Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
The latest conversations at cash-crunched publishers these days seem to be going something along the lines of, “Hey, Amazon seems to be doing pretty well. Maybe we should be more like Amazon and sell stuff and do, you know, stuff.”
And so, major publishers are trying to interpose themselves more substantially between buyer and brand, an effort that sounds wise, but may bring serious unintended consequences, ones that your average social-media influencer faces every day.
Hearst, for one, wants to tap the 120 million detailed user profiles it has built across its many publications (e.g. Esquire, Elle, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, etc.) so it can get much further “down the sales funnel” and closer to actual purchase decisions, where it may generate significant revenue.
Hearst has invested in data science and profiling technologies, connecting audience preferences and billing information so it can be a better conduit between the brands who advertise on Hearst outlets and the people who are reading there. In fact, the company’s top digital executive called the new technological approach “the Amazonification of media.”
Time Inc., meanwhile, has launched People Perks, a membership program with discount offerings for readers of the chain’s flagship celebrity-news title. Loyal People people will get product and experience discounts, cash back for online shopping at specific outlets, and sweepstakes entries to attend high-profile events.
Time Inc. previously launched Pet Hero, a membership program for pet owners that costs $60 a year and provides deals in dining, shopping, entertainment and travel. I’ve never been much for paying now to have the privilege of possibly paying less later, but hey, maybe pet owners are special.
Like Hearst, Time Inc. still has significant audience reach, with 30 million subscribers and 127 million unique monthly visitors to publications such as Sports Illustrated, InStyle, Southern Living, Real Simple, and Fortune. These magazines have long-running relationships with both readers and brands. Connecting the two sides more efficiently certainly suggests interesting possibilities.
And generally speaking, it’s a smart (and long overdue) idea to better use the audience information that publishers have for years generated. That’s particularly important in an era where the big tech firms know far more about magazine readers’ predilections than most traditional media publishers do, whether the publisher started in print, film, music or broadcast TV.
But while knowing more about your audience is good, and doing a better job building brand-audience relationships is smart, I have concerns.
Think of it as a very large variant on the common conflict facing YouTube influencers as they try to make a living from the huge audiences they’ve laboriously built.
Yes, cashing a six-figure check for a brand activation on your channel is great for your bank account. Do it too often, too profligately, however, and you end up like Jake Paul, getting beaten up at the Streamy Awards by the Boy Scout Assassin himself, Jon Cozart (mad props, BTW, to Cozart for a vicious yet hilarious hosting and roasting job).
Publishers face much the same conflict between commerce and authenticity as they dive deeper into that sales funnel.
Hearst, for instance, wants its editorial operations to track how many sales are being driven by news stories. What happens when that Redbook holiday product wrapup is bought and paid for by the electronics and makeup advertisers? It’s difficult to believe that won’t skew editorial priorities (and resulting audience trust) when assigning, writing and editing stories.
Elsewhere, many publishers are desperately diving for dollars by doing more video, even if video is an area where their company has little previous history, talent or audience. Not surprisingly, the pivot seems to have gone about as poorly as I feared, at least according to some reports.
Yes, lots of places (e.g. Vice, MTV, the New York Times) are pushing video, even laying off experienced journalists to add more video creators. All’s fair in the shift to new storytelling modes, I say (though it’s yet another reason for journalists to break out the GoPro camera and learn to edit video). But making that painful shift hasn’t guaranteed that the publishers in turn will see outsized profits. The problem: while the new videos get lots of views, those views are mostly happening in places other than the home site, where publishers would make the most money.
Instead, Facebook, YouTube, and even Twitter are getting yet another bottom-line boost. But the ad revenues generated for publishers from all those off-site views are low. Getting audiences to watch on the home sites has proved far more difficult. As well, news clips typically are pretty short (the classic broadcast news story was 1:27 minutes). But to even qualify for Facebook’s new mid-roll ad experiments, requires clips at least 90 seconds long. So much for cashing in.
Last month’s Advertising Week in New York was filled with conversations about, as the Wall Street Journal put it, “the methods of digital players big and small when it comes to brand safety, fees, fraud and measurement.”
Oh, and they’re talking about Amazon, which looms ever larger as it steamrolls traditional retail into roadkill, eats the grocery business, dominates the digital-assistant sector, and spends billions on streaming entertainment.
Whether “digital players big and small” can figure out how to play in an Amazon world, and succeed, will be a continuing challenge. Amazon is a giant, ever-flowing river of commerce that already has swallowed countless valiant expeditions. Good luck to the newest explorers.