Go Direct or Go Home: Rebuild the Media Experience

There has been a bit of a head fake toward trusted, but struggling, media brands of late. Facebook, of course, is always making disingenuous overtures to publishing partners, so the industry just discounts anything it says. But Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet and Anchor earlier this year, as well as the Apple News+ rollout, suggests to some that we are seeing some cracks in the oligopoly’s dominance with new ways for publishers to monetize their product perhaps with more generous partners.

But don’t count on it. The basic dynamic of having content disintermediated and fragmented from its source—and aggregated by a third party—has not changed, even if some of the faces and demeanors of the platforms do. For instance, Apple News+ has tried to put a happy face on the model by touting the trusted media brands it inherited from the Texture acquisition, a respect for privacy, and sharing revenue with the publishers to support quality content. Reportedly, Apple will slice and dice about half the revenue, from this $10 a month premium service, on a usage basis among its potentially hundreds of providers. It is hard to believe that even at Apple’s scale, these slices of slices of slices of revenue add up to much for anyone. And for any paywalled providers such as The New York Times and The Washington Post, the cannibalization risks are clear.

Spotify has proven an able rival to the paid Apple Music service in terms of scale and appeal. Publishers must welcome a sizable alternative distribution channel to Apple’s downright negligent attitude toward the iTunes podcast ecosystem. Spotify has a nominally better environment and a much better recommendation engine that could drive one glaring weakness of a cluttered podcast economy: discovery. The possibility of folding podcast content into the mix seems enticing—for all of a minute.

But again, Spotify’s true intent here is unclear. It will continue to be a content maker (thus, rival) to any distribution partners, which raises a host of conflicting interests on the subscription and ad sales sides. And Spotify is unlikely to save the medium from its own tedium. Podcasting has already become cluttered not only with content, but with annoying ad formats. 

Publishers will never get what they want and need from platforms, no matter how much distributors claim to honor content. They see media merely as content providers—not brands and certainly not discrete experiences. Going directly to the consumer has been the method for a while among publishers. But the focus too often is on immediate monetization rather than real brand building. The platform revolution didn’t just blow up business models; it blew up the media experience itself by untethering content and creating mediocre-to-horrid aggregations.

The best hope for media brands is to use direct channels to build and drive compelling media environments again. Look at some of the brands that have emerged in recent years that have done this effectively. For instance, Axios has leveraged its brief, bullet-pointed method to everything from its site to email newsletters to podcasts. The tech serves the experience, and the company uses a branded content monetization scheme to fit, rather than interrupt, the overall environment.

Quartz maintains its one-to-one conversational vibe by emphasizing its email newsletter delivery mechanism and extending that into its app, which behaves like a chatbot. Wirecutter is a digitally savvy counterpoint to the lab-coated Consumer Reports. It builds trust in a personable way—with voice, the experience of the reviewer, and a set of everyday usage criteria it applies to product evaluations. It templates this on the site so it is both standardized and human. Financial Times is arguably the most experienced publisher in mobile web design, and it shows in an experience that feels more like a data/news console than a typical site. The content is an interactive experience.

All of these brands, old and new, have merited their direct traffic and relationship with users in part because they understand that media is more than content. It is also an environment in which information and experiences are best absorbed.   


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Critics target as socially harmful only those personal technologies they find vaguely distasteful or unfamiliar while they notably exclude others. We never respond to images of masses of people reading newspapers in public or nose-down in their own books at libraries as dire signs of alienation. Our hand-wringing about the social costs of mobile gadgetry is as selective and myopic as it ultimately unhelpful in understanding the phenomenon that is mobile.
I say this with love: Podcasting needs an upgrade. I am struck by the lack of genuine innovation around its content, distribution, discoverability, and monetization.