I often say the media business is an execution game, and it starts with giving people the right link to the online forum. Apologies if you got registered for the recent subscriptions online forum The Rebooting held with Blueconic. This is the correct link. (If you have problems, please let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org)
The forum features a conversation with Bloomberg Media chief product officer Julia Beizer and Puck chief strategy officer Max Tcheyan on what’s next for publisher subscription businesses this year, as focus shifts from acquisition (still important) to retention. That’s followed by a view from the top presentation from Blueconic’s Will Barker that shows how publishers are using different tactics to foster loyalty (gifts are in). Check out the hourlong session. We will be doing more of these throughout the year. Thanks to Blueconic for the support.
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One of the delightful oddities of Japan is you get a receipt for every purchase, no matter small. In the course of a day, you will amass a mountain of them.
Receipts are handy because they are proof. Yesterday, I was talking to a veteran of B2B events. He remarked that the events at the publication he worked were the one stable area “because we had receipts.”
The media business extinction event — no, it’s not the entire industry, obviously — has caused some amount of soul searching for a way forward. I’m actually optimistic that, beyond the dislocation and turmoil that’s happened with unfortunately more to come, a new growth agenda will take shape as a flotilla of new models take shape that do not follow the playbooks of the past. After The Messenger, burn that playbook and disperse the ashes in a burial at sea.
Instead publishers need to focus on producing receipts. Those can come in the form of Stripe receipts for subscriptions, courses and products; receipts from purchases driven via affiliate; receipts like first-party data that proves a unique audience; receipts from attendance lists that show you can turn your audience into participants.
Receipts are needed because, as Troy writes, everybody lies in media. And that has cascaded and impacted the long term health of the industry. Ozy wasn’t as much of an outlier as many contend. Faking audiences is standard operating procedure; the quibbles were more about some of the more extreme methods deployed.
Consider why Barstool is being courted for another big money deal from a sportsbook. That’s because they’re producing receipts by getting their rabid fan base to take action.
That’s not easy. The content-to-commerce model is like socialism: looks good on paper, nearly impossible to pull off in reality. The difference between selling impressions and performance is like the difference between talking about running a marathon and actually running one,” Troy writes. “It takes a lot of fortitude and training. Performance involves finding intent, qualifying it and selling it off. It changes your content. It demands new technology, data, new skills and new thinking.”
Nobody has a birthright to a business. They need to be filling a need — and critically be able to prove they’re producing economic value. When I was a reporter at Adweek, I often wondered about the economic utility my work produced. It seemed at the time, run by The Messenger’s leadership, by the way, the business was propped up by congratulations ads for the endless lists we were tasked with producing. Egovertising has some value, but it’s limited. It’s why I preferred a business model that mostly monetized through events. Better to create a marketplace and connect a buy and sell side, especially when events gave you the receipts. If you got the right people in the room, you would succeed.
Performance marketing has eaten digital advertising, and that means publishers have to fight to prove their value. Whining about how unfair the market is doesn’t have a great track record in the long history of capitalism. Better to control what you can control, and the way for publishers to take control of their businesses is to prove their value.
I’ve seen this in my little corner. I’ve been doing this mostly solo endeavor for a few years now. Despite all the issues with the media business, and my revenue mostly tied to companies wanting to sell software and services to those businesses, my own business is doing well. A friend remarked earlier to me that you wouldn’t know there was “chaos” of you went to something like Affiliate Summit West. There are pockets not just surviving, but thriving.
The connective tissue I see, beyond niche, is those businesses focus on receipts. For me, it’s generating leads and getting partners in the room with decisionmakers. I talk more about sales enablement than brand lift. If you’re selling ultimately to a CRO, better to talk their language than what you’re comfortable talking. (This is a good time to remind you that while the year is off to a good start, get in touch to work together and connect with 21,000+ in the media and marketing ecosystem.)
The reality of media businesses is that most need to do many things to make money. The North Star for most should be producing receipts across everything that allows them to prove it. Because the information space is not for the faint of heart, and to survive and thrive you need more than fleeting growth hacks.
Psst no one likes your performance ads, even if they perform
Brian keeps writing (over and over!) that performance marketing has eaten brand marketing’s lunch. He’s right, and that’s wrong. We all know that timeless brands aren’t built on clicks and conversions; they’re built on creativity and love. In 2024, remind people what they really love about your brand by creating the kinds of comms, content, and community they’ll care about.
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Troy, Alex and I try to move off the blame game and look to the proactive steps the media business needs to take to implement a growth agenda. That has to start with the product, since the blame game tends to conveniently blame external forces and skate over the inconvenient reality that the product produced by much of the media business isn’t in demand or filling a need.
Earlier this week, I wrote about the need for a growth agenda. Here are excerpts of what readers had to say in response.
- “I don’t think the doom and gloom is unwarranted. The walled gardens increased share in ’23 and will continue to increase share in ’24. Traffic to publishers from social/search fell of a cliff last year and isn’t coming back.”
- “Agree with your view that the future for most media publishers is going to be smaller, still profitable but albeit a smaller piece of the pie.”
- “The digital market economics don’t currently leave space for experimentation and punishes failure fast right now. That's not good (and could be solvable).”
- “I find it so odd when people deride you for being negative. It seems much more like a clear eyed view of things, to me, than negativity. It's more ‘we got to figure this out’ than it is ‘the sky is falling.’"
I’m interested in getting your feedback on what a new growth agenda for the media business should encompass. Send me ideas at email@example.com.
The Messenger coda
It’s hard to tend too many garments over the demise of The Messenger. It was a death foretold. Not since Quibi have I seen a media property that was doomed from the start. Even Mic was more plausible.
It wasn’t the fault of the 300 employees for being duped; they were given mission impossible. It sucks how the end was handled, with an erased website, the typical ham-handed communication, no severance or health care continuation. It’s weird Americans tie health coverage to employment, even weirder with where the world is heading with more flexible and independent work. It didn’t fail because of the economy. It didn’t fill a need in the market, and I’m not convinced that would have been changed over time. It’s weird how these concepts get funding; makes you wonder if investors are all that diligent.. Its projections were never taken seriously by anyone I spoke to, and they felt out of a time capsule. It’s an indictment of leadership, there is no way around it when you miss your revenue target by 95%, that’s gross malpractice. It will be the last of these scale media plays to get funding for obvious reasons, at least until marketplace dynamics change and models adapt. Its failure isn’t an indictment of the overall media industry, which is vast and variegated, despite the inevitable attention paid to the consumer news category.
Thanks for reading. Thanks to EX.CO and Codeword for their support. Check out how EX.CO is helping publishers wring more value out of their ad slots through video and how Codeword is taking a humanistic approach to building brands in a world ruled by performance marketing.