Seven Media and Technology Trends to Watch for in 2017

It’s the perfect time of year for rest, relaxation, and — especially if you work in media or technology — reflection. Last year we reflected on trends through the lens of 2015’s uncertain media landscape. Little did we know what was in store in 2016.

You could dedicate an entire website to media takes on Facebook across its trending news, fake news, and marketing metrics controversies. Meanwhile, the aftermath of the 2016 election has brands, nonprofits, and publishers all asking themselves, “who is my audience, anyway?”

So, for the third year running, our team has come together to (try to) identify the most important trends we’ll see in 2017 in media and technology — from the tyranny of machines to the rise (and return) of “special projects.” We want hear from you too — chime in with your own thoughts and responses.

The Tyranny of the Machines

As new technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning are poised to take the lead in crafting our digital experiences, it is important to consider a negative aspect of this trend: the choices that are being taken away from us.

“Alexa, show me your preferred brands.”

ProPublica touched on this point over the summer: the more decisions that are automated, the less control any one user actually has. Yes, automation reduces the time and effort necessary for users to achieve their intended goals, but it also gives immense power to the platforms themselves. For example, if Amazon’s Alexa gives a single choice of brand when we ask it to buy detergent or stories from a set group of news organizations when we ask it for a news update, it’s clear that these decisions are being made without unique audience preferences in mind.

We also lose, by extension, the serendipity that exposes us to new ideas or experiences. In a presentation on the growing importance of mobile, Benedict Evans envisions machine learning answering this problem for us: “What would I like that I’ve never seen?” But it remains a recursive argument — it requires a trust in the algorithms that have fed those machines. And some platforms have shown that their algorithms are wrong as much as they’re right.

In lieu of the machines, all organizations need to think about how they straddle the line between streamlining the user experience and giving audiences as much agency and freedom to explore as possible. The key questions we all need to ask ourselves:

  • What choices can I reasonably put back in the hands of my audience?
  • How can I remind my users of the choices they’ve made — knowingly or unknowingly?
  • Are my preferred partners or vendors the same as what my audience prefers?

Joshua Lasky, Senior Manager, Digital Trends and Insights

Facebook Faces the Big Questions

Mark Zuckerberg has denied it long enough — expect Facebook to be forced to truthfully answer (among other things) whether it’s a media company in 2017. Considering the amount of people that get their news from the platform’s News Feed and trending news feature, it’s become pretty clear that Facebook is (in some regard) a media company. It can also still be a tech company, but its role as news curator and gatekeeper undeniably makes the platform a power player in the media landscape.

As a result, Facebook will have to assess its editorial responsibility over the news that its audience sees — especially in terms of its news ranking algorithm and the fight against fake news on the site. So, here are my five questions for the platform in 2017:

  • Is Facebook a media company? (Yes.)
  • What level of editorial responsibility can it reasonably take on?
  • Should it develop mechanisms to prevent “filter bubbles” and fraudulent news stories?
  • How transparent should it be with its algorithm — as well as with its metrics?
  • How should these changes affect how it interacts with publishers and marketers?

Allie Klein, Marketing Fellow

Analysis vs. Advocacy

In the days following Trump’s win, journalists had to ask how they got it so wrong. In 2017, a variety of projects will aim to dissect the nuance of our societal divisions. An early example, from five days after the election: New York Times’ profiles showcased Trump voters as individuals, not as a block, and as divided not along one fault line, but many. Such reporting efforts will grow in ambition and complexity as reporters track how different groups and individuals across the country react to the first decisions of a Trump White House.

But journalists failed not only to understand much of the electorate as subject, but also to speak to it as an audience. Frank Bruni wrote a great early piece on this point, vowing “to use more care in how I talk to and about Americans more culturally conservative than I am. That’s no surrender of principle or passion.” But how does one navigate common ground without surrendering one’s principles? Organizations of every stripe must consider how they can both foster dialogue and act as a force for public good. Successful organizations will foster constructive debate in a manner we didn’t see this election.

Jean Ellen Cowgill, President

(This lightly-edited blurb originally appeared in Five Trends in Media, for the Council on Foundations)

The Rise (and Return) of the “Special Project”

Quartz’s “Power Moves

During the golden age of news, newspapers and media organizations were flush with resources to put behind special projects, investigations, and series. As the internet disrupted the industry and budgets tightened, these types of projects were the first to be cut. Organizations relied more on news aggregation and increased publishing velocity to feed digital audience habits.

Now, in the era of “peak content,” I am seeing media organizations re-focus their energy on “special projects” as a way to rise above the noise. These projects can take a variety of forms:

  • Quartz’s “Power Moves,” a quarterly editorial package on the art of negotiation
  • The New York Times’ “Watching,” a guide, newsletter, and tech tool for deciding which TV to watch
  • Buzzfeed’s “Tasty,” which started as a template for video recipes and has become a cooking media behemoth

While these projects vary in form and topic, they have a few things in common. They all focus on a specific topic that audiences care about. They all provide a level of depth (and maybe even obsession) that is hard to find elsewhere. And they all can be scaled or expanded to new mediums and platforms if successful. More and more media organizations are even hiring (or re-hiring) “special projects editors” to conceive, manage, and develop these efforts.

During the election season, media organizations were chasing micro-news cycles and contributing to the firehose of information audiences wanted. In the post-election recovery, there are real opportunities for media organizations to re-focus on specialization and depth as their audience’s interests diversify.

Jason Tomassini, Associate Director, Editorial

The Need for Connection and Comfort

Audiences will reconnect with their values — whatever they may be — in the coming year. Given this past election, audiences are going to double down on the issues and causes that matter most to them. For brands to stay relevant, they’re going to need to pay close attention to the personal values of their audiences, serving them with the community and meaningful connections that audiences seek. Authenticity gets thrown around a lot, but it’s going to be more important than ever.

For example, minimalist fine jewelry brand Vrai and Oro created a 24k gold safety pin, complete with black diamonds on the end, called Untitled. This very stylish pin is a luxurious version of the safety pins that some are wearing as a symbol of solidarity against sexism, racism, and xenophobia after the election. Vrai and Oro describes the pin on their blog as “a physical reminder of your core values; something with weight, an indicator of what you believe in.” The boutique is giving away 12 of them in a social campaign — asking their audience to post with hashtag #ThisIsUntitled — based on the company’s favorite responses.

I think we’re going to see more digital campaigns like this, where brands recognize the values truly important to their customers and respond in natural ways to serve that need. Audiences are yearning for connection and comfort, and it’s up to organizations of all kinds to be there for them.

KC Sledd, Senior Manager, Strategy

The New Social Capital

There’s an increasing imperative for politicians to participate on social media. As we saw in this year’s election, the news media is just as likely to cover social media blunders as real-life doings and sayings. With Americans — particularly youths — increasingly turning to social media sites as their main source for news, social is sure to expand as an important political arena.

What does this mean for brands? Should they pull out their social soapboxes? Get fiery on Facebook? Impassioned on Instagram? Punchy on Pinterest? In short, no.

While social has facilitated increased social engagement in politics, it’s probably not the kind of engagement you want. According to Pew Research, more than one-third of social media users are worn out by political content they encounter, and more than half describe their online interactions with those they disagree with politically as stressful and frustrating. In 2017, it’s best to leave the social politicking to the politicians.

Annie Feinberg, Marketing Manager

Quality over quantity

The content avalanche has been a hot media topic over the last few years. In 2016, the conversation hit a new level of urgency. Kevin Anderson even called this moment the age of Peak Content, and predicted a coming “collapse of the attention economy.”

With this critical inflection point comes an imperative for brands: Recognize that your audience’s’ time is valuable, and make the most of every minute they choose to spend with you. Better yet, help them make navigate and make sense of all of the noise. For example:

  • Instead of publishing a lengthy piece, create shorter snippets that fit easily into your audience’s day
  • Rather than writing one more article on a tired topic, curate the best of what’s already out there
  • Instead of adopting the same old content format, bring something new and creative to the conversation through a unique angle

Kristin Hume, Director, Brand and Marketing

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