Relationships matter. As humans, we diverge from acting out of self-interest to accommodate the people with whom we have relationships. This might mean little things like saying “thank you” or holding the door open for the person behind you. It could be bigger things like buying a birthday gift for a friend or helping a neighbor in need.
People make sacrifices every day for those they care about. And, in any kind of relationship, there is some level of accountability. If I am jerk to a grocery store clerk, the five minutes during checkout could be really awkward or that person might decide to double-charge me for an item. Being rude to my server is not likely to speed up my dinner order. If I’m inconsiderate of my wife, I will probably be miserable until I make amends. These sorts of simple relationship dynamics play out hundreds of times every day.
The relationship business
Commercial relationships have similar dynamics. From my perch at DCN, I see premium publishers working hard every day to earn the trust and loyalty of consumers. News organizations employ journalists, who investigate and check facts, and editors, who vet content and ensure rigorous standards are followed. If they mislead, they can be held accountable by under libel laws. If they fail to engage and inform, they lose traffic and advertisers or subscribers.
Movie companies hire directors and actors to create humor, drama, or horror to entertain consumers. If they don’t do so, their movies fail to draw at the box office, they command lower fees for other distribution channels. They lose money.
Whether it’s weather, health, sports, or financial information, publishers in every vertical and across every medium work hard to create quality, compelling consumer experiences. In all of these cases, the publisher’s brand is closely tied to the content because the publisher is trying to build a relationship. And, as with any successful relationship, trust and accountability are key to developing a deeper commercial relationship with people as well.
Some of the currently pressing public policy issues have arisen in areas where there is little accountability to consumers. One big example is Section 230. It was enacted into law in 1996, as part of the Communications Decency Act, when the burgeoning tech industry was a darling of all politicians. Things have changed dramatically since those halcyon days with multiple members on both sides of the aisle introducing legislation to overhaul or eliminate Section 230.
Ironically, Section 230 was intended to empower platform companies to take responsibility. Instead, this liability shield tends to be used mostly by companies who can’t or won’t take full responsibility for their services. Tech companies tend to use Section 230 to avoid taking action. Backpage was one of the highest profile examples. However, Facebook regularly invokes the legal protections to avoid responsibility for the toxic content flowing across its services.
It’s not a coincidence that news organizations are far less reliant on Section 230 than platforms, because they stand behind their content. Content is their calling card and if customers reject it, that relationship is over.
Consumer privacy is a hot topic these days because there are big tech companies building profiles about consumers behind the scenes with little transparency or accountability. From hyper-targeted advertising to potential discriminatory offerings, consumers are increasingly aware that they are being manipulated and their data is being used for myriad unexpected purposes.
Consumers have generally felt fine about their data being used within the context of a relationship with a company – e.g. ensuring the site or app loads properly on their device, remembering log-in information, or recommending new content. However, when data is used outside of that relationship, consumers react negatively. Hence, the blowback for Facebook around Cambridge Analytica. These public policy spats underscore a key difference between companies that have direct relationships with consumers versus those that are intermediaries. Direct relationships create accountability.
Building business with relationships
Accountability is an inherent part of direct relationships. That said, solid relationships provide opportunity as well.
The most visible sign of the power of direct consumer relationship is the growth of subscriptions. The New York Times and Netflix are notable success stories. However, hundreds of other media brands are finding loyal audiences that are more than willing to pay for premium content.
In addition, publishers with trusted brands are well-positioned to thrive in a world where privacy laws and tech controls increasingly restrict web-wide data surveillance. Whether it’s GDPR in Europe, CCPA and CPRA in California, or the handful of other states that are actively considering privacy laws, policymakers are trying to give consumers greater control. They seek to prevent the kind of unexpected data harvesting that happens outside of a consumer’s relationship with a company.
At the same time, key companies are rolling out privacy-friendly features. Apple built Intelligent Tracking Prevention (ITP) into Safari and is preparing to unveil App Tracking Transparency (ATT). Both are designed to crack down on companies following consumers everywhere they go online. However, they do allow for tracking within a consumer’s direct relationship with a company.
Google announced that Chrome would follow the lead of every other major browser in blocking third-party cookies. To be clear, there are a lot of suspicions about whether Google might try to give itself preferential treatment here. But, at its core, it looks like a positive move toward consumer privacy.
Companies with direct, trusted relationships have an opportunity. This window of opportunity, especially for news providers, could not come at a more important time for publishers — and for our society. The news industry has taken a beating in the last decade or so as intermediaries aggregated publishers’ content and retargeted audiences. Big tech platforms incentivized scale over trust. On top of that, there has been a raging debate about the impact of platform-driven disinformation and algorithmic bias on our democracy.
Well-paid lobbyists for some big tech companies are actively working to deflect accountability. However, publishers are embracing the direct, trusted relationships (and the ensuing accountability) they enjoy with consumers. News organizations continue to produce and stand behind quality journalism – researched, fact-checked and vetted. Local news publishers are leaning into what has always made them unique – critical context and deep understanding – to serve their communities.
Strong relationships are built on open, honest, accountability. They are built on trust. For quality media brands, this is nothing but good news.