This is the fourth in a four-part series looking at what happens when what you do is now done by someone else.
"[A senate was created] in the reign of king Theopompus, who, when his queen upbraided him that he would leave the regal power to his children less than he had received it from his ancestors, said, in answer, "No, greater; for it will last longer." — Plutarch, "Lives of Illustrious Men"
Like the Spartan king, the media companies of 2016 must decide if they wish to optimize for size or longevity. Both will be difficult. The platforms have no interest in seeing the media companies disappear, but nor do they have any reason beyond the charitable to make margins anything other than razor-thin. Those scale-based media companies who believe that the answer is to disengage from the platforms' initiatives will find themselves in an untenable position. As their competitors see short-term advantage in traffic from embracing the platforms' encroachment, the competitive pressure to folllow suit will be hard to break.
Some media executives will wisely remind their peers that all empires fall, and that that future is true for Facebook just as it was for Sparta.
Some media executives will wisely remind their peers that all empires fall, and that that future is true for Facebook just as it was for Sparta. However, should any one platform fade, it’s highly unlikely that audiences will return to a landing-page focused mode of content discovery. We will see something new, rather than a return to the past, and that novelty may concern publishers yet more. The clear-eyed media executive must instead look to where they are spending their money and what they are placing at their core. If the answers are the same as three years ago, it may be worth another look.
Move investment from replication to differentiation
Over the last 10 years, digital media companies have often sought to compete through the technical infrastructure they can leverage rather than the content they create. VCs have claimed that their media investments were actually technology investments (they weren’t). Much of this infrastructure serves to inefficiently replicate platform capabilities (programmatic advertising exchanges that enable marketers to target specific demographic groups at scale, for example). Continuing to do this today is to allocate capital as if the platforms did not exist and had not won that battle. It is looking at a new competitive threat and then deciding to fight the last war instead of the present one.
Should any one platform fade, it’s highly unlikely that audiences will return to a landing-page focused mode of content discovery. We will see something new, rather than a return to the past.
Publishers investing heavily in a new site-focused CMS while also recognizing that the majority of their future traffic will happen on other platforms should investigate the inherent contradiction in those two positions. Likewise, those investing in personalization should recognize that it is largely focused on improving the performance of landing pages and recirculation widgets, neither of which see meaningful traffic in a mobile world.
This is not to say that investments in technology will not deliver competitive advantages in future, only that true advantage will be found by investing in what differentiates rather than what replicates. The media company that engages in cargo-culting — hoping that by adopting the forms of the platform without its substance that it can succeed — will find itself outcompeted, overextended and off target.
What matters now
Media companies ability to attract premiums in a platform world will depend upon three things:
- The quantifiable differentiation of its brand
- The percentage of its audience with which it has a direct relationship
- The number of platforms from which it secures meaningful audience
The value of a media company will be predominantly tied up in its brand; the amount of incremental revenue or reach that content can derive from being associated with that company. This will not depend upon another layout redesign or logo refresh. When content is atomized and accessed far from the publisher’s site, the content itself must act as an expression of brand. Its style must be a fingerprint, an instantly recognizable promise of quality that can inform, inspire or engage.
The single most important thing media companies can do is to nurture the growth of as many different platforms as possible.
Those publishers still able to capture a direct relationship with their users unmediated by the platforms will greatly benefit from that connection, particularly if they are able to make a subscription business work. However, this will be difficult to achieve at scale, and niche ultralight publishers will leverage this more effectively than those that depend upon a mass audience.
Building a brand is a lonely and singular endeavor. Collectively, the single most important thing media companies can do is to nurture the growth of as many different platforms as possible. They should do this even if some of those platforms' economic terms are initially less attractive than Facebook’s. The greater the variety of platforms on which their content can be found, the greater the likelihood that they will be able to extract the premiums they desire. If there is only one dominant platform, then media companies will find themselves in a situation akin to the chicken farmer and Tyson foods, where there is one buyer and one price.
This will be difficult. It will require less internecine conflict for scraps of transient advantage, and more working together to invest in their own collective long-term sustainability. Media companies still have a level of power and influence that they can bring to bear to shape how a platform world might look in the future, and what’s more, the things that they do are important.
It is important that media is able to invest in deep and painstaking reporting. It is important that the public can access the very best journalism from a range of different independent companies. It is important that media can act without fear or dependence upon any one entity.
Media at its best is what uncovers the corrupt politician, moves national attitudes along the arc towards tolerance, and inspires the cynical teen. While its infrastructure and organisation may morph beyond recognition, its essential output must be preserved.
Read part one of this series here, part two here and part three here.
Tony Haile is the founding CEO of Chartbeat and an adjunct professor of media and technology at Columbia and Stanford Universities. Reach him @arctictony.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.