You could argue that the most important skill of any media leader is the ability to temper expectations. Everyone’s constantly looking for the next unicorn, and as soon as some hot new thing appears suddenly everyone’s on the accelerator and nobody’s on the brakes. The next step is typically a sky-high valuation and successive rounds of VC investment – followed by a tepid or downright chilly response when the property takes longer than expected to find its feet or fails to deliver a return.
Look at what happened with Mashable, which sold for a fifth of its Spring 2016 valuation of $250m at the end of last year, and which had staked its fortune on the ability to reach a generalist audience at huge scale. When it sold to Ziff Davis in a “fire sale” price in December, much of the analysis was around why the publisher’s earlier valuation was so outsized.
In an article on the phenomenon, which includes suggestions that VICE and BuzzFeed are having the same problem on a smaller scale, the New Statesman’s Jasper Jackson argues:
“It’s those expectations – which treat media companies more like tech companies – that take the gloss off relatively successful outfits.”
Nor is the phenomenon reserved for brand new media companies. In this age of transition, even legacy properties can receive huge amounts of hype when it launches a new product or pivots to the medium du jour. As my Media Voices co-host Peter Houston mentioned on last week’s episode, David Pemsel’s challenge with the Guardian now isn’t finding new sources of revenue – it’s managing the expectation that it will break even next year, as was enthusiastically foretold last week. Failure to do so would cast a pall over not just the idea of the Guardian’s sustainability, but the ability of legacy organisations to sustain themselves at scale through membership.
Most media analysts have lived through plenty of similar hype cycles. Despite that, because this is an industry where means of production and distribution are shaken up or disrupted so rapidly, we’re all still prone to hype up new forms of media because we want to believe there are solutions out there. I can still remember being certain that Circa’s constantly updating form of news publishing would herald a new dawn for news consumption, and look how that turned out.
The latest media hype bubble to burst might be that of the chatbot. As Wired’s Erin Griffith and Tom Simonite put it, in an article titled ‘Facebook’s virtual assistant M is dead. So are chatbots‘: (more…)