The Content Revenue Streams of 2014

Article ImageAs has been the custom in this column since before I went gray, we end the year and our EContent 100 issue with a peek into the revenue-generating models that will dominate the coming year. Content is faced with an acute problem: The advertising support on which it counted is veering noticeably into marketing budgets and especially their own content projects. This has been a long time coming (a decade, in fact), but only now are we seeing publishers panic enough to commit to some radically different models or take the ones that have been out there for a while more seriously. A din of good and bad ideas rather than a clear direction is what we will get in 2014.

You Are All Native Now: The most gelatinous term of the year is only going to get slipperier and probably less meaningful. On the high end, major media truly believes it can retrieve and retain premium prices if it just stops being so precious about that pesky "church and state" distinction. Making ads feel similar to the native content experience is really another way of saying that you don't want your readers to see any distinction. Personally, I am skeptical of the ethics of this. On the business side, I do not believe we will see greater clarity a year from now over what is and is not native as we see ad networks, in-text ads, recommendation engines, and the like all pile on.

Brands as Publishers: The more familiar custom content model could be the main beneficiary of the native craze. Brands are really not great publishers, and they likely don't want to be. The big contest here may be between traditional content providers and ad agencies, which are setting up brand "newsrooms" to service clients. Digitas' BrandLIVE is the leading example. Journalists are being lured into agencies to man the operations. Look for publishers to get into this game too as an extension of custom content services.

Subscription as a Service: As content and its consumers move more fluidly across screens, the all-access pass is evolving into a new animal: subscriber services. Content is not enough to get more revenue directly from readers. People magazine is an early leader in this model, offering tiered subscription programs that top off at $200 a year and include three gift boxes of beauty goodies a year as well as a gift subscription for a friend and access to special contents to win red carpet trips.

The Robot Cow Is Out of the Barn: The final holdouts among major media are caving in when it comes to participating in programmatic ad trading. Agencies are demanding the ability to plug their sellers into trading desks for a wider range of ad types. Private marketplaces are a start, but publishers with limited inventory are going to have to find ways of getting into the data game without losing their data and their cost per milles (CPMs). Look for a lot of activity around getting rich media into both traditional and mobile exchanges, because this is one way to keep CPMs from going all RTB (churlishly called "race to the bottom") on you.

Native Commerce: If you thought native ads brought editorial and advertising deliberately and uncomfortably close, just wait for content-driven ecommerce to accelerate. Augmented reality apps are already overlaying buy buttons on beauty magazine pages. Upstart men's cool-hunting publisher Thrillist owns e-tailor JackThreads and devises special local deals that are as much cool editorial concoctions as your everyday Groupon. One of the coolest iterations of content and ecommerce we have seen is, where the site only sells products the readers themselves test and recommend. Look for merchandise and content combos that are every bit as creative as the native ad craze.

Publisher as Trainer: The next generation of wearable computers and motion-hypersensitive smartphones (iPhone 5s, Galaxy 4) are both body function monitors and alert/reminder/behavior modification engines. Publishers that leverage these functions to create app-based services have a shot at improving lives. The big opportunity is in media becoming valets, concierges, life coaches, trainers, or just always-on companions. Devices open up a new relationship to the user that media can help evolve and define.

If some of the revenue streams of 2014 give off a whiff of desperation, then I have struck the right tone. The migration of ad dollars to marketing, users to mobile, and media spending to demand-side platforms fills media companies with dread that is blurring lines, leaving them scrambling for new models.

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.)