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3 trends that will define media success in 2021

February 8, 2021 | By Chris Hansen, SVP Media and Information Services – 3Pillar Global @3PillarGlobal

Covid-19 hit some sectors of the media industry hard (live sports, concerts and trade shows). The global entertainment and media industry saw its largest revenue decline in more than two decades. However, the pandemic has also presented an opportunity for companies embracing digital strategies that are aligned with consumer trends and expectations. 

Disney, for example, lost over $6 billion in revenue from the closure of its theme parks. But Disney+ reached 50 million subscribers worldwide two years ahead of schedule. In January, Fortune – once just a print magazine – announced its redesigned website, an immersive video hub, and other premium offerings. All of this strongly positioned them strongly to counteract the advertising slump that hit the industry last spring. In October, the company launched Connect, a membership community and online platform for purpose-driven, mid-career professionals. 

Here are three trends we’re likely to see this year: 

1. The relationship with the content consumer matters more than ever. 

Cookies were a convenient crutch. They were the building blocks for digital advertising and helped drive revenue for media companies as they transformed. Now that cookies are nearing their end, some companies are panicking while others are evolving. The ones that succeed will be the ones that focus on creating a continuing relationship with the consumer. This means engaging with them differently, through a soft or hard paywall, or as a curated member experience (e.g. Fortune Connect). This not only preserves advertising, which is a significant source of revenue, but opens the door to new, diversified revenue streams.

The ultimate death of the cookie will turn out to be a blessing for the media industry, even if it creates disruption in the short term. Necessity drives innovation. The cookie’s demise will revamp the way companies post content and interact with their consumers. In 2021, we will see even more innovative media business models that will define the coming decade. 

2. Pandemic-driven changes won’t revert. 

There is no going back, so let’s embrace the change. Let’s highlight some of those changes. In the first 28 days on Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit was watched by 62 million households. No, it didn’t reach M.A.S.H. season finale numbers of 106 million. However, M.A.S.H. aired on a major broadcast network at a time when there were only a few. 

We’ve seen an acceleration in media companies following in Netflix’s footsteps. Peacock is betting on a network show that first aired in 2005 – The Office – to drive premium subscriptions at $5 a month. Who is the largest audience for that show? People who aren’t old enough to have worked in an office. 

Just as the music industry needed to evolve and find new ways to engage and monetize consumers when streaming took off, so must media companies. Experiments bringing what would have been blockbuster movie releases like Mulan, Soul, and Wonder Woman 1984 to Disney+ and HBOMax will forever change, but not completely destroy, the theater industry. (Alamo Drafthouse-like experiences may well be the theater experience of the future). And let’s be clear, the definition of media is evolving. Consider Peloton: a fitness company? Sure. A hardware company? Maybe. A media company? Absolutely.

Successful media companies aren’t embracing a move to digital. They are disrupting their own legacy business models to become digital. Spectator events have become intimate digital experiences. (Think DJ D-Nice spinning to 120,000 live viewers including Diddy, President Joe Biden, and Janet Jackson on IG Live in the early days of the pandemic). 

Sporting events are better with fans in stands. However, sporting experiences can, and should be, complemented with connectivity to the players, drivers and coaches. Leagues have already embraced fantasy sports, but could they openly embrace sports betting? And are there opportunities to connect with online gaming to create a full-surround fan experience, digitally? 

It is critical to focus on the consumer and how they consume and where they consume and providing new ways to consume – directly. This will create new and stronger revenue opportunities.

3. Legacy media companies can succeed. But they have an uphill climb ahead. 

Legacy media companies have the most to gain from transformative change. However, they start at a massive disadvantage compared to new media companies like Complex Networks and Spotify. (Yes, Spotify particularly with the acquisition of podcast content companies such as Gimlet). 

These brands and what they represent have lasting value. However, they demand reinvention with a focus on digital channels, habit-forming digital products, multiple streams of monetization and libraries of content. When Maven bought Sports Illustrated last year, it did so with the intent of “revitalizing and strengthening” the publication for a new era by focusing on technology. 

Past the tipping point

A recent McKinsey report noted that Covid-19 has “pushed companies over the technology tipping point.” Media companies that want to succeed will have to rethink their digital business models in 2021. And they have no time to waste. 

While most software products were once developed on a 6-to-12-month timeline, the pace of change has accelerated. Consumer expectations are far more immediate. But with the right digital product strategy, the media industry could see a game-changing resurgence in 2021. 

About the author

Chris Hansen is senior vice president of 3Pillar Global’s media and information services client service vertical.

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