With audiences widely dispersed among mobile and social apps – and, soon, virtual reality and augmented reality experiences– publishers who want to thrive must both follow consumers where they want to go and meet them on their own terms.
These were a couple of the themes that emerged from the wide-ranging conversations at Digital Content Next’s annual members-only Summit 2016 in Miami. DCN members met to explore content and business models given that consumption patterns are constantly changing, many consumers are actively avoiding advertising, and digital intermediaries are extracting much of the value out of the publishing economy. Speakers and attendees talked about changing their relationship with programmatic ad marketplaces, seeking alternative sources of revenue from subscriptions and memberships, and aggressively pursuing revenue diversification.
In his opening remarks, DCN CEO Jason Kint noted that although the Interactive Advertising Bureau recently celebrated the milestone of $50 billion in revenue generated by online advertising, more than 50% of the revenue currently goes to two companies: Google and Facebook, with premium publishers collectively garnering about 15%.
“Most of the money doesn’t actually get into your pocket to pay for the professional content, the entertainment and journalism you all do,” Kint said. DCN’s mission is “to make sure the next $50 billion is different.”
Premium publishers need to build on the trust and reputation they enjoy, rather than fighting with consumers over their use of ad blockers, Kint said, pointing out that a blockers are a symptom of consumer dissatisfaction. Smart publishers need to look at the opportunity “in the growth of this audience that is looking for content on new terms.”
“It’s a symptom of a bad user experience – users taking action on their own,” agreed Justen Fox, senior product manager for revenue products at Vox Media. Consumers are weary of pop-up and pop-under ads, not to mention advertising that contains malware. He finds that the use of ad blockers is higher with social and referral traffic, undermining audience acquisition, and said it’s also higher with returning visitors to Vox’s websites. If publishers and advertisers fail to clean up their act, the problem will keep getting worse, he said.
“Focusing on the user experience is actually the long-term solution,” Fox said. However, no publisher can do it alone because consumer impressions are formed by the experience they get across all media sites.
Sarah Frank, executive producer of Now This News, said that killing their website and forgetting about SEO is the best decision they ever made. It gave them the mandate to create content experiences optimized for different social channels so that consumers have a great experience wherever they find Now This content.
Marketers take action
Meanwhile, marketers seeking to distinguish themselves from the bad actors in digital media are increasingly creating their own content to build positive customer relationships—with or without the help of publishers.
“We’re trying to figure out, how we stop interrupting the content and become the content,” said Laura Henderson, global head of content and media monetization at Mondelez International.
Her group has gone as far as to decide the content it creates ought to be good enough to make money on its own merits. One of the products from this division of Kraft Foods, the Oreo Twist, Lick, Dunk mobile game, made back 2.5 times the money spent to produce it, with about 5 billion virtual Oreo cookies dunked, Henderson said.
Like publishers, marketers “feel the pain of ad blocking, of our content being skipped, blocked, avoided at all costs – which means we need to figure out a new way,” she said.
Katrina Craigwell, director of global content and programming at GE, leads a team dedicated to connecting with lovers of science and technology on any medium or platform where they can be found. These content creators compare themselves less with their traditional industrial competitors than with media sites that create engaging tech content, be it the SyFy Channel or the people at NASA who produced the “7 Minutes of Terror” Mars lander video.
Asked if she had any use for publishers now that GE can publish its own content, Craigwell said she looks for partners who know how to tell a great story or can help the firm figure out an approach to emerging formats, such as virtual reality.
Building brand strength
Many of the discussions of how publishers adapted concerned how they preserve their brand value while adapting to new business and content delivery models. The Onion Chief Operating Officer Kurt Mueller said that is something the satire site has had to be careful about with its experiments in native advertising: content is sponsored by advertisers but produced by the editorial staff.
The challenge is readers expect a certain attitude from Onion content, “and if we don’t give it to them, it comes off really badly for both us and the brand. You’re just creating ads if it’s not authentic to what you are,” Mueller said.
Laura Evans, VP of audience development and data science at Scripps Networks Interactive pointed out that data offers an excellent way to understand customer preferences, which can be leveraged to create better experiences. The goal, said Evans, is to “turn a visitor into a brand loyalist.”
As Membership Economy author, Robbie Kellman Baxter put it, “you need to love your customer more than your product” in order to create a positive relationship that will last a lifetime. And, as DCN CEO Kint pointed out in his opening remarks, “No business has succeeded, long term, without giving its customers a great experience.”
David F. Carr is a writer, editor, web consultant, and student of digital business. He is a Forbes contributor, a former InformationWeek Editor-at-Large, and the author of Social Collaboration for Dummies.