Commentary

Paradigm Shift: How Media Companies Are Rethinking Sustainable Engagement

We’ve all been guilty of it.

Anxiously reading through the latest new release from the social platforms promising to create more exposure or new revenue streams for media companies. The optimists among us do the math in our heads. We deploy resources, but are often disappointed in the results.  The term “pivot to video” still elicits groans. The pivot to video cost people their jobs and it cost media companies their products. 

We chased followership on social platforms only to see algorithms shift.

We chased scale only to see decreased referral traffic and depressed CPMs.

We chased engagement only to realize the vitriol on these platforms was alienating our audiences.

Ultimately, we tried to grow the easy way instead of growing the right way. We invested in someone else’s platform when we should have been investing in ourselves and our audiences. 

The decision to experiment and take risks in a competitive industry is smart, but deploying resources to do something innovative on a platform you do not control is not a recipe for enduring success. The organizations that will succeed long term are investing today in the strategies and technologies that allow them to capitalize on their biggest strength — the relationship with their audience as facilitated by the face of their business.  

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Grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated a lot of underlying trends in our industry, but none was starker than the humanizing effect it had on media institutions through the connections forged with their writers. We literally let the public into our homes in the hopes of delivering the information that would help our communities.

We took time away from our families to help our audiences better care for theirs and then something amazing happened: subscriptions, reader revenue, and support for media organizations dramatically improved.

Time will tell whether these gains are sustainable but opening up an earnest dialog with them is a surefire way to cement that relationship. 

These trends hold true for individuals as well. For years, we have sacrificed our time, effort, and in some cases, our own mental well-being at the altar of social platforms, only to realize we’re creating value for the platforms, but not recognizing ourselves. In some respects, maybe doing it for the clout is enough, but the economics of these platforms mean the return on time invested is low.

It is not only the monetization of that individual that will spur incremental growth, it is the monetization of individual engagement. 

Newsletters are great, but there’s a saturation point.

Have you ever replied to a newsletter and opened a dialog with its author? Do you feel guilty when you invariably unsubscribe to a newsletter? If the answer to either of those questions is no, I would argue you haven’t created anything more than a superficial connection to content delivered to you in a different medium.

As an industry, we’ve always been able to generate revenue at the atomic level — one reader consuming something produced for them by a writer. It is the value exchange we got wrong. Gatekeeping our most valuable assets with paywalls or disrupting the user experience by foisting bad ads on people means we are generating revenue by creating friction with consumers. We use our most valuable assets (our writers and their opinions) as bait, not as the primary driver of value.  

It is an old problem but one that is starting to be solved in a variety of creative ways by newcomers The Information, Morning Brew and Protocol, as well as storied institutions such as The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times

I would suggest we have a tremendous opportunity to create new, financially sustainable business models that build value in our platforms and lean into differentiated tech, insight and access to the personalities and topics that make a difference in people’s lives. 

The Washington Post has shown that media companies can create monetizable tech that improves user experiences and decreases the reliance on third parties through its launch of Arc and Zeus. 

The Information and Morning Brew have succeeded by focusing on building subscriber communities that feel like private clubs. 

Barstool has proven that media companies can double as lifestyle brands. 

Morning Consult has shown that rich research, analytics and insight can be a differentiated commercial success, while Protocol, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal prove that treating the voices of your audience as an asset versus a liability is financially sustainable. 

Whether that is private text messaging, interactive video conferences, tech that can be licensed, community forums, richer audience polling, merch or creating more interactive experiences, if we challenge ourselves to think differently about the value we can create in concert with our audiences, we will continue to build enduring, defensible value. 

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