January 29, 2021
Members Only

Media Gets Its Focus

I was interviewing a candidate for a job last week and he asked me an interesting question that stuck with me. “Do you imagine the content changing much in the future?” I told him the truth. What you see today is what will be there in the future, but we’ll also do more.

He seemed relieved by that answer. When I asked him to qualify, he explained that his previous companies had constantly changed the type of content they created. Long-form, short hits, live blogging… whatever the latest fad was, they were trying.

I was thinking about this when I read Digiday’s new feature, Media Briefing. One of the trends that editor Max Willens sees is a focus on what works.

After ten months (and counting) of dealing with the coronavirus’s fallout, publishers are paying less attention to nascent or incremental opportunities and instead doubling down on things that are turn-key, repeatable, and easy to sell.

That doesn’t mean publishers are going back to things that are antiquated, necessarily; some of the things that they’ll focus on emerged during the most uncertain stretches of 2020. But anybody who went into 2021 hoping to turn the page and try something new is going to have to wait until the second half of the year, at least.

While not directly related to the conversation I had with the candidate, it’s still a refreshing attitude to take. Think about what the past decade has looked like in media.

First, it was creating a ton of content for search. Then there was the pivot to social. When that started to go stale, we had the pivot to video. There has been a pivot to audio and newsletters over the past couple of years. Media loves nothing more than pivoting to something new.

If we learned one thing during Covid, it’s that it was the perfect opportunity to experiment with different opportunities. Six weeks into quarantine, I wrote:

Is all of it going to work? Of course not. However, what if something does work? The New York Times put its live blog in front of the paywall. What if that results in a surge in subscriptions? Axios’ app is actually pretty nice. Is that a precursor to me paying for news once they’ve collected more data?

When business is stable, many companies get comfortable and don’t innovate. As I said a few weeks ago, during this crisis, we have to adapt. New business models may evolve. And ultimately, we need to experiment with new ideas. You never know what might become a future line of business.

Media companies are now recognizing that some of those experiments are working. Rather than coming out of this crisis with a bunch of new ideas that they want to try, publishers are looking at their best stuff and doubling down on it. Perhaps they invest more in those specific ideas or they just learn to sell it better.

At this point in the cycle, I think this is exactly the attitude that publishers need to have. From a business perspective, the initial crisis is over even if the health crisis is sadly far from it.

It helps to think about it as a hospital. When Covid first hit, the initial response was to look at the business like an ER doctor. When a person having a heat attack comes in, they stabilize the individual. Their job is to triage the various problems and prioritize based entirely on keeping the person alive.

This is what happened during Covid. Media companies were in a complete panic and were trying a lot of different things in an effort to keep the business alive. That was both defensive moves—layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, etc.—and offensive moves—launching new products. The goal was just to stay alive any way they could.

Now we’re at the next stage of being in the hospital where we’re aiming for longevity. In the case of a heart attack, it might be doing a bypass or putting a stent in. This requires patience and analysis to determine the right approach for that patient.

In the ER, it’s about surviving through the night. In the OR, it’s about surviving much longer.

This is where media companies are now. They’re looking at what happened during that initial panic and are now zeroing in on the opportunities that could act as a foundation for a much stronger business as Covid continues to progress.

There are two things you need to do at this point.

The first is to figure out what’s doing well. This is the easy stuff. You want to step in, give it more resources, and see what can come from that. With the right investment, you can really give these ideas room to thrive and become stable business units.

A good example would be a podcast. Maybe you started with an interview show and it’s really got a following. How can you make it sound better? Is there post-production work that can be done to take it from a 5 to a 10? Can you add another element to it, such as video, and start distributing it on other platforms?

With these ideas, you want to add fuel to the fire. This isn’t the time to hold back out of fear. We’ve survived the initial panic. We want to now invest in things that can be even bigger in a year.

The second thing you want to do is look at what’s not doing well. Are these ideas not doing well because of a lack of investment or because the idea is just not that good? You need to be critical here. The worst thing you can do is allow an idea to limp along because it still costs money which is better suited for great ideas.

A good example of this critical focus is analyzing the various monetization tactics you use. When Covid hit, we threw everything at the wall to see what would stick: donations, swag, new ad types, and a variety of other things. We had to. We needed to survive. Now’s the time to look at those and see if there are any that are not contributing to the bottom line.

When we talk about media companies like Industry Dive and Dotdash, one of the things that’s important to understand is that their business models are very simple. They recognize what works and they zero in on that, optimizing it until it’s earning as much revenue as possible. In both cases, that’s advertising. They haven’t gotten distracted by the latest fad.

Anytime I talk to a media operator that is finding success, they say the same thing: they’ve got a playbook for their business and they’re sticking to it through everything. If that’s advertising, great. If that’s something different, that’s also great.

We need to do the same thing. If a donation program showed signs of life during Covid, perhaps it’s time to refocus that effort on a more robust subscription product. On the other hand, if the donation program has generated no money, pivot away from it. We want to move into this year with strong, growing ideas that can really generate solid revenue for us.

The real reason this matters, more than anything else, is because focus results in success. One thing I’ve learned over my career is that people don’t multitask well. We pretend to, but we don’t. If we have three things that need to be done, we’re going to prioritize the one we want to do. That’s normal behavior.

By reducing the number of things that we as media companies do, we are able to increase the quality of the remaining activities. When people are able to dig deep with a single idea, they’re able to create more value. That’s what we need to be focusing on.

The chaos is behind us in many respects. I remember those fears. We all do. We thought this was the end of the road for most companies.

Instead, many of us are thriving. We’re doing far better than we could have ever anticipated when we first started closing the economy down in March. And through that period, we tried a lot of different things.

For the ideas that worked during those dark times, give them the focus they need to really succeed. Invest in the talent to take a good idea and make it exceptional. Get your team trained on how to sell it efficiently so you can maximize revenue. Double down on audience channels that are driving growth.

Media pivots way too much. For the past decade, we have built on sand. We chased every possible fad we could get our hands on and then gave up because something new came along.

We now have an opportunity to have a semi-fresh start. We can look at our businesses with critical eyes to give us a strong foundation built on cement. Once that’s done, we can start talking about investments in new ideas.

When I read the above quote from Digiday, I’m optimistic. Maybe, just maybe, we’re learning our lessons. At some point, media companies are going to get things right. We’ll have made a ton of mistakes, but out of that will come stronger businesses. Media getting focused is the best thing we can do.

Join me in the AMO Slack channel to discuss this further. I’d love to hear what you’re focusing on this year.

Join A Media Operator

Consider becoming a premium member so you can receive even more analysis and insights.