In the 20 years I’ve covered the great digital transition, empty buzzwords and phony trends have been the rule, not the exception. Bullshit is not a byproduct of a startup economy of building scale before substance; it is actually a doctrine.
And yet, in this past year there have been some trends that almost certainly will have a deep impact on the survivability of media businesses into the future. Here I explore some of these trends and try to cast a little insight as to why they matter, and how they might continue to shakeup the landscape as we look ahead to 2018.
Voice, Voice and More Voice
From the wild popularity of Amazon’s Echo to the familiarity we all now have with Alexa, Siri and Cortana, voice activation is far and away the trend of 2017 that will have the longest term impact. An NPR/Edison study this year found that smart speakers are already in 7 percent of homes, and comScore finds 11 percent of WiFi enabled homes already have a voice assistant installed. Beyond that, last year, Google was already seeing 20 percent of queries coming through as voice searches. Voice activation is the leading edge of screenless and ambient computing. Wearables, household objects, cars and smart speakers are just some of the connected devices that people are getting increasingly comfortable with reliable voice interfaces.
Voice interfaces impact everything. Media discovery and media branding will be extremely challenging here. Even though powerful new search gateways like Amazon and Apple will need your content to feed the system. This puts them in enormous positions of power to determine which media brands provide solutions rather than search results. Voice forces all media to rethink itself along a concierge model—providing on-call resources in formats that are entirely new.
The Social Reevaluation
Facebook is still printing money with its paid social advertising, but its reputation took a serious hit in 2017, and not just over the “fake news” and Russian media buying kerfuffles. Publishers are fed up chasing Facebook’s edicts, like being told to invest in live broadcasting one minute and Watch the next in order to please the ever-changing algorithm gods. Make your video friendly to early mid-rolls…until we decide we are going to run pre-rolls anyway. Meanwhile on the buy side, the “smartest guys in the room” seem to be poor in math—with several admissions of misreported metrics. And over at Twitter and Snapchat, their U.S. user bases remains stalled both in numbers and in monetization.
Slowly, and often quietly, both media makers and advertisers are tiring of oligopoly. Many are looking this year for ways to lessen their dependence on “Big Social.” The era of chasing scale is likely ending. For most publishers, social is not the best source for high quality, loyal traffic that can be pushed into premium media products or build the first party data troves publishers will need to win with advertisers.
If scale and reach are no longer the name of the game, then depth and identity are. Publishers who not only know what their audience is, but who they are specifically, have the best chance of weathering the secular move away from traditional advertising. First-party data are troves of deep user profiles that can be leveraged for email, highly personalized promotions and content, along with retargeting tactics and cross-channel campaigns that can all be within private marketplaces. Advertisers want to know their ads are being seen by humans, not bots. And they want to talk to those humans in more personalized ways, across their screens, and with some ability to tie those exchanges to consumer behaviors after the fact. We are way beyond talking demos and reach. This is going to be about universal IDs tied to profiles that align to preferences and behaviors. This is something that service magazine brands in particular should be good at and why we have seen a healthy obsession about data at sturdier houses like Meredith and Hearst.
While the “pivot to video” remains the trendiest misfire of the past year or two, the impact of cord cutting and alternative channels for video distribution are not. For publishers relevant and productive enough in the medium-to-long video space, platforms like Amazon Channels, Hulu, Apple TV and a host of “skinny bundles” represent a real opportunity to syndicate and sell streaming video. Which is not to say this will be easy. The market is already cluttered with the likes of DISH/Sling, AT&T, Sony PS Vue, Comcast, Verizon and more. The pipes are hungry for content, and publishers would do well to cast a wide net. There are a lot of questions about how this will shake out. Consumer still aren’t totally clear on how they really want to consume TV/Video in the future. But it is clear that some deep-pocketed communications providers are willing to spend (even bid) big to fill these screen-agnostic pipes. Publishers like Time Inc. and Condé Nast as well as enthusiast verticals like TEN may be best positioned to bargain in this new marketplace of video brands.
AI and Machine Learning
Named by the Association of National Advertisers as the marketing “word of the year” AI and its cousin machine learning are at once overhyped, but also underappreciated on the traditional media side. These approaches to enhanced automation and machine-driven decision-making will impact publishing on many levels. When it comes to ambient computing, chatbot and audio interfaces, various flavors of artificial intelligence will be needed to drive more human-like interactivity between user and media. Early chat adopters like Quartz, WSJ and CNN foreshadow how intelligent but automated responses to user queries will be critical to discovery and engagement with media served beyond screen-based media.
Meanwhile on the machine learning side, personalization of site, app and email content will require decision engines that learn from user’s interactions with content. As publishers move away from scale plays and into more subscription models, the need to truly service a reader with custom and personalized content in real time is greater. The restrictions of the mobile-first media experience raise even higher on eliminating irrelevance from the content stream. This is a new kind of reactive, real-time, personalized content delivery. Sorry, you editors and site managers, but you can’t do that. Machines can.