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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Successful media leaders are focused on AI, audience and acquisitions

June 15, 2023 | By Damian Radcliffe, Carolyn S. Chambers Professor in Journalism – University of Oregon @damianradcliffe

Last week, over 400 attendees from 43 countries descended upon the Portuguese seaside town of Cascais for the 45th FIPP World Media Congress. They heard from more than 70 international speakers on a range of topics. 

Here are three key themes that caught my eye from among the many insightful talks, demos, and individual conversations that I enjoyed over the course of the event.  

1. It’s all about AI

Not surprisingly, it was impossible to ignore artificial intelligence. AI was mentioned in every session, reflecting AI’s dominance in shaping media strategies and operations, as well as the speed with which it is developing. 

Despite universal interest, media companies and publishers are at different stages of their journey with this technology. 

Jan Thoresen in discussion with Damian Radcliffe at FIPP World Media Congress.
Photo credit: Reidar Hammerfjeld

Bonnie Kintzer, president and CEO of TMB (Trusted Media Brands) explained how the company is “leaning into AI and Machine Learning.” They have set up an internal task force to help understand the risks of AI, as well as identify the best ways to use AI tools to grow their business.

For others, AI is already at the heart of what they do. Jan Thoresen, at Labrador CMS shared how AI was baked into their platform. With an emphasis on productivity and improving workflow, their content management system uses AI to create headlines, metadata, and tags, as well as produce story summaries. 

“We try to make the tech disappear for the journalist,” he said. “Breaking news can´t wait,” he told us, “and you can´t wait for a developer or designer to deliver special effects. The tools have to be at the fingers of your reporters and editors.”

Juan Señor, President of Innovation Media Consulting, outlined what he sees as the transformative power of Generative AI. He predicts this technology will transform digital and create “AI-first” media companies. That may mean that “AI-first” becomes the new “digital-first,” essentially meaning companies prioritize–and seek to tackle challenges, opportunities and processes–with an AI solution at its heart. (FWIW: It’s an approach that Richard Heimann’s book Doing AI cautions against given concerns that companies may have with the solution, rather than the problem they are trying to solve.) 

Aside from AI-generated content (images, text and videos), he anticipates other opportunities for publishers. “AI will never find the news, AI will never find the stories,” he told delegates. In fact, with this technology potentially ushering in a new era of fake news, Señor stressed the value of verification, trust and objectivity; areas he believes that publishers should lean into.

He also cautioned about some of the potential pitfalls. 

“AI will supplant social and search,” he predicts. On that front, he emphasizes the importance of ensuring that publishers protect their IP, especially from scraping by AI tools. Others—such as the music industry—are already further advanced in tackling this issue.

Señor also recommended content creators learn from past mistakes. That means not getting into bed with tech companies on the promise that a revenue model will be worked out down the line. “We cannot rely on someone else’s platform to build our business,“ he cautioned. 

2. Understanding your audience is paramount

Juan Señor
Photo credit Damian Radcliffe

Connecting with your audiences was another thread that ran throughout the event. This is essential not just for acquisition and retention, but also for revenue diversification. 

Dr. Jens Mueffelmann, Executive Chairman of Bonnier, talked about how the company had developed its Marlin property to “move beyond a $10 magazine.” As part of this, he outlined the importance of their multichannel offering and the creation of new income streams under the “umbrella brand” of Marlin Expeditions

This includes large-scale fishing tournaments, several of which featured participants with an average net worth of $10 million, as well as smaller expeditions. The success of these ventures is such that between 2020-2022, media accounted for just over a third (34%) of Marlin’s revenues. Tournaments, in contrast, generated 55% of their revenue. 

As a result, earlier this year, the company created a new structure “built around brands and communities instead of products.” This includes the creation of a new “Marine Division” which oversees all print, digital and broadcast assets in this space, as well as relevant tournaments and expeditions.  As Mueffelmann wrote on LinkedIn, when sharing these developments, “First the vision, then the strategy and now the structure…..as taught in business school.”

At TMB, revenue diversification comes in many forms including advertising, commerce, production and licensing. But the relationship with the audience is integral to many of these efforts. 

Dr. Jens Mueffelmann
Photo credit: Damian Radcliffe

The century-old company’s tagline is “Content. Inspired by You.” Many of its properties rely on audience-generated content. Therefore, it is integral to nurture and nourish those relationships. 

For example, Taste of Home’s recipes are supplied by home cooks. And across their portfolio of brands, more than 350k people submit content ranging from videos to photographs, tips (e.g., Family Handyman) to jokes (Reader’s Digest), and more. 

Relationship management also shapes revenue strategies as well as editorial. TMB’s affiliate revenues are up 72% year-on-year, but all of this content is written by their editors, not PRs or AI. “When you have the trust of your audience you must be careful to preserve that trust,” Kintzer said.

For Kerin O’Conner, Founder and CEO of the consultancy Atlas and a former CEO at Dennis Publishing, a focus on audience means the “customer must sit in the middle of your business model.”

Discussing recurring revenues, O’Conner pointed to the rise of the subscription economy and its implications for media companies. He observed that “subscription income is more consistent than other forms of monetization.” 

Subsequently, media companies should focus on building long-term relationships with subscribers. “We need to be really good at relationships and understanding what we mean to our customers,” he advised. 

3. Acquisitions can be integral for growth 

There are multiple ways to grow your audiences and revenues. However, launching new products and verticals can be fraught with risk—and costs. One idea which emerged in multiple sessions was to reduce these potential pitfalls through partnerships and acquisitions. 

This can take multiple forms. You can, for example, acquire an audience for a day, or even an article. 

Juan Señor, noted the return of micropayments in the form of day passes. “We gave up on them [micropayments]. Now they’re coming back,” he says, outlining how this model can be a means to establish a relationship with audiences.

At the other end of the spectrum, Bonnie Kintzer shared how TMB had acquired LA-based JukIn Media. This enabled them to build their base of user-generated content, manifest in brands like Fail Army and The Pet Collective.

Pet Collective https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VAH-ixdFWFs

In turn, this has led to the creation of new FAST (Free Ad-Supported TV) offerings and expanded TMB’s footprint on different social media channels. And with much of this content also user-generated, it’s also created further revenue opportunities in the form of licensing, as well as ads on their new digital TV channels. 

TMB’s programming delivered over 12 billion minutes of watch time last year on FAST platforms. The company won the “Best Publisher Pivot to TV” category in the 2021 Digiday Awards. 

Acquisition goes beyond acquiring other companies and its online properties. It lies at the heart of growing this part of the business too. To help TMB continue to build their clips library, they have teams around the world (in LA, India and Romania) looking at—and then acquiring—social content. 

Kintzer revealed that the company has paid out over $30 million over the last decade to clip owners. In turn, clips are being licensed by TMB for use in commercials for Cheerios, Huggies, Coca Cola, and others. Deepening this archive also creates more possibilities for streaming, video production and social video, too.

Looking Ahead: interrelated trends to watch

AI will likely continue to dominate the conversation for the next 12 months and beyond. Earlier this year, IAC chairman Barry Diller said that media publishers should sue AI companies to protect their assets. 

At FIPP, Lexie Kirkconnell-Kawana, the new chief executive of Impress UK, an independent press regulator, also emphasized the accuracy of generative AI (and the opportunity this may present for publishers). Alongside this, she also spoke to the challenges of determining copyright and “fair use” that we can expect to see play out in the near future. “We may see a wellspring of copyright regulators emerge in response to this,” she predicted.

Meanwhile, Madeleine White, co-editor-in-chief at B2b site The Audiencers and Head of International at the membership and subscription platform Poool, stressed the continued importance of registration strategies. This can help you get to know your audience and also increases the likelihood of converting visitors into subscribers. Using AI, in the form of a dynamic paywall, with the fashion magazine ELLE, White revealed that free registered members are up to 40x more likely to subscribe.

Lastly, Reid Deramus, Growth PM at Substack, noted how the leveling of the tech-stack had made it easier for small companies to do everything from collect payments (e.g. through Stripe), create good-looking content (with a good CMS) as well as reach audiences through channels like newsletters. 

“It’s never been easier to pick up your iPhone and start your own media business,” he said. Because of this, it’s not just AI that’s a potential threat to publishers. You need to work hard to acquire, keep and develop talented staff. 

“A lot of people who come to Substack felt like they couldn’t be themselves,” he said. To avoid hemorrhaging good people he encouraged companies “to find ways to motivate” some of their top performers. “Give them creative freedom,” he said, “keep them motivated financially… and let them have a seat at the table.” 

The big picture

As we delve into the trends shaping the media landscape of Summer 2023, it becomes clearer than ever that media executives need solid strategies in three key areas: AI, audience, and acquisitions. 

Artificial intelligence is revolutionizing workflows. However, it is also offering a number of IP challenges that we must address. Simultaneously, enhancing your knowledge—and relationship—with audiences is integral for growing subscriptions and reader revenues, including maximizing the relationships you already have. And the art of acquisition can encompass everything from other companies to UGC, as well as creative talent and new audiences. 

Having strategies for these areas in place can help media organizations unlock areas of innovation and growth during a period that promises to be as transformative, and tumultuous, as any in recent memory. 

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