Has Innovation Died in Marketing?

 

Caveat: This will likely be one of my longish, link-heavy Thinking Out Loud pieces, so I invite you all to pour yourselves a glass of your favorite adult beverage or rustle up a fine cannabis pairing, should you care to indulge…

As The Recount prepares for a major launch this spring, I found myself again contemplating the state of digital marketing – a subject I’ve written about extensively over the years. To not bury the lead, the industry is in a profoundly disappointing state. We believe we are innovating, but in fact, we’re making the same mistakes old school media companies made when faced with the rise of the internet 15 years ago. But before I get into why, some background on how I came to that conclusion. 

The Recount will soon launch a novel live news streaming product. We’ve been working on it for nearly a year, and we’re taking exactly the kind of risks that startups exist to tackle. We’ve rethought nearly every aspect of what makes “good television” in a post-social, digitally native information ecosystem. And while it’s true The Recount has a large and highly engaged social audience (tens of millions of views and engagements each week), there’s no guarantee that audience will join us in the world of live streaming. We know we have to prove ourselves – we must build and iterate a compelling service that people will find engaging, useful, and even fun. It’s risky – hell, it’s more than risky. To succeed, we have to build a service – and a brand – that our audience will want to share with friends and colleagues. In short, we know we must deliver an experience that builds community – because no media brand thrives without community.   

Community. The word is a bit careworn, bruised from its recent run-ins with Web2 platform leaders like Zuckerberg and the casual toxicity of places like Twitter and YouTube. But community is a fundamental element of a great media brand, and it’s central to our success or failure. We think it’s so important that we’re launching our stream on Twitch, a platform that couldn’t be more different from traditional news environments in its approach to community. With one or two rare and unconventional exceptions, news has not found its footing there. So why the hell are we trying?

Fair question. As we thought through the implications of committing to a third-party platform for the launch of a crucial new service, and the challenges of convincing marketers that it will be worth supporting, I was reminded of a burst of writing I posted more than fifteen years ago. Back then I was struggling to navigate a similar kind of shift in how media worked. At that point, blogs and “user generated content” were an entirely new phenomenon, poorly understood and confusing to most folks in traditional media (the same might be said today of live streaming and “connected television.”) I collected my thinking in a series of posts under the loose heading of “The Conversation Economy.” The series kicked off with an insight that now feels obvious, but in 2006 was relatively fresh: Most media being made at the time was still a product of what I called a “packaged goods” mentality. Given the rise of Web2, I argued, this “packaged goods media” approach to media was certain to be eclipsed by a new, more community-driven format. At the time, blogging was several years into what turned out to be a short-lived run as the dominant form of expression on the Internet. The rise of blogs, I theorized, pointed to a tipping point in media’s evolution. Packaged Goods Media was on the decline. Long live its successor: “Conversational Media.”

In my first post, I noted how nearly every at-scale media company – Viacom, NBC, Time Inc, NewsCorp, etc. – had recently retooled their “interactive” divisions, appointing new leaders who were less digital cowboys and more traditionally minded media execs. Even the digital giants – AOL and Yahoo! – were installing old school managers. This was 2006, mind you – Twitter didn’t exist, Facebook was two years old, Google was a search company that had just purchased YouTube. The “winners” of Web2 were still very much undeclared. 

At the time, I questioned why the big media companies of the era were treating digital as if it were just another form of packaged goods media. Didn’t they know that this time, things would be different? For these media companies to truly win, I argued, they needed to commit to radically rethinking not only the format of their product, but their approach to community, and the business model as well. 

So how did things turn out, 15+ years later? AOL and Yahoo! are now owned by a PE firm, Viacom is struggling to get to scale and apparently prepping itself for sale, GE sold NBC to Comcast, and Time Inc. is now owned by a billionaire philanthropist. NewsCorp relegated its digital efforts to a sideshow, and doubled down on the politics of polarization over at its subsidiary Fox News. 

Meanwhile, the digital advertising business – a business dominated by those same large media companies 15 years ago – grew from roughly $17 billion in 2006 to nearly $500 billion last year. And we all know who reaped the lion’s share of that growth: the triopoly of Google, Meta/Facebook, and Amazon – none of which care to be described as media companies. 

Which got me thinking: Whatever happened to the principles of The Conversation Economy? If the big digital giants beat the hapless old school media companies, did they deliver the conversational media I predicted would emerge? 

To answer that, let’s first define what I mean by conversational media. In my post defining the term, I theorized that conversational media had at least five core characteristics:

Conversation over Dictation. This is crucial. Packaged goods media assumes a one-to-many stance – in the case of news, that means an authoritative figure stares down the lens of a camera, telling you what’s important and why. Conversational media, on the other hand, allows for the audience to engage in a journey of discovery with the journalist, who acts more like the host of a conversation. 

Platform over Distribution. Conversational Media are driven by network effects and the platforms that harness them. PGM products, on the other hand, are driven by tightly controlled distribution – think Comcast or DirectTV. If you make PGM, you care a lot about your distribution. In 2006, the open web was the platform, but over time, the Apples and Facebooks of the world recreated the distribution chokeholds of old media models. Bummer. 

Service over Product. If you view your output as a discrete product (article, show, book, etc), you’re probably making packaged goods media. But if you manage your business as a service (search, social, stream, arguably even Substack), you’re in the conversational media business. 

Iteration and Speed Over Perfection and Deliberation. By its nature, Packaged Goods Media is all about creating and shipping a highly produced product. The idea of beta is alien – it’s either ready to ship, or it’s not.  In conversational media, the key is to create, launch, and then constantly iterate. Conversational media are always in beta.

Engagement over Consumption. Related to the first point, the model of interaction with audiences in conversational media is one of engagement – “lean forward” as opposed to “sit back.” At its peak, for example, my blog had far more comments than posts, by a ratio of about five to one. And the key to a good Twitch livestream, for example, is how the host(s) interact with the community in real time.

So did the winners of the marketing business – Google, Facebook, Amazon – build us a conversational media nirvana? The resounding answer is … hell no. They delivered us yet another version of packaged goods media – feeds, built to be consumed. It’s true, their platforms are services, but all they’ve really done is swap traditional media-as-product models for a machine-driven model where consumers are the product. The community at the core of great media brands is non-existent. We’re consumers with a doom-scrolling feed bag strapped to our face. It sucks, and we’re starting to wake up to it.  If you’re looking for quality takes on the news, it’s even worse.

But that doesn’t mean conversational media is dead. In fact, 15 years later, I’d say the five points above offer a good framework for a large set of today’s thriving media businesses. Substack, The Athletic, Twitch, The Information, hell, even Discord – all of them focus on their communities first. 

And guess what they don’t depend on? Advertisers. Some incorporate sponsorship or limited-scale ad units (Twitch), but by and large the core business model of conversational media has been some form of subscription.  

Now why is that? 

I blame marketers, full stop (told you I’d get back to that!). About the time Facebook and Google rose to prominence, marketers began to pull back on their “innovation budgets” – a percentage of their media spend reserved for learning and experimentation. In the mid aughts, most big brand marketers reserved 10 percent or more of their budgets for experimentation. The world was changing rapidly, and marketers knew that they needed to understand that change by participating in new approaches to advertising. But by 2012, the year Facebook incorporated programmatic advertising into its main news feed, those budgets were shrinking faster than the polar ice caps. 

In my third post of the 2006 series, the longest of the three, I opined on how marketers might leverage conversational media, and what it might take to bring it to scale. Brands need safety, quality, and scale, and at the time, there was precious little of any in the newly burgeoning conversational marketing space. Regardless, brands were funding any number of remarkable experiments. I surveyed an array of innovative conversational marketing efforts, from Dice’s “conversational banners” to Open Forum from American Express. The results of these campaigns were impressive, and augured, I thought, a renaissance in how brands might go to market. Perhaps brands, I mused, might learn how to “join the conversation” and act more like members of a community. Perhaps they might even launch their own conversational media services, in partnership with media startups. After all, your brand is what other people say about you when you’re not in the room, right? 

Could have been, but the history of marketing over the past 15 years has not been one of customer engagement, and as for supporting innovation in news – it’s been mostly crickets. Innovations budgets have all but disappeared – one senior media buyer responsible for billions in annual ad spend recently told me that they hadn’t had money for media experimentation for nearly a decade. I then polled another half dozen marketing leaders on the same question – and got exactly the same answer from each. Sure, they were willing to test out at-scale platforms like Snap or Pinterest – but investing in startups trying new things? Not so much. Like their counterparts in big media companies, marketers gave up on learning how to create conversational media. So what did they do instead? 

Again, you guessed it. The majority of their budgets funded Google, Amazon, and Facebook. These large platforms have perfected their data-driven marketing services, and they offered brands an irresistible trade off: Pour your dollars into my finely tuned black box, and our machines will kick out the results you want to see. From 2012 to the present, marketers learned how to spin the dials and pull the levers of the machines, but they failed at the one thing that should be setting them apart: Interacting with actual customers. They thought the big platforms would let them engage with their customers, but truth be told, they’d been disintermediated by the machines.

This is not an idle observation. In the past few years, top CMOs have begun to publicly break with the platforms. On the record, they’ll say they are concerned about the inability to moderate unsafe content, but privately, they’ll acknowledge the elephant in the room: They’ve become too dependent on an intermediary they don’t quite understand – and they fret that they’re about to be made irrelevant. They’re also deeply concerned about the impact of these platforms on our national dialog – the loss of tens of thousands of journalism jobs, the rise of mis- and disinformation

They’re right to be concerned. The platforms’ algorithms are spectacular at identifying a potential customer and placing a marketing message in front of them, but intentionally ignorant as to the context in which that customer might be engaged (I’ve written extensively on this phenomenon, which I call Lost Context). The results are great KPIs, but an increasing disconnect between big brand marketers and the customers they supposedly excel at understanding. Marketers have over-rotated on media buying – to the detriment of innovation. It used to be that the people who bought media had roles that let them be creative – they took risks, they tried new things. But now, smart CMOs are investing in building sophisticated media-buying machines of their own, replete with first party data, machine learning algorithms, and endlessly complex dynamic creative optimization services. It’s as if the answer to their dependence on the big platforms is to replicate those same platforms inside their own companies. I’m all for independence, but  true innovation means trying something entirely new.  

The media landscape of 2022 is far messier, far more complicated, and even more unsettled than its 2006 incarnation. Television, the largest and most powerful of the traditional media sectors, is in full digital metamorphosis, and once again, the winners and losers are up for grabs. If ever there was a time to experiment, to learn, to try new things, it’s Right. F*cking. Now. And to not put too fine a point on it, there’s really only one way to innovate in any business: You have to spend money on things you aren’t sure will work. So I’m here to say it, loudly and proudly: It’s time to bring back the innovation budgets in media, and it’s time for media buyers to take back their profession. Our industry can’t afford to make the same mistakes we made over the past 15 years. If you agree, you know how to reach me – and I’ve got something cool I’d really love to show you. A few brave souls just might light the path to change. 

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