We live in interesting times. And they will only get more interesting if the past year is any guide to what’s ahead. With Donald Trump in office and “fake news” becoming the new “f-word,” there’s a lot to mull in the coming year for publishers. Beyond politics, 2017 was a tough year for those who pivoted to video without a solid strategy, and the “duopoly” of Facebook and Google gobbled up more digital advertising, even as they helped publishers on other fronts. And newer technologies like artificial intelligence and blockchain are going from “good to know” to “need to know.”
Now that the year is coming to an end, let’s look ahead at how the past year’s biggest trends will influence the digital media business in the year ahead.
1. Power of Subscriptions as Trump Bump Continues
By the end of 2016, increased readership and donations to the likes of the New York Times and ProPublica suggested that partisan politics and the non-stop news cycle, for all its distress, were at least helping the bottom line of news publishers. While some subscription-driven and membership-based publications saw a leveling off of that by the middle of the year, it seems helpful to take a macroscopic view of this trend rather than a quick snapshot: The New York Times recently announced that it has more than 3.5 million subscriptions and more than 130 million monthly readers. That’s more than double the audience it had two years prior. While the Gray Lady’s boost can’t speak for everyone — local news still struggles, for example — it suggests that audiences are becoming more used to the fact that they ought to pay for premium content. With AI also becoming more efficient, and Google and Facebook both making efforts to support subscriptions, expect that technological help, including better personalized targeting and performance measuring, will help boost subscriptions and donations even more.
2. Pivot to Reality
For all the hype surrounding pivoting to video, not everyone who invested in the strategy saw its benefits. Perhaps most jarring was Mashable’s fire sale for $50 million. Given Mashable’s $250 million valuation just last year, the sale price serves as a dire warning to other digital darlings. Mashable is now poised to lay off more employees (last year, investment in video justified a round of high-profile layoffs) as it refocuses its brand yet again. BuzzFeed too, has announced layoffs of about 100 employees after revealing it missed its 2017 revenue targets. Vice Media is also expected to miss its revenue target by more than $800 million this year. CNN Digital announced 2017 brought in its highest revenues ever at $370 million —but it faces a $20 million budget shortfall. And let’s not forget the abrupt closure of DNAInfo and Gothamist.
Factoring in that Google and Facebook continue to gobble up digital advertising revenue, many publishers need to diversify revenue streams fast. Digital darlings like BuzzFeed and Vice, not to mention smaller publishers, will have to think beyond native ads. Perhaps the best strategy, as The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson put it, is not to pivot to video or pivot to VC money, but to pivot to readers.
3. A Shifting Regulatory Environment
Net neutrality, that on-again off-again issue, is officially back on after Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, pushed a proposal to repeal it. Even with the announcement that more than a million of the comments submitted to the FCC were fake, the outcome of the net neutrality vote isn’t in doubt as Republicans control the Commission. The new regulatory environment would be a bust for streaming video publishers like Netflix and Amazon Video, and a boon for publishers under the umbrella of the larger telecom companies that will benefit, including AOL, HuffPost, and NBCUniversal. Meanwhile, the AT&T and Time Warner merger — which the U.S. government is trying to block — would inevitably boost HBO, CNN, and TBS if it goes through.
What this amounts to is a huge upending for independent publishers and small businesses used to an even playing field, and the potential bundling of subscriptions and promotions would favor the larger ISPs and telecom companies. Meanwhile, Congress’ clampdown on the technology industry suggests that regulation may also be coming for major tech companies. With opposition on all sides of the regulation debate, expect a topsy-turvy cycle of enforcement — and resistance — in the year ahead.
4. Leveraging AI
Artificial intelligence is often talked about, but little understood. Expect 2018 to be the year publishers take heavier stock in what it can mean for them. Publishers have already turned toward programmatic advertising, and programmatic video has a huge potential to deliver advertising boosts. However, that doesn’t mean publishers can turn a blind eye on issues like ad tech fraud, high programmatic fees, and lack of vendor transparency. Leveraging AI will mean investing more time in quality control.
And while it is the root of many fears, AI doesn’t necessarily mean the complete displacement of humans. Rather, working AI to your advantage can free humans up to do tasks that require much more nuanced attention. Utilizing AI to deliver more meaningful analytics that can help automate repetitive tasks for publishers like social media distribution, for example, or more personalized ad and news targeting, is one way publishers can redirect their energies and consider AI as an aid rather than a threat.
5. The Rise of Audio and Voice
If you’ve visited the websites of The New Yorker or The Atlantic lately, you may have noticed options to “listen” to digital stories. Will others follow? Given the attention on the voice — think of the popularity of podcasts and the mainstreaming and price drops of home speakers like Google Home and Alexa — expect voice-command gear, and more options to listen, to take center stage in 2018.
There’s been a push by tech companies to move into audio, with Google buying the audio curation app 60dB, and Apple recently buying the audio search platform Audiosear.ch and the music recognition app Shazam. Audio publishers are bound to get a huge boost if Google surfaces playable audio clips in its news results, for example. And while some voice-command software may get a lot of flack for “eavesdropping,” the threat to user privacy is likely overblown. With all the new options to listen to voices and startups like Trint and Descript focused on automatic transcription of these voices (which can serve as huge tools for publishers), 2018 may just be the year of the voice.
6. Brand Safety Issues
Brand safety was a huge watchword this year, from fake Russian accounts on Facebook to the discovery Google helped advertisers target people searching racist search terms, to the more recent revelations that YouTubers were reaping huge financial benefits from posting disturbing footage of children. You can expect Facebook, Google, and other platforms to be under the microscope even more in 2018. While many publishers can crow about creating safe curated spaces for advertisers, they too need to watch out for problematic issues when using programmatic ads.
7. The Battle Against Fake News Continues…
The battle against fake news and the filter bubble on platforms may have felt like it reached fever pitch in 2017, but as the weaponization of social media around the world shows, it’s a topic that’s here to stay, especially with the 2018 mid-term elections on the horizon. Google struggles to separate rumor from fact during breaking news, Facebook is at the center of a Rohingya massacre in Myanmar, and the Philippines’ right-wing president Rodrigo Duterte has also been using the platform to undermine opponents — including human rights activists and publishers who leverage Facebook as their main medium of distribution. Plus, Russia’s utilization of “social bots” to influence the outcome of the 2016 U.S. election is the precise reason Google, Facebook, and Twitter had to testify before Congress. With Donald Trump’s recent suggestion that the Access Hollywood audio in which he bragged about sexual assault was fake, expect more scrutiny on fake news in audio and video. The battle is only beginning.
8. The Power of Blockchain
The recent attention on the skyrocketing valuation of Bitcoin may have raised people’s FOMO quotient, but the attention on the technology behind it — blockchain — could have a huge influence on publishers and advertisers. Not only can this cryptocurrency technology allow for efficient monetization of content, but as Daniel Newman writes in Forbes, it has the power to help curtail ongoing issues with ad targeting. “Because the chain is transparent and encrypted, companies can easily determine if the people viewing their ads are members of their targeted audience—or not—saving millions in ad spend each year,” Newman wrote.
Indeed, there are a myriad of ways marketers can leverage blockchain. Publishers too can reap the benefits. A new startup called Civil, for example, looks to leverage blockchain to create a journalism platform free from fake news, advertising and outside influence. Blockchain also has journalists talking about its potential impact on news publishing.
For all its potential, though, blockchain remains confusing to many people, so you can expect a lot of explainers in the new year as interest increases.
It’s been a rough 2017 in many ways, and change is such a constant that it has become a way of life in digital publishing. But we can be sure that as digital advertising has surpassed TV ads for the first time that digital has stopped becoming the “other,” the “nerds in the corner” and has now become the center of publishing. So rather than pout and complain in 2018, it’s time to buckle up, sharpen our focus on new tech, new techniques, and new collaborations and partnerships, so we can make the most of this wild ride.