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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

The end of attention means the start of something better

February 26, 2018 | By Michael D. Silberman, SVP Strategy—Piano @msilberman

The digital media business is finally making the shift from attention to user engagement. We see users as individuals rather than sets of eyeballs and focus on winning hearts and minds. This is a huge, ultimately positive change that will produce a much healthier media ecosystem. But it’s not going to be easy. It requires new technology, new marketing and product skills, and most importantly a change in mindset from content-first to customer-first. That means moving away from some very entrenched habits.

The first 20 years of the consumer internet, especially in media, have been almost entirely about aggregating audience. Sites seek to attract millions, often tens of millions, occasionally hundreds of millions of people, with all those eyeballs “looking” at billions of banner ads. That focus on big, unidentified, often undifferentiated audiences made it possible for media companies to take the existing ad models—based mostly on audience size—and adapt them pretty easily to digital. Yes, there were significant creative and technical challenges in making that shift—learning to create digital stories and to sell and serve digital ads. But fundamentally the model itself didn’t change much.

The relationship with the audience was still largely a one-way, anonymous relationship, despite the new ability to engage directly, to measure behavior and to learn more about that audience. Most media companies were shortsighted, opting to avoid friction-inducing roadblocks like registration in order to maximize unique visitors, pageviews and ad impressions, missing a chance to develop a direct relationship with readers.

The end result: massive harvesting of user data, ad-cluttered sites powered by the ad tech Lumascape, “recommended for you” widgets, ad fraud, and ultimately unhappy, ad blocking users.

Signs of the attention model’s collapse were everywhere in 2017—from Google and Facebook gobbling up most of the ad revenue and virtually all of the growth to Mashable’s fire sale to big ad revenue misses at Buzzfeed and Vice. It became clear that advertising alone is not enough to support quality media.

Finally, media companies are taking action. In November and December alone, The Atlantic, Business Insider, and Wired launched paid products and the New York Times reduced its free story count. More is certainly coming in 2018, especially following Facebook’s pivot away from publishers, and the likely change in publisher audience strategy.

But simply launching a paywall, adding affiliate links or announcing an event series isn’t enough (hello, Buzzfeed). That’s just throwing new revenue streams up against the digital wall like spaghetti. There are four essential elements required for success in the new user-engagement era of digital media: customer knowledge, product strategy, enabling technology and marketing skill.

Let’s dig into each in turn.

Customer knowledge

In the attention era, media companies didn’t need to change their fundamental model. We could still follow an editor-first content strategy—writing about what editors thought was important or interesting. And the ad tech revenue stream didn’t require any understanding of who was reading beyond some basic demographics. Yes, there were audience analytics, paying attention to SEO trends and later social traffic. But the starting point was always what WE thought was interesting. We didn’t truly know our customers. In the user engagement era, understanding the reader (or viewer) has to come first. Whom are we serving? What can we learn about them? What do they need to live their lives, do their jobs or be entertained? Then we can apply editorial and product creativity to serve, surprise and delight them with great products and stories they didn’t know they wanted.

Product strategy

Once you know your customer, developing the right product to serve them takes more than creativity. It also requires focus, experimentation and iteration. In product management terms, it’s “finding product-market fit.” Focus means keeping your eye on the customer you’ve identified when deciding what product ideas to pursue and rejecting ideas that aren’t a fit for those customers. Experimentation and iteration go hand-in-hand. Buildenough of the product to test it with your customers (or at least a few of them), see what works and what doesn’t, and iterate to make changes and improve the product. This method will apply across multiple dimensions of product and business decisions—from editorial and product focus, to features, to pricing. It’s also an ongoing process, continuing even after achieving success.


While there has been a massive investment over the past 20 years in ad tech, there’s been relatively little investment in software and services to understand and engage with users as individuals, to measure behaviors like loyalty and conversion to repeat usage. Driving user engagement and powering consumer-paid content requires a robust technology platform that provides measurement and reporting, customer messaging, content gating rules, entitlements, and payment processing. Moving forward, machine learning will be a powerful tool for anticipating which users are most likely to become loyal and ultimately willing to pay.

Marketing skill

It’s become conventional wisdom among media business observers that—through his often disparaging tweets—President Donald Trump deserves a lot of credit for the recent success driving subscriptions at The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other media companies. The follow-up question is often “What happens when the ‘Trump bump’ fades?” Piano’s CEO, Trevor Kaufman, points out that’s a pretty limiting way to look at it. No one asks, “Will consumers pay for Nike shoes?” the way media pundits ask “Will people pay for journalism?”

The problem is that most media companies don’t know how to think like product marketers. They generally don’t have the skills in house, haven’t got the tools available and aren’t building marketing into their business plans and P&Ls. So, once you understand your customer, create a compelling product they’re willing to pay for and have the technology support. The last element to put in place is the ongoing marketing plan to drive customers through the engagement funnel. Then Google and Facebook transform from behemoths with the power to slash your audience and destroy your business into just another channel for marketing your product.

The ultimate vision is a healthy media market based on true relationships with known customers. For publishers, creating products that meaningfully connect with a loyal audience will unlock multiple revenue opportunities—whether consumer-paid products, events, merchandise sales or even advertising based on that real customer connection.

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