While evergreen issues around trust and a focus on the audience experience peppered the first in-person DCN Next: Summit since 2020, emerging opportunities – and concerns – around generative AI were also focal at the event. Held at the Fort Lauderdale beachfront Conrad Hotel, the 2023 summit hosted a wide range of speakers from inside and outside the DCN membership to discuss the business and future of media, brand mission, omnichannel strategy, consumer preferences, and the impact of the challenging economic and regulatory climate.
Surveying the regulatory landscape
DCN CEO Jason Kint kicked off the event with a focus on current key regulatory issues that impact digital media. He emphasized that the focus must remain on aligning content experiences, advertising behavior, and data usage with consumer expectations. He also looked at the current state of antitrust regulation.
As Kat Downs Mulder, SVP and GM of Yahoo News put it: media brands have a responsibility, in asking consumers for their information through sign-ons, “to be protective of our asks and thoughtful about what we request.”
Kint’s points were hammered home by Shoshana Zuboff, Harvard Business School professor and author of the book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. Zuboff delineated the history of privacy erosion leading to tech companies’ engagement in a “secret massive scale extraction of human data” and how regulation is a driving factor in reining it in.
The current drive towards antitrust and reining in the dominance a few players have over the ad market was a focal point for Utah Republican Senator Mike Lee, who addressed attendees via Zoom. He discussed a bill he is reintroducing “in a few weeks with bipartisan support,” which is designed to restore and protect competition in digital advertising and improve advertising transparency.
“Unfortunately, big tech behemoths like Google have inserted themselves as middlemen into this relationship, extracting monopoly rents not just on their own properties, but from every corner of the entire internet ecosystem.”
How brand focus empowers growth
The impact of emerging regulation is far from the only challenge media executives currently face. Speakers touched on inflation, supply chain disruption, European conflict, U.S.-China tensions, the ongoing impact of Covid, climate concerns, labor challenges, the erosion of trust in institutions, and the fight for free speech.
However, Almar Latour, CEO, Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal publisher (pictured at top) said that challenges like these actually drive brands closer to their mission. For his brands, that mission is to go deep with products to provide truth relevant to different aspects of the business world, he added. This strategy is one he believes will lead to subscription growth.
Producing great products consumers love and return to over and over is indeed a driving factor in subscription strategy, as illustrated in a discussion between Julia Beizer, Bloomberg Media CEO and chief digital officer and Mulder. She noted that consumers value connecting with authoritative voices in brand podcasts and newsletters.
Indeed, building an infrastructure on the foundation of staying true to one’s brand is key to success, according to Bonin Bough, Group Black co-founder and chief strategy officer.
Brand, however, is not some vague marketing tool. Scott Mills, BET president and CEO said that maximizing brand requires a comprehensive data-driven ecosystem encompassing linear, streaming, and digital platforms.
Advocating for truth and accuracy
Maximizing brand value requires providing consumers with a source of much-needed, trustworthy information – particularly when others seek to tamp it down and create a void that is often filled with dis- or misinformation.
Addressing Florida’s Department of Education rejection of the AP African American History course, Mills noted that such actions will “drive us to allocate more of our resources or more of our attention to ensuring that our community—and people who value and respect our community—have access to accurate information.”
Clearly, the need for accurate information is a global one, though journalistic approaches and press freedoms vary widely. In his work as the manager for East and Southern Africa at the organization Journalists for Human Rights, Dr. Siyabulela Mandela has found that offering training to local journalists not only empowers them, but helps their work better serve local communities. He said that improving journalism’s role of providing checks to those in power is critical at a time when “there seems to be a shift from more democratic ways of doing things towards more totalitarian ways.”
Mandela advocates for an approach that enables Western journalists to reframe stories in East and Southern Africa and the Middle East with a more contextual focus on human rights by leveraging his organization’s local knowledge base. He favors the idea of a collaborative exchange program for mutual training with journalists from East and Southern Africa. Each, he pointed out, has much to learn from each other.
Evolving with the times
In addition to providing content that continues to address the needs of audiences, speakers discussed how innovation in storytelling provides creative and impactful ways to engage and inform audiences.
For Emblematic founder and CEO Nonny de la Pena, that means finding new ways to use virtual reality. Nicknamed “the godmother of VR” de la Pena illustrated techniques and showed behind the scenes insights into how some of the most powerful VR stories have been created. However, despite her enthusiasm, she said that given the fact that creators of misinformation often leverage powerful tech, it is essential to establish immutable provenance for footage to make it difficult to manipulate.
Encompassing non-traditional strategies to engage new audiences requires portfolio diversification, noted Alice McKown, publisher and CRO of The Atlantic. While the company has digitized its entire archive of 30,000 articles from its 165 years, it also has expanded efforts into creating new ways to leverage its IP, including immersive art exhibits, video, podcasts, book publishing, and events.
The National Geographic also has instituted strategies to evolve with the times while staying true to the brand’s core attributes. The magazine still attracts a relatively small, but incredibly loyal following, according to editor-in-chief Nathan Lump. These days, however, National Geographic brand reaches millions of people via social media, the National Geographic Channel on Disney Plus, virtual reality, live events, a travel business, consumer products, books.
Given the many ways that the brand now reaches audiences, Lump pointed out that National Geographic is the biggest it’s ever been in its 135 years. National Geographic boasts 714 million global followers across the major social platforms alone.
For The New York Times, Chief Growth Officer, Hannah Yang told the audience that its impressive subscription growth is achieved through three well-defined missions: a subscription growth mission to meet financial goals; consumer-facing mission offering desired options such as games and cooking; and platform mission to ensure that all parts of the business have the technology and data perspective they need to thrive.
“There’s never been a better time to monetize audiences,” noted Alex Michael, managing director of LionTree Group. He stressed the value of omnichannel strategy and bundling while discussing the investment opportunities his company is leaning into this year.
The power of omnichannel was echoed by a number of speakers, including board member Robin Thurston, Outside Interactive founder and CEO. He said, “The concept of single sign-on omnichannel helps connect the dots and create value.”
Richard Plepler, founder, EDEN Productions and former HBO chairman and CEO, reminded attendees of something he’s advocated for many years: quality over quantity. “More is not better; only better is better. I am not of the belief that tonnage gets you more subscribers – what gets you more subscribers is when brands deliver on their promise.”
As DCN members map out strategies for 2023, innovation and audience focus remain constant. However, to win amidst contemporary challenges developing a seamless omnichannel strategy, while staying to brand mission, will be key to attracting new consumers and retaining existing ones.