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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Audience expectations are critical in DCN’s 2020 vision

January 23, 2020 | By Jason Kint, CEO – DCN @jason_kint

We’ve just returned from our annual summit where a couple hundred senior executives gather in a closed-door meeting to discuss the most pressing issues and exciting opportunities that we, as an industry, have before us. It was my sixth year of having the honor of setting the table to open the executive summit, after more than a dozen years listening from the audience.  

Everyone in the room is a premium publisher – with the exception of a handful of supporting sponsors, speakers, and invited guests. The attendees at the DCN Next: Summit are among the most knowledgeable people in the business of digital media anywhere. It is a daunting task to capture the proper sentiment for the direction of our industry at a gathering of such key leaders. That said, here are the main points from my kickoff remarks this year.  

This new year also marks the start of a new decade, 2020.  

2020. Yes, perfect vision. Optimal focus. As we begin this decade, I believe that DCN’s members are uniquely positioned. As a group focused on creating premium content experiences, we have never lost sight of the importance of our audiences. We’ve remained steadfast in their trust and our direct relationships. 

I see three key facets to this 2020 vision: 

First, we find ourselves rightly renewing our resolution to put the expectations of our audiences first. To meet, to exceed, their expectations. To be their trusted ally. 

Second, we’ve defeated the myth content has to be free and finally defined what it means to be premium. It simply means to have real value worth paying for whether by distributors or consumers. 

Third, given too many years of platform dominance – in which they have indiscriminately hidden the real costs to their services and vacuumed up as much consumer data as possible while, at times abusing trust – we find ourselves in the best position to align with new user expectations. To believe that data is the lifeblood of the Internet is to look past the trust and audience expectations which underpin it now, and in the future.  

Audience first 

Unlike some of those who seek to cravenly capitalize on consumer attention merely to collect data and target ads, we celebrate an unwavering focus on the wants, needs, and expectations of our audiences. The experience across platforms can be rich and elegant. But even more importantly, digital allows us to use multimedia to tell stories in ever more engaging ways, better informing the public – something that has never been more important.  

In this case bringing it altogether, I’d like to point to the brilliant Wall Street Journal report on Google’s ad tech business. It informed a public conversation and made its way not just across the industry but into meetings of regulators investigating Google – this is true impact in journalism

Storytelling at its best 

As technology enables us to better tell our stories, it also becomes more deeply embedded and entwined with every aspect of our audiences’ lives. The New York Times 1619 Project was one amazing example featured at a DCN Storytelling Member Day. It not only brilliantly told the story; it reexamined the legacy of slavery and made its way into other media – not just audio and video but it also found its rightful place in classrooms and libraries as educational material – this is true impact in journalism. 

Revenue revived 

The past couple of years have been particularly promising around subscription-based and other Direct-to-consumer (DTC) models. While ad vendors chase “DTC”, the latest acronym in their alphabet soup, DCN’s members have always focused on direct, trusted relationships with their audiences.  

While concerns have loomed around subscription fatigue, recent DCN research found the opposite. In fact, consumers aren’t even aware how much they are spending on subscription products. (DCN’s research shows an average of $54 per month across 4.3 products). So, it’s clear there’s room for more! And we now see that younger audiences who grew up in digital are willing to pay for satisfying experiences. The DCN research backs this up showing that they see value well beyond their cost. 

As we build our subscription-based offerings, and optimize ad experiences across platforms, we must keep these audience experiences top of mind. We serve neither our audiences, nor advertising partners, if we do any less.  

Video views 

Our members – and the industry as a whole – are seeing a hearty appetite for audio and video content. We see robust revenue around licensing of our content and IP, which also allows us to impact ever widening audiences. This is backed up by a renewed effort to preserve copyright over their art, notably including last year in the EU.  

We are also seeing true diversification in our busiess models.  

Where desktop display eroded over the past years, mobile display has offset it. And other forms of advertising including native, sponsored content and leads have helped drive growth. Video advertising, where inventory can be created, continues to carry the highest price and growth in advertising.  And arguably the most important growth of all, we’re seeing direct audience revenues grow more than 20% per year where content companies are being paid directly for their content recognizing its premium value. 

UBS estimates that a combination of 16 media firms will spend $100 billion to produce content in 2020.  In fact, it has been predicted that more than $35 billion will be spent on streaming video content alone.  And with over 60 media companies among the DCN membership, we know that the total investment will be much higher. And rightly so. Hulu has been investing in premium content for its streaming video platform. So is CBS All Access. Disney+ launched in the last few months with an absolutely gorgeous experience. Peacock will launch in April and then HBO MAX a month later. And those are only a few examples. 

Engaging experiences 

While we continue to monitor the power of platforms, their own investment in content demonstrates that information and entertainment are the lifeblood of social experiences online. And now the platforms are starting to pay for it. No DCN member is surprised that film, television, news, sports and other topics engage audiences and ignite conversation, debate, and discussion across platforms.  

Be it delivered on the big screen, small screens, smart speakers, or the myriad delivery channels in the digital content ecosystem, the work our members do forms a nexus of cultural impact. We have reached new heights of digital storytelling. And, undoubtedly our craft, the art of storytelling, will continue to surprise and delight as its evolution continues in the decade to come. 

And, while we face challenges like broad-swath and blunt keyword blacklisting masquerading as “brand safety” and the ease of data-driven scale, we also see signs that marketers too are shifting their focus to quality contexts and making genuine customer connections.  

Yes, it is “easier” to pull a series of data-driven levers and reach purportedly targeted audiences with generic messaging. However, as a growing number of consumers opt out of advertising and intro tracking prevention, savvy marketers too are reviving the art of storytelling. They have a renewed understanding of the power of delivering compelling messages in trusted, engaging, inspiring environments and an appreciation for the cost to their brand when it’s associated with experiences that abuse customers’ expectations. They see that being part of exceptional experiences creates the kind of cultural resonance and relevance that a click cannot compare to.  

Data diligence 

Don’t get me wrong. Certainly, data is a powerful tool for understanding audiences. It is also critical for storytelling and we see it leveraged in stunning executions to create vivid narratives built on numbers. 

But user expectations around data collection and use are of critical concern. With increasing consumer awareness around data practices online and looming enforcement when they’re abused, we must continue to focus in on what’s best for our audiences and only then for our marketing partners. The ability to micro-target, to force an action with a digital ad is not the same as engaging audiences around trusted content. It is not the way to build long-term customer relationships. 

Fans and friction 

It up to us to keep our customer focus razor sharp as we embark on this 2020 vision. We need to minimize complexity and reduce friction while continuing to innovate and enhance experiences for our audiences. Certainly, challenges abound including news deserts impacting local communities, anti-press rhetoric from none other than our own President which sends dangerous signals globally, and continued platform competition and unequitable marketplace control now under investigation by Congress, FTC, DOJ, states, the EU among others.  

I’m feeling good this year about where things are headed. I’m feeling really good.  And I’m thrilled at the programming lineup we assembled for our annual summit to talk about it.  

What I’ve seen in my time in digital, particularly the years I’ve been fortunate enough to spend on the team at DCN, has taught me is that we are at the forefront of something great here. We are on the frontlines of storytelling and communication. We have the power to shape minds, to touch hearts, to fill the world with laughter and tears. Here’s to 2020 bringing the roar of the crowd as we focus on what matters most: the audiences we serve. 

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