Once upon a time, media companies built their reputations on content: movies, news, talk shows, and so forth.
But then, the internet happened, making it nearly impossible to compete on content alone. From Nick Edwards, Boomtrain’s co-founder and CEO:
People are no longer bound to a local paper, radio station or TV provider; content isn’t constrained to any one time or place, but rather parceled out to inboxes, apps and social feeds. There are literally millions of media outlets — for everything from breaking news to Breaking Bad — and the switching costs are approaching zero.
Unique, engaging content is still important (as are creative and journalistic skills). But since consumers have so many options — and since they’re so easy to access — the best media companies focus on distribution, too. They treat content and distribution like two components of one large offering: a compelling digital experience. This way of thinking predisposes them to think less like legacy media companies and more like tech companies.
Before I go on, I should point out that people don’t agree on the distinction between a digital media company and a tech company; after all, Google and Facebook get the bulk of their revenue from advertising… which makes them sound an awful lot like media companies. But for the purpose of this post, we’ll say that tech companies generate revenue from content produced by users, whereas media companies generate revenue from content produced in-house for public consumption.
What’s a Compelling Digital Experience?
A great digital experience means different things to different audiences, but they have three basic attributes in common:
- They generate enduring habits. Did you know that 70% of Facebook users log on daily? Did you know that of that group, 45% log on multiple times per day? The point is, Facebook is famous for integrating itself into people’s daily lives. BuzzFeed has loyal users, too: in the past 30 days, BuzzFeed has had 167.7 million unique visits and 443.6 million overall visits, indicating that many people who peruse the site come back for more.
- They’re focused around individual preferences. That’s how Netflix really rose to prominence: the site started using customers’ data to predict what each one would like to see next. GameSpot used a similar technique to drive a 2.8x boost in email engagement.
- They help users build communities. While focusing on the individual is definitely important, giving users a way to congregate and share their interests makes your brand stronger. Chowhound’s robust forums make it stand out from other food sites, and xoVain’s friendly, welcoming comment sections (perhaps an internet first?) keep readers loyal.
A great distribution strategy nails at least one of these things — and to do that, a media company needs a solid, well-supported product team that’s focused on creating an excellent digital experience.
Product Management in Media Companies
In tech companies, product management is a well-developed function. PMs are the CEOs of their receptive products, working with designers and engineers to usher them from conception to launch. Examples of what a PM might manage at a consumer tech company like Facebook: Pages; Messenger; Instagram monetization.
In media, product management is typically fuzzier. Espen Sundve, VP of Publishing Products at Schibsted Media Group, covered this subject from the perspective of a product guy who came from tech:
Ask any journalist or editor what the product is, and then turn to a software engineer or UX designer in the same building and ask the same question. You will not get the same answer; and this cause total disconnect in the joint ability to innovate and create stunning new products. Journalists and content managers consider the content to be the product. Great journalism. Big stories. Nothing less, nothing more. Technologists consider it to be the technology to create, curate and distribute the content.
The ideal scenario is having equally well-supported editorial and product teams: “BuzzFeed has technology at its core,” writes Chris Dixon, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz who has invested $50 million in the media company. “Its 100+ person tech team has created world-class systems for analytics, advertising, and content management. Engineers are first-class citizens . . . .”
Vox also has a well-developed product team. A snapshot of the challenges it works on:
- Creating a cohesive experience across devices
- Getting feedback from reporters and editors on interactive storytelling tools (quizzes, flowcharts, etc.)
- Conducting usability research to get insight on readers’ experiences
- Generating layouts algorithmically to increase engagement
- Making Vox accessible to people with disabilities
Varied as they are, these challenges tie back to a central goal: maximizing content distribution by creating a digital ecosystem that attracts and engages readers.
Although it makes sense for the product team to own this goal, Sundve argues that writers and editors should get involved, too:
An editor or writer who gets to file her copy into the system and forget about is an editor who is being alienated . . . from the fruits of their labor. That journalist has lost contact with his or her consumer. Editors need to help craft the way their content gets presented to their readers. They themselves don’t have to be designers, coders or even, strictly speaking, ticket-moving product managers. They do need to have a seat at the same table as those other people, and explain the way their content will be most valuable, come to consensus, and then work with those other colleagues to help spec out, design, build and release the code that can bring that value to the reader.
The term “tech company” is pretty loaded, and I’m definitely not suggesting that media companies start filling their offices with dog and bean bags (as many startups do — guilty as charged). But media companies shouldn’t treat their digital experiences like an afterthought (or, even worse, maximize short-term ad revenue at the expense of their brands). The medium is just as important as the message.