The search for the giant switch

There are no home runs in media. Better stick to legging out singles.

Sponsored by Mediaocean

This week, I’m digging into the tendency organizations have to look for quick fixes; how data can lie; and Australia’s new media law that proves again to tune out the world-is-gonna-end crowd. If you’ve been forwarded this email, please subscribe. And if you like The Rebooting, please share it with someone who will find it valuable.

There is no giant switch to flip

One of the cliches of business that often applies to the media business is: Things always take twice as long and cost twice as much as planned. We tend to underestimate the effort and sheer persistence needed to accomplish progress.

That reality is sometimes obscured by the search for the giant switch. Often meetings would careen to find the Big Idea that would be a “game changer” for a product or initiative. That’s understandable but rarely ever reality. There’s no giant switch on the wall that will change the trajectory. The unsatisfying alternative is a test-and-learn approach that puts its faith in incremental progress adding up to  big gains…. In the long run. 

That last part is often left off. Media is hard. It takes a long time to build an audience, even longer to build a habit and still longer to build a community. We tend to lionize “overnight success” stories while leaving out the parts about how the success was either not truly that quick or often a result of good timing. The result is focusing on others’ paths rather than your own.

Internally, the focus on home runs takes away the small ball that it takes to build sustainable media businesses. More often than not, the unglamorous work and small wins, stacked on top of each other, leads to lasting progress.

Take building a subscription business. This is obviously a result of having a product that serves a need and is priced appropriately. That’s the core. The marketing and growth tactics then amplify that value. But The Search for the Giant Switch can flip these priorities. Too much time and focus can be on finding growth levers to pull. That effort is, of course, worthwhile, only the main driver of growth, I believe, will be in the strength of the product. Have more meetings and more focus on that, then get to the marketing and growth hacks.

I’ve been consulting with various companies recently, and I often find myself giving these kinds of unsatisfying answers to problems they face. Getting to a place where you recognize and appreciate incremental progress is not just important but what the entire process is all about.


Sponsor message from Mediaocean

Why TV is poised to compete with Big Tech

The $70 billion TV advertising industry is undergoing massive change that makes it an alternative to Big Tech, particularly as buyers can bring their own data to target TV ads. 

“TV is going to keep up,” said Bill Wise, CEO of Mediaocean in a new episode of Beet TV’s BeetCast podcast. “As you can target and optimize across what is already the most efficient marketplace, I think that ecosystem is going to get lit up.”

Other highlights from Wise’s conversation with Transunion’s Matt Spiegel:

On identity: “One player needs to handle a lot more than just identity. It needs to be identity, plus data, plus behavior, plus optimization -- all for less than it costs today.”

On platforms: “More spend is going to go to the walled gardens if we don’t lower the cost of the supply chains.”

On measurement: “If you can’t measure Google, Facebook and Amazon, you’re missing out on 70% of digital spend, so what are you measuring? There needs to be a more holistic solution to measurement.”

Read and hear more at Beet.tv.


When data lies

Data can lie. Blindly following data and optimizing on it will get you into some weird places. We saw that with the clickbait era of “you won’t believe what happens next” headlines. Email is ground zero for optimization without common sense. That’s because the data will always tell you to hit send.

Vivino has raised $218 million in venture capital, including a recent $155 million round. It plans to build a giant wine business, and perhaps it will. To do so, it must scale at all costs, otherwise the business doesn’t work. I’m sure I ended up in a key segment: the user who has downloaded the app but not purchased. The data will say I’m worth very little until I’m pushed across the line. Yet bombarding me with email is not a great way to build a relationship. Common sense needs to prevail and at some point you need to revert to the Golden Rule: Treat others as you would want to be treated. Spreadsheets can reduce humans to incremental lift.

Counterpoint: Clubhouse is the new Facebook Live

I’m officially Clubhouse-curious after a few sessions there -- and I’ll probably try hosting a session there. (After all, I have moved to Miami and started a newsletter, so Clubhouse is almost required, right?) I understand why people hate on Clubhouse, with the odious hype, the sessions on being a billionaire at 24 and the endless talk. But it’s an interesting tool nonetheless, if not how it’s being currently used for the most part. Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at TV[R]EV, wrote in with a different take:

I’m struggling to figure out a reason it exists other than another case of the Tech/Media crowd desperately wanting to be part of the New New Thing, which they’re all increasingly too old for. Mostly Clubhouse seems a lot like the Live Video bust—it was fun once or twice but then the awfulness of the endless live video + hearing from randos in the audience you had no interest in hearing from + actually stopping what you were doing to watch got old quickly. Much of what is on Clubhouse just seems like bad conference programming and I can’t imagine there’s a mass audience for that.

Podcast advertising’s next chapter

Here is my case:

  • Digital advertising is effectiveness x scale x efficiency. Podcast ads (and sad to say, newsletter ads) score high on effectiveness but extremely low on the other two. 

  • Spotify, in the language of the various stimulus package, decided to Go Big on podcasts. That means using data to allow advertisers to find specific audiences.

  • Most publishers, even those the size of The New York Times, will end up having podcast studio businesses, where they license shows to giant platforms that handle the monetization. Why would the New York Times continue to sell ads on The Daily when it simply licenses the “Framing Britney Spears” documentary?

The lessons of Australia

One of the lessons of Covid is apocalyptic warnings need to be taken seriously. The second part, the hard part, is they need to be ignored or downplayed 90%-plus of the time. After all, just a few weeks into our vaccination program news outlets were breathlessly saying how this massive logistical challenge was a failure and would take seven years in the U.S. Turns out it will take about seven months to get to herd immunity. Go figure.

Time and again we see this happen with digital media when it comes to government intervention. Businesses are very keen on disruption so long as they’re the disruptors. When governments step in to reorient markets, suddenly the business folks reach for the Doomsday book. Take GDPR. We were told ad nauseum this flawed government attempt to rein in the Wild West of consumer data abuses would lead to chaos, economic collapse, civilizations ending. Turns out it didn’t -- and most people, large and small, will tell you privately it made them re-examine their data practices and improve as organizations. (GDPR is still flawed, by the way.)

The same thing has unfolded over the course of the past few months with Australia’s attempt to reorient the publishing market by forcing Google and Facebook to cough up money to support publishers. This legislation was flawed, seemingly unworkable and with suspect motivations. In other words, it was GDPR all over again. What’s more, Facebook didn’t cave, leading to the Doomsday scenario of Australian publishers cut off. To the Twitter ramparts with Threads! Guess what, Facebook and the Australian government cut a deal. The sun kept rising in Australia, at least I’m told. Crying wolf is a tactic, not a strategy.

Other things to check out:

I am trying out Twitter Spaces today at noonEST. I’ll be speaking in a session with Sara Fischer from Axios and Reuters Institute’s Lucy Keung. The topic: journalists striking out on their own with newsletters and what that means for news organizations. The host is Twitter’s Michael Jarjour. If you follow me on Twitter, I’ll send the link to the Space at noon.

Defector Media is an interesting experiment in micro media. The endeavor is journalist-driven and centered on subs. According to The Washington Post, Defector is “self-sustaining,” which sounds like profitable or at least close to it, with 10,000 paying subscribers. Let’s see how long that growth continues -- and whether a group ownership structure with a bunch of journalists known for troublemaking devolves into Lord of the Flies. 

The Logic is another micro media company I admire. David Skok has a great essay illustrating the dangers of publishers outsourcing core functions of the publishing business to tech platforms. The tricky part is figuring out what you do that is core. Building tech isn’t what most publishers excel at, and depending on the model, being a “no stack” media company has a lot of advantages so long as it’s balanced with having control over the audience/community relationship and data. 

The New York Times has a marketing dilemma on its hands. The Times got while the getting was good with the Resistance to Trump. (The “Truth” campaign was a thinly disguised swipe at Trumpism.) But Trump is gone, the Times needs to avoid a Trump Slump in subs, and its marketing has devolved into some pretty generic slogans.

Yet another really rich guy decides he isn’t about that life when it comes to running a media business. Patrick Soon-Shiong, who made billions in biotech, wants out of owning the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune, according to the WSJ.  I’m not sure if it’s reassuring, but a lot of Masters of the Universe are humbled by the media business.

That’s all for this week. Thanks to Mediaocean for supporting The Rebooting. And thanks to you for reading.