The New Reality of Media

by Thomas Baekdal

Understanding media no longer means talking about formats — print versus digital or desktop versus mobile. It’s actually about the right type of moments: How people behave — their intent — is the new way of thinking about media in the digital world.

A fascinating thing is happening to the future of media — the very foundation of how we focus it has changed. In the past, we focused our business models around the formats first, the limitations of the market second, and whatever other focus we might have third. Now, publishers are faced with a new reality of having to redefine everything on the basis of how people behave.

We have never needed to do this before, because the audience’s behavior has never been that different for each type of media.

Think about how people consumed media in the past. Take the morning newspaper: How did people read that? Well, it was something we would sit down with, which meant we consumed it in a lean-back way, or what we call a macro-moment.

We had no idea what was in the newspaper before we started reading it, and as such made no decision. Instead we flipped from one page to the next, glancing over the pages and taking in each page, one at a time.

This means it was a passive form of media, and also that it lacked any specific intent.

Similarly, because of market limitations, we could only deliver one newspaper per day (at the most), and everyone would get the same package. This means that the newspaper was forced to be the jack of all trades but master of none, or what we call a package with a little bit of everything.

This meant that people never really cared about the individual articles. To care, you need to choose; to choose, you need intent. You can’t do that with a print newspaper.

The result was that the journalistic profession became ‘the bringers of news.’ A group of people working tirelessly every day to produce as much random content as possible. In doing so, they also barred themselves from being specialists.

When we look at a typical CV of a journalist, we find randomness.

Here is an example of the topics covered by one Norwegian journalist in one newspaper: politics, lottery winners, error in a tech platform, earthquakes, Twitter harassment, a hotel fire, the zika epidemic, gambling, immigration, the financial state of banks, viral content, train delays in China, and an emergency plane landing. These are just the articles published by one journalist over two weeks!

It’s 100% randomness. There is no targeting, no focus, no momentum, no passion, and no purpose. It’s just a package of random content.

Because of this, journalists have become an invisible force behind bylines that people never notice. Sure, there are a few exceptions, but most journalists are completely unknown to the people who read their newspapers.

Now look at magazines. True, most magazines have a somewhat sharper target. Gardening, fashion, or health magazines add a bit more specific focus, but even within their focus they follow the same pattern.

Magazines are also read in a lean-back behavior, using a passive form of media, where the focus is on the package of content rather than the value of the individual article. These journalists are also covering a little bit of everything behind impersonal bylines. And like newspapers, traditional magazines are consumed by aimlessly flipping the pages, because you have no idea what will be on the next page. Again, it’s designed for when people have no intent.

Now look at TV. It’s the same story.

TVs are lean back, and most TV channels follow the same business model of creating a little of everything for everyone. We see this clearly when we look at the TV guide. Here is an example from TV2 Norge:

It’s the same thing.

It’s a little of everything, for an undefined mass-market, as part of a package of content. Every day there is a new package, and in the past when TV2 Norge and NRK were the only channels available, people consumed them in the same way too.

You see what’s happening here?

When we look at traditional media, we see that they are all the same. They are based on the same type of behavior, the same type of packaged content, the same randomness, and the same limitations of distribution.

The difference is the format. Traditional newspapers are based mostly on text, magazines are based mostly on images, while TV is based on video. The format was the distinctive factor differentiating between types of media.

But now look at the digital world: What do you see? How do digital natives define media?

For one thing, they are format agnostic by default. Go to any article online and you will find that it includes a mix of text, images, and video. The best articles also include interactive content, that helps people understand a concept in ways that we could never do with mere text and images.

But if we take away the format as a differentiator, doesn’t that mean that every publisher is alike? Well, that’s exactly what has happened when you look at traditional publishers online, but this is not the case when you look at the digital natives.

The natives have redefined the distinctiveness of media around two key elements. One is the purpose on which they focus, and the other is the type of behavior they are targeting.

Think about how different that is compared to old media. Old media had no single purpose because the breadth of the overall package made the purposes random. Nor did it focus on specific behavior, since there was only one type to target.

So what types of purpose and behaviors are we talking about?

As we have all seen, the digital world, mobiles, and prolific internet access have allowed us to consume media whenever we like. We call these the micro-moments. But we haven’t simply shifted from macro-moments to micro-moments — we now have them both.

But even this is too simplistic a model for how the digital world behaves. Because within each of these moments, we also have different levels of intent.

This ranges from moments where we have no real intent at all (when we are merely bored and looking for entertainment) to moments of precise intent (when we are seeking specific information). We also have moments of intent when we are looking to be inspired about something we care about, such as a specific topic or a person.

This is where the magic starts. Because when you combine these different moments with the different types of intent, it’s suddenly easy to see what the digital natives are doing, and also how niche they are.

Take a site like BuzzFeed: It’s huge, but what type of moment is it designed for? The answer is obvious; BuzzFeed is designed for micro-moments for people who are bored. You don’t go to BuzzFeed if you are looking for something specific, nor do you go to BuzzFeed to be inspired.

BuzzFeed is a publisher that is optimizing for a very specific type of behavior. It might seem like they are doing everything, but in terms of the behavior they are targeting, they are exceptionally niche.

For comparison, if we look at the YouTube “Let’s Players,” we see an entirely different type of behavior (or, to be fair, more than one). Many of these popular YouTubers are creating mostly macro-moments forpeople who are bored. They are creating content that you sit down with to relax and laugh.

We have another group of YouTubers who are designing for people who want to be informed (who are looking for something) — for example, Robert Llewellyn (famous from the BBC series Red Dwarf) and hisamazing channel about electric cars and renewable energy. Again, this is designed around a macro-moment, but for people who like to stay up-to-date on all the latest news within this topic.

We also have YouTubers who focus on inspiring people. For instance, take a look at Jamie Oliver’s absolutely amazing FoodTube. Each video is designed to inspire. It’s clearly not for people who are simply bored.

This breakdown extends to all forms of media online. Look at Vox — what are they doing? They are nothing like BuzzFeed, and they are not designing for micro-moments. They are instead doing the same thing that Jamie Oliver’s doing: They are creating macro-moments for people who want to be inspired. Another example of this is John Oliver’s hugely popular show Last Week Tonight.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that micro-moments are only for bored people while macro-moments are only for those who want to be inspired. Not at all. Look at all the hugely popular fashion bloggers and Instagrammers, people who often have more traffic and more followers than entire traditional fashion magazines.

In Norway, we have hugely popular bloggers like Hanneli, who has a quarter of a million followers on Instagram (in a country with only 5 million people), and a very popular blog. But her content isn’t designed for macro-moments. It is designed around a micro-moment forpeople who want to be inspired.

This is the key to understanding what is really happening in the digital world. It was never about a shift from print to digital. It was never about the format. It is crucially about this shift from a random package tohighly specific channels targeting a certain type of moment and a certain type of behavior.

Instead of just having one model defined around a package, we now have many models. Each one is successful in its own way, and each one works very differently.

If your business model is defined by programmatic advertising, which requires you to generate as much traffic as possible, your focus needs to be on creating micro-moments for people who are bored. That model will drive the most traffic by far (Case in point: BuzzFeed now has over one billion views worldwide per month).

However, when you do this, you also attract an audience with a very low intent and loyalty, which means that your audience will be dominated by random and mostly first-time visitors. The result is that, while you get a ton of traffic, it would be impossible to monetize it in any other way.

But if we look at amazing niche verticals like Rafat Ali’s Skift, we see an entirely different model. Here the focus is on the macro-moments for people who are looking for something. As such, the overall traffic potential is much, much lower, but its value is also much higher. It’s this simple shift in behavior that allows Skift to be successful via a subscription model.

Designing for each one of these behaviors works, but they are not even close to being the same. Each requires completely different editorial strategies, target markets, and distribution channels.

Speaking of distribution channels, we see the same trend here. Look at Facebook: It’s huge and amazing, and it has transformed much of our world. But think about it in relation to the behaviors described before. What type of behavior is Facebook designed for?

Many people in the traditional media world (and in the branding world) seem to believe that Facebook can be used for everything, that Facebook is a channel that will benefit every publisher. That’s not the case at all.

Facebook is almost entirely focused on creating micro-moments for people who are bored. That’s what Facebook is about. It’s a channel that we turn to when we don’t have anything specific to do, where we will browse through the News Feed without any specific intent.

This means that Facebook is, counter-intuitively, a niche channel. It looks huge because of all the people who are using it and the amazing overall amount of traffic they can generate. But that’s because you are not looking at the behavior of this audience.

Any publisher that matches Facebook’s behavior will get a ton of traffic (like BuzzFeed), just as any publisher who doesn’t match that behavior won’t.

But wait a minute, you say. Facebook is increasingly the platform where people discover news, so isn’t Facebook for everything? The answer to this is a bit complicated.

The first problem is knowing whether we are talking about Facebook as a platform, or whether we are talking about the News Feed.

If we talk about the News Feed, it’s pretty clear that it only really works for a certain type of content. For instance, at the 2016 News:ReWired event, the publisher of Now This, the mobile news startup, said this:

“Facebook is asking us to do longer videos. We will do it if Facebook provides a place to consume longer videos. The News Feed isn’t that place.”

And he is right. Nobody goes to Facebook to watch anything.

We see this clearly when we look at the popular YouTubers. Most of the YouTubers who are designing for macro-moments for people who want to feel inspired aren’t doing that well on Facebook. The micro-moment of Facebook doesn’t match the macro-moment of their videos.

Facebook’s News Feed is designed entirely around the concept of people checking it out, discovering something they hadn’t planned to see, and then engaging with it. That’s a micro-moment.

Another example of this is when we look at live videos, which Facebook is pushing aggressively at the moment. As a platform, Facebook Live is a very interesting concept, because it allows people to watch LIVE video within their existing ecosystem. The engagement, the network and the connections are all the same. As a platform, Facebook is providing a better form of distribution than what publishers can do on their own.

It’s simply easier for people to go to Facebook than it is for them to go to the publisher’s own sites. But does this mean that Facebook Live is for everything?

The problem, again, depends on how much work you put into it. If the only thing you do is to start live streaming without any prior campaign, Facebook Live only works for snackable entertainment for people who just happened to come by.

We saw this quite clearly with BuzzFeed’s ‘Exploding Watermelon’ video. As a gimmick and a social phenomenon, it was amazing. But that was also the only reason it worked.

It was a LIVE video, published late on a Friday afternoon (perfect for people waiting for the weekend). It was silly and funny at the same time (in other words, it was pure entertainment), and it was designed around a suspenseful moment (when would it explode?), and published at the exact moment when Facebook — and everyone else — was talking about this new live video feature.

In short, it was the perfect gimmick, at the right time, with the right mood, and the right content.

But try changing any one of these factors, and we see how unique this moment really was. Imagine that they had posted this instead on a Tuesday morning, when people were too busy with their work to watch it.

Imagine that it wasn’t about an exploding watermelon, but about the earthquake in Japan. That may arguably be a much more important story, but it would never attract 800,000 people on Facebook.

There are of course plenty of other, more serious examples that could work on Facebook. But because discovery on Facebook is so random and has such little intent, the highest performing content will mostly be entertainment.

This is also why BuzzFeed defines its video unit as an entertainment unit, rather than a part of BuzzFeed News.

Or look at BBC Sport: When it wanted to optimize for Facebook, it created a ‘Match of the Day’ Facebook page and looked at what worked and what didn’t. And they found that:

“The page’s fans, the majority of whom are aged 16–24, wanted the Match of the Day Facebook account to be knowledgeable, cheeky and irreverent, and mirror the tone of the TV presenting team during the lighter moments of our broadcasts.”

In other words, what people are looking for is a micro-moment with low intent.

The result is that we actually have two different ways publishers can use Facebook.

One group matches Facebook’s behavior using the platform as an extension of their editorial strategy, often even as a direct distribution channel via Facebook Instant Articles. These are publishers who are optimizing for the micro-moments of people who don’t know what they’re looking for.

The other group, which doesn’t match Facebook’s micro-moment/bored behavior, is instead using Facebook solely as a marketing channel. These publishers are not trying to distribute their content on Facebook, nor are their Facebook posts part of their editorial strategy. Some even go as far as to simply ignore Facebook entirely.

Remember Hanneli? She is on Instagram and Twitter… but not on Facebook. Facebook’s behavior doesn’t match her purpose. And we see exactly the same from many popular YouTubers.

This is the new reality. The problem every traditional publisher now faces is that their old format-first approach in truth doesn’t match any of these behaviors. A traditional newspaper, with all of its random content, matches the micro-moments for people who are bored, but the editorial focus instead fits macro-moments for people looking for news.

We see this very clearly with newspapers today. If we look at how people consume news online, we see that everyone is snacking. You check VG/Aftenposten/Aftenbladet when you have a spare moment. And you have no real expectation about what news you hope to see.

This means that today’s newspaper readers are having a micro-moment with low intent, which is why so much of today’s news distribution is now happening on Facebook. The way people read random news and the way Facebook works are one and the same.

The problem is that regular news articles don’t really work well on Facebook. If you compare news articles focusing on the lighter moments with articles about hard news, we always find that the lighter moments drive more traffic.

The result, of course, is that the more newspapers optimize their traffic, the more they are gradually pushed towards only the lighter forms of news. Almost inevitably, traditional publications now exist in a no-man’s-land, where their editorial focus (serious news) and their digital formats (lighter moments) are in direct conflict with each other.

This is true for every traditional publisher.

I want to mention one more thing, which is that this doesn’t only apply to the media. It applies to any type of business …including classified sites.

Schibsted has done an amazing job turning old newspaper classifieds into this behemoth of dedicated classified sites like Finn.no. But try comparing that with what I just mentioned.

Finn.no has no specific focus, and as a result doesn’t match these new types of behaviors. It wins because of its scale and size, but it doesn’t fit the model. Meanwhile, we are seeing more and more digital native sites that are coming out with new ways of doing this.

One example is Houzz.com. Houzz is a fascinating site in that it’s a classified site, but one that defines itself around creating a community of people who have a very specific behavior, focus and intent.

Houzz.com is branding their site as “The new way to design your home”. You can discover design ideas by browsing millions of photos based on your taste; find and connect with home professionals who can help with your project; and shop for your home from Houzz’ curated collection.

This is the real shift in the market: We are no longer defined around a random package. It was never about a shift from print to digital. The real shift is from an old world of formats to the new world of behaviors.

And to win, every publisher must now find their niche.

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