A Brief, Dizzying History of the Media Pivot


(And possibly an idea of where to go next)

If you’ve been in the media or publishing industries for the past five years, you’ve likely been suffering from some form of motion sickness. And it’s no wonder; you’ve been madly “pivoting” from one “strategic revenue model” to the next.

The No-Business-Jargon Translation:  You’ve been wildly careening from one Holy Grail to another.

To what, exactly, are we pivoting?

A Brief Dizzying History of the Media Pivot

Obviously, media businesses are looking to revive the traditional advertising model. Some of these firms originated from print media; others are digital native. Both groups are trying to answer the same question: How can we generate revenue through advertising (or subscriptions, in some cases) to support content production, pay our talent, and have a little profit left to show for it?

To achieve that goal, many media organizations have been using various existing digital advertising, content distribution, and traffic funneling formats, and subsequently been shifting to new ones as they emerge: The vaunted pivot. The media world has now churned through banners, content aggregators, intensive SEO, social media distribution, native advertising, content syndication, advertising networks, and lately varying forms of video advertising.

Although the tactics change, the underlying principle has been the same: Scale: more eyeballs = more advertising views = more advertising response = more ad spending.

But perhaps therein lies the problem.

The idea for digital advertising really emerged from existing traditional advertising: scale + the right demographics. Digital promised a little something more: trackable response with the click. And this worked well in the early days of the Internet.

But there was one problem: The Death of Scarcity.

Whereas traditional radio, TV, and print broadcasters and publishers could charge a premium because their advertising space was finite, Internet-based advertising inventory and content distribution are essentially limitless. Dollars spent on offline advertising quickly became pennies spent on online advertising. That single fact has had the media industry pivoting like a Dervish ever since.

An insight: Maybe the advertising model was wrong to begin with.

In the early, halcyon days of the Internet, nearly every media and advertising professional thought that digital advertising would be offline advertising on steroids, the steroids being the ability to track clicks. But with limitless inventory, commodification came quickly. Now advertisers were getting the eyeballs, getting the clicks, and paying a fraction of the cost.

Although scale-based advertising is great for brand awareness, it also drives a lot of false positives when it ultimately comes to follow through to sales.

Did we ever stop and really ask if advertisers were satisfied with the traditional advertising model in the first place? Were they just settling within the limitations of traditional offline media?

So what are advertisers really looking for?

  • They want deep demographic data
  • They want to understand purchase intent
  • They want interaction with their products and services
  • They want consumer feedback
  • They want insights into consumer psychographics and behavior
  • They want a hybrid of advertising, discovery, and market research

The interesting thing is that all of this is currently possible in the digital sphere. Yet advertising-supported media companies generally are not providing it.

The Final Pivot: Deep Audience Data

Media companies are in a unique position. They provide high-quality content that drives a loyal audience in many sought-after demographics. However, in their efforts to scale traffic, they’ve ceded a lot of control of their audience data to syndicators, aggregators, ad networks, and the big social platforms.

The key to returning to the days of premium-priced advertising services is to go for depth instead of breadth. Three things need to happen:

  1. Publishers need to regain control of their audience data. Focus on growing your audience directly, not just one-off hits from referral sites.
  2. Design and incorporate ways to collect additional data by engaging your audience. Go for exclusive data that your audience can uniquely provide and data that your existing advertisers crave.
  3. Develop in-house, premium advertising products and services that rely on that data. Sell based on its exclusivity.

In essence, the new scarcity (& value) is the depth of your audience data, knowledge, and insights. With a little work, media companies and publishers have all the building blocks to create truly unique experiences for their readership and their advertisers.

Stop pivoting and let’s return to a focus on value.

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