Media Masterplan — Part I: Pick the right battles

Foreword

News media business in India (and around much of the world) is in dire straits. Most of it is thanks to the advent of the Internet and Social Media, which through various means have eroded the media business and journalism over time.

If you haven’t heard, Hindustan Times has shut down 7 editions of their paper. They are cutting down investments in their digital wing. The Hindu has been going through some horrid times. Network 18 had to sell off to Mukesh Ambani. NDTV was rumored to be on the look out for a buyer at around Rs. 500 Cr (an insulting figure when you consider that InShorts raised Rs.120 Cr with no assets, business record or any genuine long-term business innovation at its core).

The biggest flaw with the media businesses, I presume, is their thought process, which remains stuck in the dinosaur age. Applying some radical thinking and courage could help media businesses not only survive, but also thrive in just 2–3 years.

This 3-part Media Masterplan explores a solution. The first discusses the current scenario to identify problems. The second offers a solution. The third sets a vision for driving long term benefits for the stakeholders.

Part I: Pick the right battles

Media (you) has played one of the most important roles in civilization. You informed people, made them think, tried to represent and speak for them. You helped people reach out to the authorities and even held authorities accountable. You did this with vast networks of people who served as the interface between various communities, authorities and the society at large.

On the other side, you also served as an invisible pipe through which companies advertised to their target customers. The target customers willingly put themselves at the receiving end of the pipe because along with the ads, they received a lot of valuable information vis-a-vis current affairs.

The quality of content and presentation are the primary factors of business competence in this model. So, you competed with fellow media organizations by getting the latest and wildest content to stay ahead of the competition. This model has served the industry well through the earlier technological transformations, including radio and television. These were all unidirectional media: information went from producers (media) to consumers and that’s it.

However, the Internet has disrupted this model completely. In addition to information, the Internet has offered virtual and digital Interactivity, a giant leap in the history of mankind. Interactivity introduced bi-directionality and choice to the industry. People could not only pick what content they liked to read at what time, but they also got the ability to respond to it. These new paradigms changed not only the media industry, but human interaction itself.

Building on these fundamentals has helped Google, Facebook, Twitter, Flipboard, Dailyhunt and the likes soar to unbelievable successes, While media businesses have failed to find any success in the attempts to tackle the web in the same uni-directional manner. Of course, there have been exceptions, such as Buzzfeed, Vox and Vice, which succeeded on the web courtesy of their novel approach to content presentation. However, the size of their size success is much smaller relative to typical Internet successes.

At the very fundamental level, the Baby Boomers (you, the media businesses, in terms of thought process) have gone from being owners of both the pipe and content to being owners of just content. Metaphorically speaking, your websites have become pitstops on race tracks owned by the Millennials (Facebooks, Googles and Flipboards). Just as pitstops provide cars with energy to go on and conquer the track, your websites provide the content that helps people stay back with the Millennials. In fact, the Millennials’ ingenious designs ensure that the race track has multiple pitstops to pit you against each other, making you beg and often pay for a small opportunity to serve the cars.

Think about it. You invest in getting interviews with the biggest celebrities, businessmen and politicians. You review the latest gadgets, cars, films, music and games. You produce reality shows and weekly soap operas. Where does it end up on the Internet? Youtube. Look at the Trending section on Youtube and see for yourself how much of that content is produced by you. Facebook realized news is so critical to audience that it built a “Trending” section. In fact, most of the content on Social Media and Video channels on the Internet is almost entirely driven by content produced by you.

Not only are you investing to feed premium content to the Millennials, but are also paying them to prioritize your content against content produced by your traditional competitors. In your fight for the bone, you are leaving meat to the Millennials. One of the fundamental parameters of marketing and business valuation is Long Term Value of a user. What’s that for your business? In fact, what’s the definition of “Long Term” for your business? By my guess, the average life time of story you produce is about a day, speaking generously.

If you have to survive and thrive in the current Internet world, your traditional ways of looking at the competition must give way to some radically new and holistic thinking and ballsy realignment of forces.

Going through the traditional thought process, you have arrived at a point where you believe Facebook and Youtube are your friends and your fellow news organizations are your competitors. Think about the fundamental definition of a competitor: a competitor is someone who takes away your customer, there by your earnings from the customer, from you.

On the Internet, the ones that are taking away your customers are Facebook and Google. They are not your partners, they are your competitors!

About 60% of people on the Internet get their daily dose of news from Facebook. Now, FB might eventually be redirecting a significantly large portion of that 60% to source sites, but such redirection is distributed across a whole sea of websites, with each probably netting a very small share of the pie. Same with Google News, Youtube, DailyHunt, InShorts and other such race tracks.

In fact, all of these new tracks are having a field day by pitching you against each other. You invest a lot of money on SEO, SEM, SMO, SMM and various other fancy “digital marketing” race strategies. All of this money goes directly into Facebook and Google’s coffers, which they invest in taking users (and our customers) further away from you through AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) and Facebook Instant. You are feeding your competition to take your customers away from you.

Even when they direct some traffic back to your websites, your primary source of monetization is Google or — more recently — Facebook ads, as per terms defined by them. After investing so much to produce the content, get it on to your website and fight with your “competition” to bring a user to your site for a brief moment, you are back at the mercy of the Millennials to monetize your own content on your own website.

Phew! It’s been a long long time since I’ve heard anything more ridiculous.

The strategies that you’ve been applying so far focus on improving novelty in content, investing more in digital marketing and spraying disgusting number of low-quality display ads on your website to get the most mileage out of a single page view. How’s this working out? It is driving the growth of apps that block ads and even go to the extent of scraping your page to give only relevant content.

To top it all off, you have become the incumbents while Gen-Y hippies with click-bait content have managed to steal your lunch money.

How long do you think you can survive this? It’s time to realize, reorganize and recalibrate. Identify the enemy correctly, make the right friends and fight the right battles.

More on that in Part 2.

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