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Policy / DCN perspectives on policy, law, and legislative news surrounding digital content

Magic wand meets crystal ball: My digital media predictions

February 17, 2022 | By Jason Kint, CEO – DCN @jason_kint

It’s the start of a new year. So, two of the most popular questions I get are: 

“If publishers could wave their magic wand, what would they change about media?”  

“If you look into your crystal ball, what do you see for the future of publishers?”  

You may be surprised to hear this, but I don’t own a magic wand or a crystal ball, although I’d find either quite satisfying.  Despite my lack of magic tools, I do have predictions about the future: Publishers have never been closer to having many of their key needs being addressed in the market. I see a steady march towards meaningful change. And now, publishers only need to maintain the drive to follow through on what they’ve wished for.

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Market power of the “gatekeepers”  

On both sides of the Atlantic, legislation is emerging that limits the potential for, and real abuse of, market power. This will specifically impact “gatekeepers” like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple. The EU’s Digital Markets Act, which is expected to pass by summer, will put heightened obligations and constraints on gatekeepers. Meanwhile in DC, antitrust reform legislation has gained serious bipartisan momentum. 

In particular, two bills are front and center: the American Innovation and Choice Online Act and the Open App Markets Act. These seek to limit platforms “preferencing” – highlighting or promoting – their own products and services, whether in advertising or content discovery and limit app stores in their ability to capture unfair profits. For many years, DCN has played a leading role in documenting the clear imbalance in market power. And now, for the first time, DCN has chosen to endorse legislation in our support of these two bills.  

Prediction #1: By the end of 2022, we will have the first laws passed that limit gatekeepers from abusing their market power.  

The emperor has no clothes  

Years ago, Facebook taught the market that it couldn’t be trusted as a business partner. And it has reinforced this fact again and again and again and yet again.

These days, most publishers treat Facebook as any other marketing channel in which the business value needs to be proved – it’s no longer the new, sexy test bed for marketing ideas. Of late, we see this in the lackluster performance of long-form video on IGTV, causing Facebook to once again pivot to short-form video with Reels. Long gone are the days in which Facebook would say “jump at this shiny new object” and publishers would respond “Yes! How high?”  

Through various lawsuits, Google finds itself in a similar situation. Publishers are finding out that the promises made by Google’s external ambassadors often differ wildly from the company’s internal ambitions. We see this in many ways, from how it conducts advertising auctions to its abuse of consumer data or the way it positioned Accelerate Mobile Pages (AMP). DCN recently surveyed our members to understand their thoughts on AMP and learned that more than half were re-evaluating their use and expect to stop participating because it significantly under-delivered on the revenue and promised value by Google.  

Prediction #2: Google and Facebook feel significant pressure for the first time to truly appease publishers through their commercial deals.   

Value of direct relationships with consumers and advertisers      

Facebook’s record one-quarter-of-a-trillion-dollar stock drop last week should signal optimism for publishers. There is significant movement in technology and public policy to align the value of data and attention with the sites and apps we trust — and actually choose to use. The downturn in Facebook’s fortunes is a sign that their core surveillance advertising business model no longer passes muster. 

Apple has played a leading role by cutting out much of the tracking done by companies with which consumers aren’t even interacting. This move led to a reduction in Facebook’s revenue expectations by $10 billion, a whopping number that represents more than half of our membership’s annual advertising revenues.  

Counter to the sky-is-falling-rhetoric posited by Facebook and Google’s trade bodies, this advertising investment won’t just “vanish into thin air.” Expect further market realignment as regulators flex in the EU and as California’s new law comes into enforcement in January 2023.  

Prediction #3: By 2023, the tracking of consumers and the use of third-party data to target them will have changed significantly under the pressure of legislation, lawsuits, and consumer preferences. 

Premium means premium  

We’ve long established that brands are proxies for trust and, in turn, value for both consumers and advertisers. As the advertising market continues to accelerate away from the 2020 slowdown, there is a noticeable shift appearing – validated in our DCN Benchmark Report – towards premium environments where advertisers can create desire and demand for their products. Often this entails instructing their agencies to be more focused on where their ads appear, a strong advantage for professional media over user-generated content.  

Additionally, consumers are speaking with their wallets louder than ever. DCN members are setting new highs for subscriptions across the board – from streaming services to news brands and from local to international. And as our Gen Z research showed, the kids are alright and more likely to put their money behind services that speak to their own values.   

Prediction #4: Although 2020-21 was an atypical growth period for subscriptions, expect steady growth in 2022 and beyond.  

The future we deserve 

If I did indeed wield a magic wand, I would curb data collection and limit it to the services people actually choose to use. I would also wave away the fear of giant gatekeepers, triggered by the sense that we can’t avoid them. They are not unassailable. What we see in terms of policy and public sentiment suggests exactly the opposite. 

Right now, the battle for a competitive, thriving, and plural publisher ecosystem sits at the integration of data and competition policy. For media brands to retain value and ensure that their news and entertainment isn’t seen as an interchangeable commodity, we must continue to push against unscrupulous data collection. 

Predictions and pressure prevail over magic. I see the power of the progress that has been made from the growing alignment of concerns globally and the education of those charged with regulating and policy making and maybe more importantly consumers and advertisers seeking out the trusted brands of the future.