Where are media companies investing their tech dollars?

Media has always been a tech-driven business, exploiting, over centuries, the development of papyrus, paper, printing, radio, TV and the World Wide Web. The key to each of these revolutionary technologies is that they made the distribution of content fundamentally easier. 

While content is the bedrock on which media companies are built, the adage that ‘context is king’ is undeniably true. It doesn’t matter if you’ve invested in an award-winning team of journalists, or that you’ve spent millions on a world-altering piece of data journalism if nobody sees it and it doesn’t benefit your bottom line. The problem is that when there is so much content, so widely distributed, it’s tough to find your audience. 

Media companies have been investing huge amounts in building or licensing proprietary tech solutions in order to counter those pitfalls. News UK, for instance, is approaching the end of a trial of a new tech solution designed to reduce subscriber churn as it tacitly admits it cannot grow subscriber numbers forever, while Schibsted is investing in a new techstack across its many titles which allows for greater personalisation and the surfacing of content relevant to its audience.

Who’s looking at you, kid.

The same technology that can be used to tailor content to individual users can also be used to deliver more targeted advertising, which is seen as one way to avoid the race-to-the-bottom nature of most digital display advertising.

Additionally, as the push for more ecommerce revenue continues in the face of squeezed display ad spend, publishers are finding they have to invest significantly in the tech and skills behind such transactions. Writing for Digiday, Max Willens points out that where ecommerce retailers are unwilling or unable to share data on transactions, it’s often up to the publishers themselves to make up that deficiency:

“Affiliate commerce data can help a publisher identify which retailers and brands a publisher’s audience likes, which can help editors figure out what to cover and help the ad sales side secure advertising.”

The predominant trend among all this tech investment is in service of creating greater affinity for the product among an audience. Last year, Piano’s Michael Silberman argued that while publishers were taking early steps down that road, nearly all of them are a few lengths behind Amazon and other tech platforms when it comes to that investment:

“It’s this shift not only from attention to engagement and from a content-centric point of view to a customer-centric point of view. And then applying your intelligence about that customer to create an editorial product that’ll really be appealing to them.”

As if to underscore the lengths to which media companies are putting their eggs in tech’s basket, the latest Journalism, Media and Technology Trends report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism includes the statistic that almost three quarters of news publishers surveyed were looking to invest in AI for the purposes of supporting better content recommendations and in the creation of some automated journalism.

None of which is to say that tech investment is a catch-all solution to some of media’s endemic issues. For one thing, the tech that underpins some content recommendation engines out there is noticeably crap and unfit for purpose still.

Additionally look at the abject failure of Facebook’s decision to phase out human editors in favour of algorithmically-generated breaking newsfeeds. You can make an argument that was the first step towards the Facebook of today which, after also weathering the storm of the Cambridge Analytica debacle, saw only 23 percent of people agreeing that Facebook is committed to protecting the privacy of user’s personal information. In 2017 that figure was 27 percent.

While personalisation tech is central to media companies’ strategies over the next few years, it doesn’t mean anything if they fail to attract enough of an audience in the first place. Having that solid bedrock of content which is valuable enough to audiences that they’ll consider purchasing through your site or buying a subscription is more vital than ever, and often comes down to gut instinct or a good idea before anything tech-related occurs.

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the media, information, technology, communications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.