At a recent panel event on the topic “Reimagining the Media, Agency, Client Relationship” the moderator asked me a question, that begin with “as a publisher…”. In all honesty, I didn’t really hear the rest of the question. I was stuck on his categorization. My immediate response was to say “IMHO, publishing is a dead model. I don’t consider what we do at Thomas as publishing. We run a platform and two-sided marketplace for the industrial market that is always on, used by buyers and suppliers around the world, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We add features, functionality and content on an ongoing basis, not based on a publishing cycle or frequency but based on users needs and their jobs to be done”. Given that the meeting was graciously hosted by The Wall Street Journal in their beautiful offices, my comments got an immediate “thanks very much Tony” from our host and laughter and applause from the audience.
We were encouraged to be provocative in order to stimulate discussion and it sure worked! I wasn’t trying to simply be controversial however. One of the biggest challenges in the long journey that is the digital transformation of media is that many of us are still managing “Media” or “Publishing” models today, in what have become radically and irrevocably different businesses.
From Print to Digital. From Websites to Platforms
So what’s really at issue here? Are the claims of the “death of media” simply a reflection of the long, turbulent transformation from print to digital? Or are we actually seeing something more profound at work? Technology revolutions create new business models, new competitors and overtime fundamentally alter the status quo. The changes in retail, transportation, print media, filmed entertainment and advertising in the last 10 years have been stunning. And they are only just beginning. In 2006 while running The Hollywood Reporter; studio, talent and production executives would chuckle when I would ask about the potential of streaming. At the time DVD sales and rentals had grown to $20 Billion a year in revenue (2x the size of theatrical box office) and many of these executives simply couldn’t imagine a world where streaming would have a material impact on their business. They can imagine it now.
Technology forces you to reevaluate what business you’re in. Adopting technology into your current business may yield some efficiencies or perhaps create some new capabilities. As your technology capabilities evolve however, you need to start reimagining your business. 15 years ago the idea that a new company could disinter-mediate the relationship between media brand and advertiser seemed ridiculous. So much so that media companies embraced these upstart companies as new “newsstand” or distribution partners. Then they woke up one day to the realization that they had been marginalized as these companies had stepped in front of them and now owned the relationships with their audiences and advertisers.
My own journey in this process has been and continues to be an incredible ride. Having grown up in companies that produce business information for technology professionals, I’ve had a ring side seat for every major tech disruption over last 20 years. As print media started to give way to digital I found myself in the front seat of the digital transformation roller coaster. About 12 years ago I begin to see the limits of traditional media websites. The formula of endlessly renting audiences via SEM and other paid means, plus decreasing CPM’s, CTR’s and CPL’s, simply wasn’t sustainable. In an effort to survive many websites turned all of their attention to advertiser results, adding tech-fueled tricks that they hoped would drive traffic and clicks. Some sites started to resemble cars at a NASCAR race, with any number of ads and logos, and an ever increasing series of ad units that loaded via pop ups, pop unders and other stunts, all in attempt to increase advertising.
I begin a slow but steady exploration of the next evolution of the web sites we were producing. As I did so I began to focus far more on the user and user experience than on the advertiser and advertising experience. What began to emerge was a thesis that True North for the next generation of web based “media” called for a myopic focus on the User and their jobs to be done. This focus would then in turn best serve the needs of the advertiser. As we developed this strategy we begin to see a profound shift in the way we viewed and understood our business. Our focus on visits and clicks as the core currency for our business started to shift to user-value metrics like registration, repeat usage and deep engagement with tools and resources. As this process accelerated we found several things that surprised us. Visits and high-value engagement with advertising went up. We also stopped any SEM or paid traffic driving. As our strategy developed we also realized our platform was serving a powerful and robust two-sided marketplace. Our advertisers were also looking for a great user experience as they used our platform to reach and engage early stage and in-market volume buyers.
It’s fair to say that the term “platform” is overused and misused, particularly by sites that are anything but. Regardless of what you want to call this next generation of digital media businesses however, I believe that the shift from website to platform is essential to survive and thrive in today’s digital media world. We’re already starting to think about the next shift too, which we see as Platform to Marketplace….but that’s for another post.
It’s time that we redefine “media”. Yes in some cases, if you’re running a print newspaper, magazine or book business, the models and processes are still traditional publishing models. But even here, advances in technology are allowing innovative people to redefine these models. Some of you might be thinking “hold on, people still really love print”. Yes and people still like riding horses too but the horse is no longer the dominant form of transportation and hasn’t been for over 100 years. Ask yourself whether you’re spending more time rationalizing a current and declining media model or defining your future model. And for those of you that haven’t yet started this process of reimagining the business you’re in, you will quickly learn that if you don’t a competitor will.