoing service instead of a finished product. This is the Continuous News model, and it's one that will blossom in 2010.

DATA IS OUR BUSINESS

2010, a year of dataIn the old days of media, advertising was about the mass attention that we could bring to the table. "Attention" is defined by Wikipedia as "the cognitive process of selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment while ignoring other things." Advertisers seek attention, whether it's some form of showing off, as a man often does with a woman; shouting from a stage to a gathered audience; or a big picture of a piece of pie on a restaurant's menu. Our culture is awash in efforts to get attention, so the prize "back in the day" went to who could provide the most attention. For that, people would pay healthy sums, and so mass media prospered.

To control attention, one must control the environment, and that's become a nearly impossible task online. Moreover, technology itself has shifted this control to the user. The pyramid is inverted with the consumer able to decide which messages deserve his or her attention and under what circumstances.

To content-minded media companies, this is a disaster, for the very foundation of our business model is crumbling.

But the biggest, most uncrossable chasm for media companies to overcome is the way technology is able to "steal" whatever captive attention is left. It is theft indeed, and here's how it works:

ESPN, which last year led a small publisher's revolt against third-party ad networks, caters to a sports-minded audience, the kind of which certain advertisers wish to reach. In the old model, such advertisers would have to buy space on ESPN.com in order to sneak into the attention range of its audience. Online advertising, however, is a two-way street, with data about users being captured while an ad sits on a page. This is the way third-party ad networks make money, and it's why ESPN no longer wants anything to do with them. How do they make money? Pay attention.

Let's say you visit the sports page of WWWW.com, which includes an ad from AnyAdServerUSA, what we'll call one of the world's largest third-party ad networks. The ad places a cookie on your computer. Even if you clear cookies every day, they sill have your IP address, because as the ad is being served, information about you is being sent back to the ad server.

Despite what you might think, at core, the Web is a database, and data is the Holy Grail for advertisers. Why? Because advertising is shifting from the mass to the direct. Ad-serving is a two-way street, and that which "comes back" to the ad server has real, tangible value.

Now let's say you're an advertiser who wants to reach people who visit the sports page of WWWW.com. You can either pay for expensive ads with WWWW-TV, or you can go to AnyAdServerUSA and pay pennies for remnant ads anywhere else on their network where people who have previously visited WWWW.com's sports page might appear.

So the property on which the ad is being served is irrelevant; the only thing that matters is the eyeballs viewing it.

In other words, AnyAdServerUSA is serving ads to individuals, based on their behavior, while WWWW-TV is serving ads in context. In this way, AnyAdServerUSA can "steal" WWWW.com's audience, and advertisers don't need to pay a premium to get within the attention range of those who are predisposed to the types of content WWWW-TV creates and serves.

This is one of the reasons CBS Interactive decided this month to join ESPN and others in refusing to accept "most" third-party ad network money. They've admitted it'll cost them in the short term, but they feel they'll benefit in the long run by being able to control rates and by exclusive ownership of the data from their own ad network.

Think other media companies aren't aware of this? Ad agencies and the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) last week announced new voluntary guidelines that restrict, up to a point, what ad agencies and publishers can do with data involving third-party ad networks. Advertisers — and, I assume, ad networks — can't simply repurpose or retarget ads to users of media company sites without negotiating a separate deal with the media company for use of that data. This would seem to be good news for publishers, although I'm not sure how such an arrangement would be policed. Moreover, a publisher's ability to use data gathered through an agency's serving of ads is also restricted, but, again, policing such is problematic. Neither group has any enforcement power anyway, so these "guidelines" are merely that.

It's in Madison Avenue's best interest to keep the ad impressions mill going, because the more uniformity is maintained, the easier it is to make money from afar. Publishers are just beginning to wake up to the realities of what's been going on, and 2010 will be a year when more and more get into the ad-serving business.

Enabling commerce is the real mission of local media these days. In some ways, it's always been that way, but the stakes get higher every day. As the year draws to a close, there's talk of Google acquiring Yelp, the local business review site. This would be in keeping with Google's plans for local revenue, and that's not good for local media. Every dollar a merchant spends on Yelp is a dollar that used to be (and will likely never again) spent with us.

PERSONAL BRANDING IS OUR URGENT TASK

personal brandingAttention is also shifting away from media brands and to the individual people who are employed there. The Web easily facilitates "following" someone, and chances are that such a someone has a Twitter feed and a Facebook account. If you like their work — or simply like them — and it's easy to keep up with their work.

This attention is a two-way street. Individuals must make a case that their friendship or loyalty is worth pursuing before the attention they gather can be monetized in one form or another.

But employees of media companies aren't the only ones who are seeking this kind of attention. Every day, new media stars are being discovered among the vast and flourishing fields of grassroots purveyors of news and information. They can be individuals or teams of people together to "cover" a neighborhood or small community. Make no mistake; these people are known by name, not by their media brand or clever blog title.

I always point to The Huffington Post as the model of personal brands loosely organized. While people may recognize the brand of the group, each writer has his or her own RSS feed. Why? Because Arianna Huffington is a smart cookie and realizes that what's good for the personal brands of those who write for her is good for her as well. And now she's going local, duplicating the model at the local level in select communities.

Personal branding is the "must-do" quest of traditional media in the year 2010. People follow people, as I've often written, and this is especially true in the world of social networking, where each gets to decide who influences them and how.

We create Facebook pages and Twitter feeds for our media companies, and we're pretty good at building a following of fans. But people who "follow" media companies have a different expectation than those who follow individuals, and what do you do if some people like your people but don't like your brand?

We simply must recognize that to really compete in the social space, we must do so at the individual level, and that means growing and nurturing the personal brands of our employers. Go ahead and promote your Facebook page, but spend more time promoting those of your anchors or your writers. Encourage your employees to blog, to define their own brands, and then use the traditional media company to give them a boost.

MOBILE OPPORTUNITIES LIE BEYOND OUR CONTENT

the opportunity is mobileMost observers in the technical world, including the online publications that serve it, suggest that "Mobile" is where "the Web" was ten years ago. Local media companies are acting with it just like we did with the Web back then, and that's Einstein's definition of insanity. Otherwise smart people are advising media companies to dip our toes in Mobile's water but not to contribute a lot of resources to the effort, because it will take awhile for advertising to catch up.

Normally, I would think that's good advice, but not when you consider that Mobile is "like the Web was ten years ago."

Play this game: think back ten years and ask yourself which local business you'd get into based on what you know now? Would you play only the media content game, or would you branch off to some of the services that are really making money today?

That's exactly the choice we have today with Mobile, so why wait for another ten years to pass without moving forward aggressively to pursue enabling commerce on Mobile devices? These are the kinds of investments we need to be making today, not a year from now. Let me repeat: advertising is our business, not content, and to those who see that, Mobile is at the land grab stage.

I love local search, but I love it even more with the geolocation aspects of Mobile. Let's help people looking to buy connect with people looking to sell, not wait until somebody figures out how to do brand messaging adjacent to our Mobile content (I have ideas about that, but let's stay on point). Separating revenue creation from our ability to make content is the most important change we would make, if we could go back ten years and start anew with the Web, and that's precisely what we need to be doing in 2010 with Mobile.

The new world really isn't as complicated as it seems, but it does require us to think and act counterintuitively from time-to-time. That will be the real challenge for managers of media properties in 2010. Will we have the courage to be leaders and move our companies boldly forward, or will we continue to wait and see if somebody else figures it out for us?

Your answer to that question will determine your success in 2010.