/// 4 Things Media Companies Must Do … or Die
In the first half of 2012, I wondered if the Mayans had media companies on their minds when allegedly predicting the end of the world (by the way, please don’t believe the world ends on 12/21/12).
What a year. Media’s core revenue stream is slipping away: Astoundingly, five tech companies control 68% of all online ad revenue. And it ain’t gettin’ better. By 2015, Facebook alone is expected to account for 20% of all online ads sold. And, we can feel it on our pocket books, as this year, journalist roles were named to the top 10 worst jobs list.
For a lark, I put it to a Google vote, and found the phrase “media is dead” returned an astounding 189,000 results, whereas “media is alive” scored only 21,000. There you go — we’re as good as dead.
By many accounts, we’re taking our dying gasps of breath, but why?
We fear change. We’re still pushing the same stuff that worked for us a decade ago.
We fear technology. We say we don’t, but if you really look at us, we do.
We fear product development. We’ve outsourced product engineering and innovation to tech companies, and it’s killing us.
So, let’s collectively pull our heads out of the sand and fix this mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Here are the four things we must do, or we’ll die out.
Step 1: Think Social First, Then Search
A focus on social will pay higher dividends than a pure focus on SEO.
Your audience shares content, and they share it a lot. According to Pew, 41% of adult Internet users take photos or videos that they found online and repost them on sites designed for sharing images with many people. We call them curators. And, these social shares impact SEO. Social signals — likes, comments, tweets and shares — from Facebook, Twitter and Google+ now correlate very strongly with good rankings in Google’s index, per a study by SearchMetrix.
Having a “social strategy” isn’t enough. And, a “social media strategist” should be everyone in your organization, not just one warm body. Build social into your product from the ground up. Here’s how we did it:
Purely visual design, with big images. People love to share big images, and shared images draw eight times as many clicks when compared with simple shared links, in our experience.
Make sharing dead simple. With the new Mashable, we’ve created something called “microcontent,” which drives more precise sharing and curation within an article. We highlight the most interesting nuggets within each story and give readers simple shortcuts to share each. When a friend clicks on the link, the nugget that was originally shared will be highlighted.
Our new Velocity algorithm tells us what’s about to go viral. We’ve built a new tool that measures the virality of content, and predicts which content is about to go viral through predictive modeling. We promote that content in our “The Next Big Thing” column on the homepage (and each channel page), and alongside each article. These social opportunity stories then have the highest chance of being shared by readers. But most importantly, they’re the best stuff to read on the site, and we’re telling you about it at exactly the right time.
Step 2: Embrace Mobile, Before it Runs You Over
Mobile is not coming — it’s already here. The media industry is scrambling, but moving too slowly.
In general, watch the early adopters to see what’s coming next for your audience. At Mashable, we’re read by quite a few folks in this category, and as a result, we’ve seen a 180% increase in mobile traffic year-over-year. But it’s not just us: According to Pew, more than a quarter of the U.S. population, 27%, now get news on mobile devices.
Remember how technology magazines were the first to go out of print? Early adopters strike fast and hard, and we’re seeing defined trends emerge among this early adopter set which is really shaking up the industry again. We all knew that the mobile wave was coming, but what we didn’t know is that it would come in a whirlwind of various form factors.
Put in designer speak: There are no “heros” anymore. In the old days, the “hero” sizes — the device sizes on which we’d design a site’s ideal experience — were desktop and mobile. But a one-size (or even two-size) fits all approach just doesn’t work with the proliferation of devices we’re now seeing among our audience. While we recently thought that large tablets may rule the future for tablets, other form factors are now buzzing with popularity. On average, Mashable is viewed on over 2,000 different types of devices per month.
With this many unique devices, the only solution is responsive and adaptive design. In a responsive design, the website responds to the size of the device by simply reorganizing the layout of its content. For instance, the site has three columns on a desktop, but a single column on mobile. With adaptive design, the website not only responds to screen size, but also adapts so that you have the right functionality for your device. For instance, on a touch device, the website may only show one of the three columns, but allows navigation between each via swiping.
Golden Rule: Start design and engineering with the smallest version (320px wide). It forces you to make the hard decisions from the very beginning.
Designing and developing at this level is challenging. When you’re building a web page, you’re not just building a single page anymore. You’re building a handful of variations (with identifying growth patterns in-between). And, adaptive site design requires expertise across desktop and mobile web. The key is to implement as simply and universally as possible. Too many special cases, and you end up with bloated code, which means you just killed your mobile experience by burning up the smartphone hardware or making the user wait too long for pages to load.
Bringing a better experience to readers is the focus of a responsive or adaptive design, but once you’ve done the work and launched, you’ve opened the doors to something else: responsive and adaptive advertising. This brings valuable revenue, but more importantly, optimizes reader experience even more.
Step 3: Redefine Advertising
So far, all of these advances are fine and dandy, but can they help us run solid, strategic, money-making businesses? The war for revenue is being fought on multiple fronts.
First, there’s the battle for attention. Publishers and advertisers compete with friends, colleagues and brands, but this has been the case for years. But with a myriad of mobile devices, and media consumption moving to these devices, publishing companies are battling with the likes of Angry Birds for that final 30 minutes of free time at the end of each day. That’s a tough battle to win.
The battle for dollars is even more lopsided. Ad revenue is not aligned with where people are spending their time. In 2011, per a consolidation of data by Flurry, 23% of consumer time was spent on mobile, however, only 1% of the ad dollars flowed in. Compare that to print where we still see 29% of ad dollars, but only 6% of time.
In a brutal match, sometimes you need to redefine the game.
If we’re social to our core, responsive and adaptive, we’re now capable of redefining the game of online advertising.
If we’re social to our core, responsive and adaptive, we’re now capable of redefining the game of online advertising. We know our audience, and they know us. As media companies, we have a direct relationship with — and the trust of– our audience. Therefore, we can win back revenue from nameless, faceless tech giants by employing a name and a face. We do it by helping brands create content that’s engaging, and distribute it to our audience.
Media companies and brands can and should work together to create informative, viral and/or otherwise compelling content. Mashable has been in the “native advertising” (formerly called the “custom content”) business for four years. We’ve seen how a partnership between a media company and brand can lead to mindboggling frequency and reach when the content goes viral. But let’s step back and answer the question, what is it? Put simply, to create native advertising in the publishing space, the media company partners with a client (brand or agency) to create social content around an idea or inspiration, and then utilizes the media company’s social expertise to get that content to go viral. It’s a recipe that works.
Despite recent press and even pronouncements by some other media companies that this is new to media, it’s not. However, what is new is the fact that native advertising solves one of the biggest challenges we now face: The lack of dollars in mobile advertising.
Native advertising appears in-stream, and flows from wide cinema display desktops to small resolution smartphones. It’s content that carries a message, and if it’s valuable content written with social distribution in mind, it’ll have legs that carry the strategy for a long time to come.
Step 4: Become Product-Driven
This new generation of successful media companies is led in part by strong product and technology teams, thus becoming media and tech hybrids. They’re paving a new path for the industry by inventing innovative systems for data collection and completely unique products, and that’s critical for success in the current world, where media companies don’t simply battle each other, but battle the tech giants themselves.
For years, media companies outsourced their product development by using a slew of technology service companies and startups for this feature or that. Each of these “partners” takes a couple of nickels off each dollar, and adds code that slows down the page. In essence, they take revenue away while also chipping away at the user experience. However, that’s not the worst of it. If this “outsourced product development” strategy is employed for long enough, the technology departments at media companies atrophy into “service organizations” that are simply clearing houses for everyone else’s services and pet projects. If this happens, you’re dead. And, the sad fact is, most media companies are in this position. How many media companies are actually product-driven? We don’t need a toolbox with everyone else’s tools in it, we need something unique. Ring the alarms and call all the CEOs! We need product-driven media leaders.
This “technology atrophy” in media companies is the reason brilliant engineers rarely consider working for media companies, and that’s a trend that we need to stop. Some organizations are actually turning this trend on its head. With the rise of new media/tech hybrids, we’re seeing a reinvigoration in product development. The media space isn’t just about articles anymore, it’s about the entire experience, on- and off-site. It’s about developing proprietary analytics, crawlers and other technology advantages you don’t share with every other media company (because you don’t simply lease a service from a technology service provider). The media companies in this new wave are, in some ways, old-fashioned.
We live to create unique products, and we do it with our own two hands. We build them, and then we integrate them throughout the entire platform and build a consistent experience and strategy.
In other words, the new world of media is all about smart engineering. Hire a killer product team — from designers to product managers to engineers — and build innovative products. Or, simply die a slow death.