Digital media has experienced a near-constant evolution in consumer behavior, preferences, and expectations over the past couple of decades. And things show no sign of slowing down. Many media companies are not just at a crossroads, they are at a point of no return. How they respond now will likely shape whether they survive or not.
Of course, some media companies have adapted skillfully to these changes. It’s now possible for consumers to watch TV on half a dozen devices whenever and wherever they want (possibly all at the same time if you’re my kid). We can read the news from anywhere, and the news now often comes packaged with games, recipes, communities, podcasts, and even in-person events.
Meanwhile, advertisers can track viewers across platforms, and measure engagement on a deeper level, with more robust data than anything offered in the Nielsen era. Even the programming has changed, as media companies adapt to changing audience preferences.
As media companies continue to evolve and experiment, the challenge is to do this without potentially alienating their customer base. It requires the right mix of innovating with a product mindset to create something new: viewer experience, insights into customer wants and needs, and consumer engagement.
It all starts with product
What do companies need to consider to move the needle? They need to constantly shift with – and shift – consumer expectations. There is a cost in every decision that media companies make, and every action or inaction has consequences.
All of these decisions ladder up to the product itself. Product development never, ever stops, because if it does, it leads to stagnation (and even irrelevance). For example, media companies like National Journal have made their investments to differentiate, not just improve. Category leaders like Netflix, Instagram, and TikTok offer products that look very different today than they did a few years ago because they continued to evolve. They updated to both shift and meet consumer expectations and as a result, have remained the best at what they do.
For media companies looking to follow a similar pattern, there are three key considerations:
- Viewer experience
- Insights into customer wants and needs
- Consumer engagement
Developing cutting edge products requires alignment with users, because every innovation has to improve the experience. Every product must be highly-intuitive and easy to interact with. As companies push the boundaries on what’s possible, they also need to ensure that new functions work seamlessly.
If you are a consumer, there’s nothing worse than loading a new application or website area only for it to raise questions in your mind. This extends beyond the technical components to other consumer touchpoints, including user support and billing.
At the core, media companies need to design products that their customers love, and not just simply use.
Insights into customer wants and needs
The goal of every media company is to build an experience that consumers love. To do that, companies need to constantly research and design for needs. The biggest insights in media consumption habits are the rise of free ad-supported TV (FAST) channels on streaming platforms and the dominance of short-form content.
Consumers accept advertising because they know that it funds the media they are viewing, reading, or hearing.
Media companies have looked for a way to layer advertising on top of their offerings in a way where advertisers see value, and consumers understand that the ads they see are funding the media they digest. FAST channels seem to strike this balance perfectly, much to the surprise of the ad industry.
Short-form content offers another, similar opportunity. TikTok’s massive adoption shows that consumers are ingesting information at a dizzying pace. Media companies should be seeking out ways to create and capitalize on this new form of content.
The natural benefit of designing for needs is that it improves user engagement. One of the biggest learnings about the FAST adoption described above is that consumers actually use ads as a way of engagement. This creates opportunities for media companies to use these ad slots to get consumers to engage with new forms of content.
Ads are now interactive, with surveys or the ability to click to watch something new. By using data signals and programmatically serving tailored ads to customers, media companies can help drive consumers to other products and content offerings, building greater engagement.
Engagement goes much deeper than watching ads, of course. Media companies want consumers to spend time with their content, whether that’s as simple as watching a video or reading another article, or as deep as attending an event or paying for a subscription with unique benefits.
Streaming TV is largely viewed as TV in the traditional sense, but consumers don’t always engage with it on their couch in the living room. Some watch on the subway, some just run a TV show in the background and listen to it like a podcast. Media companies need to adjust their user experiences to better meet the evolving needs of these different audiences.
Learn without asking
As media companies work through the three considerations above, they need to keep one thing in mind: consumers aren’t necessarily going to tell you what they want. In fact, they may not know what they want. So if you adopt a product mindset and continue to evolve and push forward, it’s critical to analyze all of the data signals you have on consumer behavior and build something that meets the trends.
Product development never ends, and that’s especially true in the media space. A decade ago, no company would have been able to predict our current situation. It’s unlikely that any single enterprise can accurately predict the next 10 years of change, either. Regardless, evolution is key, so that media brands can remain in business and help define the next iteration of the industry.