FT Digital Media: Anguish Over Products

Two ways media’s changing now, and two ways it’s going to change:

The FT Digital event in London last week pulled together some of the cream of the European media world. The big conclusion they were made privy to?

The media world will soon discover exactly how many ways you can skin a cat.

The old-fashioned way for media brands to skin a cat – make the content and license rights to distribute it, or advertise next to it – doesn’t work anymore as a standalone product. As a result, the business model experimentation we’ve seen so far in the media world is turning into business model explosion. Evidence: Half of the speakers and attendees at this media event wouldn’t have been at a media event at all only three or four years ago. Facebook. Shazam. BuzzFeed. And tech VCs, for example.

Two pieces of news exemplified changes taking place right now:
One, Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus (a virtual reality gaming device) forced discussion toward the value of a platform – the device is only as valuable as the community of developers creating remarkable content for it; tech and media companies alike need to take a platform approach to their assets.

Second, The New York Times’ launching of NYT Now – a premium version of the Times exclusively for smartphones – showed how media companies are bending themselves backward to divorce (call it “conscious uncoupling” if you will) resources from revenue. The mobile app will take a Facebook-like approach to making money by allowing advertisers to publish sponsored content in-feed.

And two discussions painted a picture of media’s future:

1) Shazam’s Executive Chairman Andrew Fisher, taking part in a panel on profit vs. growth, shared this remarkable finding (my very rough paraphrasing):

We saw from one program, a 10-year-old reality show, how the audiences were not only skipping over the ads but also skipping over most of the program, to see only the bits with the stars they wanted to see. Further, they skipped right out of the show to see more about those stars on YouTube and other sites. Consumption patterns are moving faster than even the most nimble media can adapt.

With digital content, a consumer can increasingly fine-tune exactly what he wants, be that a subreddit for animals without necks or political thrillers from the 90s with a Hispanic and bisexual lead actress. And, as technology allows us to tag and sort content in increasingly refined ways, the distance from content to content-related products (and their sales) gets shorter.

2) The panel on advertising (featuring Yahoo, the Washington Post, BuzzFeed, and Xaxis) was dominated by the topic of native advertising. Programmatic ad buying got some mention, primarily from the Xaxis CEO, but native was the bigger topic for the panel. Perhaps the biggest difference between this discussion and discussions of native advertising last year? The tone was almost painfully positive; the industry has seemingly accepted that native advertising is here to stay, getting bigger (“the only way forward on mobile is native”) and no one is gaining by digging in their heels. Sadly, however, there was little frank discussion about which publishers were doing native advertising well, which were doing it poorly, and crucial differences between the two.

Final takeaway: Media is changing and becoming ever more product-dominated – not just to the extent that content’s getting closer to transactions but also to the extent that publishers take a product development approach. Publishers have gone from wringing their hands about it to rolling up their sleeves.

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