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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Media companies have been disrupted. Here’s 3 ways they can flip the script

June 22, 2021 | By Chris Hansen, SVP Media and Information Services – 3Pillar Global @3PillarGlobal

There is no question the business model of traditional media companies has been disrupted over the past 10 years. Companies that aren’t experimenting with new, unique premium content experiences risk, at best, being left behind their competitors and, at worse, failing. Diversification is key to building a sustainable business model. But survival is not enough. So, here are three things for media companies to consider as they try not only to survive but to disrupt.

1. Embrace the change

The ad supported business model will never again be the sole salvation of the media business. Digital advertising has become dominated by Google and Facebook. These two tech giants pull in over 60% of all digital advertising spend and over 85% of all new digital advertising revenues. Those are 2019 statistics, so their slice of the pie is undoubtedly even larger today.

Innovative media companies are diversifying and building new revenue streams. They have shifted to creating premium content experiences that drive customer revenue through subscriptions and memberships. Media companies are also leveraging events and ecommerce as a new way of engaging their audience and to increasing revenue streams. With the death of the cookie they have no choice.

Fortune Media is a good example of this new product mindset. Historically, Fortune’s primary consumer product was their magazine. They’ve moved to digital subscriptions and diversified interactive content to grow subscriber revenue such as Fortune Connect, introduced in 2020. Fortune Connect is a combination of self-guided learning, best-in-class journalism and weekly networking events for business leaders. It’s an example of using data to discern customer preferences and create a new and different type of brand experience.

2. New players = new competitors for eyeballs and loyalty

There is a no-holds-barred competition going on for the attention and loyalty of digital customers. There are new and disruptive channels emerging competing for hearts and minds from companies creating unique and interactive experiences to drive subscriptions and brand value.

Take Peloton. They certainly don’t fit the traditional definition of a media company. But don’t let the bike fool you. Their business is subscription-based fitness content, which includes spinning, yoga, bootcamps, and meditation. They spent a reported $103 million on content development in 2019 designed to bind their customers to their platform.

It may not matter whether Peloton considers itself a fitness company, a hardware company, or a media company. However, it should matter a great deal to media companies.  There are a finite set of eyeballs connected to humans. And they’ve got a dwindling amount of expendable time in their day to consume content.

It is all the more urgent that media companies find ways to deliver value that differentiates and builds loyalty.

3. Be nimble and fail fast

The ethos of many technology companies is to accept failure as a consequence of experimentation. Media companies can even celebrate failure (well, practically) – as long it is a part of the journey to success, of course. Digital media publishers should continually explore new monetization strategies to be competitive, even if some efforts don’t work out. If and when companies fail, it’s critical to do so quickly and understand why so that they can try another approach.

I’m a proponent of “failing smart.” Make a data-driven decision, do your customer research, validate product market fit and understand how your product satisfies a customer need. Identify and remediate issues and unforeseen challenges to drive a successful product. Don’t over-analyze and paralyze. Take calculated risks, listen to your customers and react quickly. Embrace the bold but be smart.

Quibi is a high-profile example of a failure I suspect wasn’t data-driven. On paper, the company seemed to have everything required for success. They had proven executive talent, almost $2 billion in funding, blue-chip media company investors, and A-list creative talent. Yet only 500,000 subscribers had signed up by October of 2020, though it’s reported the company had projected 7,000,000 by that date. Clearly the founders vastly overestimated consumer demand and willingness to pay for premium, short-form content.

To avoid these kinds of mistakes — both market fit and product fit — media companies should invest in product market fit research to validate customer needs, as well as invest in data platforming and cloud architecture to continually improve customer experience and build loyalty through deep learning and truly understanding customer preferences. Media companies can create value and new revenue streams by integrating customer-specific data and insights to power differentiated services.

Take action now

I suspect the definition of a media company in 2025 will be substantially different from the media company of 2021. The disruption by non-traditional media companies has already taken root, forcing traditional media companies to adjust quickly. The pandemic has only accelerated the need for change and innovation.  How healthy traditional media companies will be in 2025 depends on actions they take right now.

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