Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Living With Monopolies

Like most of us, my life is pretty much controlled by 4 companies.  I am connected to their ubiquitous products throughout the day as they suck in my personal data, infiltrate my brain circuitry, and monetize me - directly from my wallet or, by brokering my time and data with advertisers. And although many of their products and services are extraordinary, Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook have too much power and will all either be severely regulated or broken up shortly. Of that I am confident. The wheels are already in motion. Google (via Youtube) and Facebook have unleashed nothing short of psychological weapons that they are unwilling and probably unable to control.  The growing outcry here and around the world will result in some form of government action that will impact all of them.

But in the meantime, I am making every effort to support companies who are thriving outside the current monopolistic structure. They are a small group for sure, with access to a limited amount of oxygen. (The breakup/regulation of the big 4 will unleash an extraordinary wave of startup innovation and activity, as breakups in the past have done.)

Reddit has certainly had issues harboring cesspools of awfulness like the other social platforms, and still does.  But they have cleaned it up dramatically and are now more known as a place for enlightened, civilized and informed content communities.  And Reddit is enormous and among the popular web sites in the world with more traffic than Twitter and Instagram. I find it a valuable platform on both a professional and personal level.  Their vibrant science and wildlife communities have sent millions of page views to Roaring Earth. And all of my most recent consumer purchases and medical decisions were informed to some degree by a high quality subreddit.

The New York Times
Who would believe that this 150 year-old company would be moving so nimbly in such a chaotic digital media environment.  Their digital subscription business is growing at similar rates as the most powerful tech companies, they are first movers in major new markets like podcasting, and are making impressive acquitions.  They bought Wirecutter for $30 million in 2016 and it is now a major player in the important and lucrative product review space.

But most importantly, they are expanding their reporting and editorlal teams and have become arguably the countr'ys most powerful beacon for strong and independent journalism.  They are also one of the few publishing companies that can and does give the middle finger to Google and Facebook.

I spend more time listening to podcasts than watching television these days, and Stitcher has been my only app since I streamed my first show over 4 years ago. According to wikipedia, they are “the most popular alternative to the standard Apple podcast app” which sounds like as a good a reason as any to support them.  Like all the best mobile apps, it's intuitive and user friendly.

Here's a company that can actually give Amazon a run for their money, and give some oxygen to my pals in e-commerce, who are as pinned against the wall as I am in publishing. My new favorite pundit, Scott Galloway said it well: “Shopify doesn’t operate its own marketplace, so it has no private label brands, and really is a platform as opposed to a competitor,” Galloway said. “Shopify has an opportunity to be the protein to Amazon’s virus and serve as a true partner to e-commerce firms."

Monday, November 19, 2018

Two Video Companies Are Eating Up The Internet

Netflix and YouTube are the two most powerful video content platforms in the world, marrying great tech with great content and dictating the future of television and all form of digital video content.  They both seem to get stronger by the day and, as recently reported, are literally eating up the Internet, together responsible for 25% of global Internet traffic.

They are each the leaders and role models for the two ways we will consume all our video content shortly: one subscription based, the viewing passive, on bigger screens and featuring longer form programming; the other ad supported, viewed actively (clicking, swiping, sharing) on smaller screens featuring shorter form programming.

We'll probably spend an equal amount of our aggregate video viewing time with each model, but we can see a bit more clearly what the longer form models will look like - it's the same TV and film formats we've always had, just unlimited choices.  The short form is much less defined, as the technology and user base is younger and open to experiencing (and influencing) new video formats.

Netflix and YouTube's success is driving a frenzied reaction from fellow digital behemoths and the largest traditional media companies.  Disney's acquisition of Fox and AT&T's acquisition of Time Warner were triggered in large part by Netflix's growing strength, and Facebook's deep dives into video with Watch and IGTV is an attempt to compete with YouTube.  And Jeffery Katzenberg has raised over $1 billion from some of the biggest and most influential players in the entertainment industry to launch a new service that brings TV-level production budgets to short form, mobile viewed content.

It's the short form we here at Roaring Earth are focused on.  Our goal is to thrill and enlighten like the BBC does time and time again with their long form nature docs, most of which can be found on Netflix.  They are the incomparable masters of long form nature and wildlife content and Planet Earth 2, from a few years back, is among the most successful television series of all time. 

But there is a huge opportunity to create similar content specifically for mobile devices.  We have delivered over 250 million video views to our site's video library, while developing and fine-tuning a new format we call "mini-docs." They are 1-3 minutes in length featuring extraordinary stories from our natural world that can be watched on the go, with quick loading play lists for folks that want to binge for a few minutes.  This one just hit the 3 million view mark a few weeks after launch:

It is a golden age for short form and long form content.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Netflix's Gift To Digital Advertising

Netflix, Amazon and HBO have taught me, my family and most of the planet that the best TV programming does not come with commercials.  It's been a massive cultural shift.  Television and commercials have been as dependent on each other as milk and cereal going back to the days of the first broadcast.

A massive business shift is accompanying the cultural shift and completely upending the media and advertising industries.  Roughly 35% of the $500 billion spent globally on advertising goes to television and it seems every digital media company has a plan to grab some of it.  As Derek Thompson in The Atlantic said: "Netflix's extraordinary success is the best thing that could ever have happened to digital advertising."

It's not all going away.  Sports and live entertainment programming is somewhat safe. (Although Fox just announced it will be introducing 6 second commercials in their NFL games as viewers, unable to skip the commercial, are reaching for their mobile devices during breaks in the action.)

Ironically, people are becoming more accustomed and comfortable with seeing an ad in front of a short piece of video content on their phone than they are on an Emmy Award winning show on their TV.  A variety of innovations including speedy load times, better targeting, shorter ads and a quick ad-skip option have made ads in front of digital video content a clean and manageable experience (for the most part).  TV's multi ad TV breaks feel more anachronous and cumbersome by the day.

And short form video content is a booming sector of the media business as not only Facebook, YT and Snap continue their relentless focus and innovation, but hundreds of large and niche publishing companies build out sophisticated video production operations that churn out compelling content and further acclimate us to watching clips and short pre-roll ads on our phone.  

A recent column in ReCode describes a "visual revolution" in journalism that predicts not a full pivot to video, but a new format for story telling that is just another example of the opportunities for re-expressing TV advertising.
That video that is currently soaring across social media — maybe it’s a text-heavy explainer with dynamic motion graphics, or a video-driven news story with sharply concise captions — is less an evolution of video itself and more of an evolution of the hundreds and thousands of pieces of text-based journalism that are produced and consumed digitally. Audiences that spent time consuming only the first couple of paragraphs of a news story are now watching 45 seconds of a video that conveys the same information. And, yes, sometimes with words on the screen. I believe this will become more sophisticated and more prevalent, and before you tell me that it’s intellectually inferior, just believe me — it’s not in its final form. It’s on us to innovate so that it has the power and impact we want it to.
Perhaps it is just like the early days of television.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Will We Scroll More Than We Surf?

The 30-second TV commercial is entering it's sixth decade as the most lucrative, ubiquitous and durable advertising format in history.  I spent the early years of my career selling TV ads and a pretty significant % of all TV ad time sold in US these days in overseen by friends of mine.  I hope the business thrives forever.  And as long as watching TV programming with ads included remains something we spend hours a day doing, it will.

Scalable, tolerable (and ultimately effective) ad formats tied to massive media behavior are rare.  Google's search business (roughly $50 billion this year) is the only other one that comes close in scale to TV advertising in the past 60 years.

A third is here and it is quite possible you are seeing it in action as you read this post - feed-based content, interspersed with ads, that we scroll through on our phones  A recent piece in Re-Code highlights the Feed Mindset
Today’s consumer lives in their feed: Scrolling and scrolling ... and scrolling ... through an infinite amount of content with the flick of the thumb. This new behavior, unheard of four or five years ago, is synonymous now with a modern internet built around the content feed.
And an article in The Atlantic aptly titled "How Mobile Today is Like TV Six Decades Ago" highlights how Mobile's current advertising growth arc is similar to TV's in it formative years.  TV, arguably the most most pervasive and culturally transforming media platform, dwarfing every other media format that came before it and after, finally has a real rival. The channel surfer is becoming the feed scroller.  

When the TV advertising riches started flowing, 3 networks shared the spoils.  With mobile, it is two - Facebook and Google.  Facebook was the primary instigator and now beneficiary of our new scrolling habit. The ads in FB's mobile feed are the main revenue driver of the company now, quickly becoming as significant as search ads are to Google's bottom line.

But niche, mobile-first publishers like us are also benefiting as we package our unique content for the scrollers and see rising CPMs.  Digital dimes are becoming quarters, and even dollars.

And when the ads are presented seamlessly (natively) and are contextually relevant, they get nearly universal  positive (or at least tolerable) user feedback.  

It certainly feels like a powerful new publishing model.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Game Of Platforms

When I started in the media business 25 years ago, things were much easier.  Consumers had little influence over the content they were served.  The most disruptive and fastest growing sector of the industry at the time was cable television, an entertainment oligopoly controlled by a handful of cable operators who blessed a handful of programming companies channel slots - the equivalent of  permanent shelf space in the only supermarket in town. Consumers, with no other options were force-fed a lot of dreck as the nascent cable channels, many of who went on to become great brands, were given years to find their stride.

Today, things have changed dramatically. (Although there is still plenty of dreck.) The development and maturation of the Open Web has given consumers influence over what is produced and power to anyone and everyone to be a content creator, curator and programmer.  But what hasn't changed is the enormous strength of a handful of platforms, who, like the cable operators in their day, hold the upper hand.

The extraordinary opportunities the Open Web has provided along with inevitable consolidation of power in the hands of a few players was highlighted in a recent TechCrunch piece:

I, too, am a believer in the open web — a platform that anyone can hack on powered by standards (http) and great technology (servers, devices, browsers). It delivers on the promise of the Internet: a world in which everyone is connected, and you can command as much attention as your content deserves (no matter your budget or connections).   
But .... it is threatened by dominant technology companies such as Facebook, Google and Apple who have an economic interest in creating their own “walled gardens” of Internet content that they control and monetize.

But others think the platforms can empower publishers, and much like CNN, ESPN and HBO grew and thrived on the back of a dominant distribution platform, new media brands like Buzzfeed, Vice and Vox can thrive as the new platforms have to serve their massive subscriber base with higher quality content.  This from Today's NY Times:

I think platforms, or marketplaces, make it a lot easier for, say, the content providers or app developers that are very, very good to rise to the top, and pretty much commoditize everyone else. So if you’re average, it’s definitely going to be very bad. Life is going to be worse on a platform, because you’re exposed to more competition. If you’re very good, life on a platform is a lot better.
YouTube Red, Facebook Instant Articles and Snapchat Discover are the most exciting examples of social networks and publishers exploring their ongoing mutual dependence.  And just today,Vox announced a new brand that will publish exclusively on Facebook.  

But as I have opined many times, the platforms will always hold the upper hand, as they own the relationship with the audience.  How media companies build and maintain direct relationships with their own audience in a platform-centric media world is the ongoing challenge.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

This Micro Moment

We are averaging 250,000 video views per day on our wildlife network MaxAnimal, and this month will pass the 100 million view mark since we launched last year.  As expected, roughly 75% of the views are happening on smart phones.  Our intention from the start was to keep the clips short (1 minute on average) and thrilling, so to connect with an audience that has a limited attention span and will readily share.

Some recent data shows how well we are positioned, but also how nimble we need to be to keep growing at this pace and expand to longer form content.

Google issued a study last month titled "Win Every Micro Moment With A Better Mobile Strategy" that reports people now check their phones 150 times per day and spend 177 minutes on the device, resulting in dozens and dozens of mobile sessions averaging a little more than a minute each.

And a much circulated presentation from the recent WSJD conference included this fascinating slide:

Short Attention Span Theatre.  The Attention Apocalypse.  Micro Moment Warfare.  Everyone has a name for this moment in time when GIFS are the most popular new media form, some brands are posting 50 times per day on Facebook and Vine Stars are the new YouTube Stars.

Our goal (as well as the goal of some of the media companies in the slide above, particularly Vice) is and always has been to use the short stuff as a gateway to longer, richer content experiences (and building an engaged community.)  Because, on the other side of the spectrum, there clearly is a craving for long-form journalism, podcasts, documentaries, high quality TV dramas and other more immersive content experiences. 

How much attention we have for both is the question, and can the publishers most effective at the bits, bytes and bursts engage their viewers for longer sessions.