Nobody cares about your website except you.
How to explain digital media to your mom. A new kind of army fighting a new kind of war. The 90's. Huckberry has a killer job for you.
Welcome to People vs Algorithms 20.
I look for patterns in media, business and culture. My POV is informed by 30 years of leadership in media and advertising businesses, most recently as global President of Hearst Magazines, one of the largest publishers in the world.
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If you have to work too hard to make an idea come into focus, it might not be a good idea to begin with. Or maybe you’ve started with the wrong question. This week I wanted to answer the question, “what does digital media look like in a post pageview world?” I found it very difficult to get beyond the obvious.
I’ve been working in digital media for a long time. Unlike most media types, like TV, radio, or print, digital media is amorphous. It comes in all shapes and media types, it means different things to different people. In TV, the line between then and now is clear — one is linear, the other on-demand, one has ads, the other you pay. To be sure, one thing people in digital media don’t like to say when asked what they make is “we make websites.” Because websites sound old-fashioned and pedestrian.
Think about how hard the digital media world is to describe to an outsider. “So you are a digital media company, huh. You guys make websites?” Aghast, you repond, “Actually we are a fully distributed media company, our content is everywhere. Yes, we do sell banners and stuff, but we hate banners. Most of our ads are content, just like the rest of the stuff we make. We also make money selling products to readers but we never pitch stuff we don’t love ourselves.” They reply, “So you guys are like, bloggers?” This almost sets you off: “Actually most of our content creators are journalists from major brands you know. We might have a show on Netflix soon and we have a very popular podcast. You should get our email. It has bullets and is very easy to read!”
Websites are now old media
Truth is, the defining artifact of digital media is the website, and the defining measure of success is still a pageview. Yes you made “content”, that content takes lots of forms and you distribute it to lots of places. Websites mattered because they were, and still are, homebase. You control everything about them, how they look and feel, how they mix content and ads. They connect your brand universe. Let me assure you that every financial model in scaled digital media is built off of a pageview metric in some shape or form.
Many have faltered by shunning the website… because bad things happen when you are homeless and once friendly hosts like Facebook decide they don’t like the quid pro quo. Not good. But at least your business is easier to explain. You are a production company with a brand, or something like that.
Unfortunately, I don’t think the youth care about the thing that has largely defined digital media. I spent some time chatting with a a very young, genius consultant from a top-tier firm yesterday. I was asking about how he gets information. What struck me in his answers was that he never mentioned “visiting” a website once. He talked about “live media” as in Twitter and Discord. I asked if he gets information from a particular media brand. He responded that he reads their emails occasionally.
I am pretty sure he visits websites all the time, but the act of actively visiting a site to consume information was certainly not part of his model. Which should come as no surprise. These behaviors mirror my own. But it does make you wonder about how you define a category of media when the nextgen consumer doesn’t care about the primary format.
So asking what next looks like is tough. The easy answer is probably creators, more video and… Web3, if only you could put your finger on exactly what that is. Sadly, nothing is as black and white as a prognosticator would like.
It is too simplistic to just attribute the next to the emergence of the creator as the defining atomic unit in media. That change is real and I have commented on it many times but it is naive to think that media brands as an organizing construct for media don’t persist for the foreseeable future.
There will be all kinds of variations and the march to content free-agency only gets easier with technology. Creator as media brand has been accelerated by better tooling and subscription infrastructure. The blockchain will be an accelerator, just as social media was, offering more ways to credential, coordinate and fund individuals, especially if it manages to hijack Web2 distribution models.
The future is a continuum. Brian Morrissey covers the topic with clarity. I need not reprise, just read his last two excellent posts. The tweet from Vice’s Brad Esposito does indeed sum it up perfectly: “The future of media is individuals that represent a brand - not a brand that represents individuals. Institutions don’t like it (“what happens if they leave?”) My answer: make more of them.”
The creator-driven farm-to-table media vibe is not new by any stretch.
Things progress recursively, and it’s useful to see how the current moment shares much with early blogging vibes and where it departs. Personal publishing was a new idea in the early 2000’s when blogging was popularized, and people responded a content type that was refreshingly personal, expert and enthusiast-driven. Remember, this was a time when people saw the blog threat as existential. In fact, in 2002, Steven Levy at Newsweek pondered “Will The Blogs Kill Old Media?”:
Some say the game itself has changed. InstaPundit is a pivotal site in what is known as the Blogosphere, a burgeoning samizdat of self-starters who attempt to provide in the aggregate an alternate media universe. The putative advantage is that this one is run not by editors paid by corporate giants, but unbespoken outsiders--impassioned lefties and righties, fine-print-reading wonks, indignant cranks and salt-'o-the-earth eyewitnesses to the "real" life that the self-absorbed media often miss. Hard-core bloggers, with a giddy fever not heard of since the Internet bubble popped, are even predicting that the Blogosphere is on a trajectory to eclipse the death-star-like dome of Big Media.
That didn't happen. Instead blogs like TechCrunch became media brands, old media bought them or became them (Huffington Post). What was unbundled, rebunded. But the energy did not go away. This round may prove more resilient, particularly for elite creators, mostly because subscriptions offer a simpler path to prosperity without the complexity of ad stuff. That and the practice of personal brand building through content has just become part of brand-of-me, hustle culture.
Still not satisfied however, over lunch I quizzed a media CEO who runs a large, mostly pay-walled, premium media website brand. The site, and the words it contains make a lot of money. Sites still matter to people, he contended. Just like print still matters to some people. The premium banner business is surprisingly good right now.
Formats need to make media easier
He made a simple but important point. People like easy. Video, and the new ways to consume it, TikTok in particular, make consuming his product less work, for all types of media brands. Much of his revenue growth of the past couple of years had come from video. His focus was format innovation across video-driven social channels, repackaging and syndicating his video content to all new video endpoints.
I also asked our favorite Web3 prognosticator, Jarrod Dicker. I had written about what Web3 means to media and was not satisfied with my answers. He pointed out that the media and NFT models are essentially the inverse of one another. We make media to attract eyeballs and turn them into money. NFT’s start by selling an idea and then endeavoring to deliver on a promise of increasing value, status, access and ultimately community. The two ought to work together like peanut butter and chocolate.
Which basically means successful digital media brands will do more to innovate on a subscriber experience, connecting real communities of shared interest around an idea and set of values. Smaller, deeper, more meaningful. Membership on steroids.
So where does this leave us?
The blog energy is back (or maybe it never went away) but now creators have more ways to make money, largely driven by subscriptions, podcasts and the maturation of high-yield content marketing. Email has emerged as a legitimate media distribution mechanism. Dominant platforms are supporting content creators more aggressively. Never, ever extrapolate personal media behaviors to make a point, but my email box and podcast list is filled with this brand of content.
I suspect large, institutional media brands will continue to feel pressure. An over reliance on high-carb distribution and low-yield monetization has effectively hallowed out the audience relationship. Google is great for transactional media relationships born of efficient answers to questions like "how do i make chicken cacciatore" or "what is the best credit card" or "do I have arthritis." But it does little to endear the reader to the author or brand. Advertiser / agency obsession with CPMs that pushed publishers to find scale at all costs didn't help either. Full disclosure, I was part of this trend and felt it was the only way to make digital math work.
Media brands will respond but it will be challenging given their addictive relationship to scale and the economic system it has engendered. Meanwhile, many more of the best journalists will be tempted by the opportunities of free-agency.
The contour of media brands will change to make more room for ambitious, expert personalities. I suspect new aggregators will enter the fray — media collectives that function more like talent agencies, helping content creators with the things they don’t want to or can’t do and potentially, to rationalize an over-saturated subscription landscape.
In short, the future will be even harder to explain to your aunt. The Web3 vibe will force important new thinking on the relationship between the audience and the media brand, but it will take a long time to see real, practical changes that substantively change online advertising or the lowly websites it supports.
Have a great weekend…/ Troy
On vibe shifts
As you can tell, I felt the vibes a couple of weeks back when Allison Davis at The Cut got the internet talking "Vibe Shifts.” If you haven't read the original piece, it's about those changes in culture that sneak up on you and suddenly make you feel past a consume-before date: "In the culture, sometimes things change, and a once-dominant social wavelength starts to feel dated." I couldn't help but thinking these vibe shifts were really just about millennials coming to terms with aging. If there are any of you out there that can relate, email me, I've got a couple of great Billy Bragg love songs for your next drive Upstate. Seriously, this one's a gem.
Ukraine is the only vibe shift that matters right now. What’s happening is heartbreaking. Perhaps the truly lasting legacy of the last few years is the power of digitally supercharged collective to force change. The collective are people who individually, and as members of organizations, amount to a new kind of army fighting a new kind of war. I will be optimistic and believe their economic might is powerful enough to suffocate Putin. This quote from Thomas Friedman at the NYT sums it up perfectly: "Putin was a total ignoramus about the world he was living in, and so he bet the farm in the 21st-century casino of globalization, where, in the end, the house always wins — or there is no house left."
Four more things
1: Great job alert: Huckberry Director of Content.
Huckberry is looking to hire the first Director of Content to help build the retail and media experience of the future. Huckberry has unparalleled mindshare and wallet share of 25-45 year old guys thanks to a business model that blends a family of DTC House Brands (which account for roughly 50% of our revenue), the best of third party brands and collabs, and a developing media arm. You'll lead the media team which spans editorial, video, and—later this year—podcast teams.
Three things make this a dream job IMO:
You'll help us build a new paradigm in the commerce and media space
You'll work on everything from surf and moto trips in Baja (surf and turf, baby), to interviewing Matthew McConaughey, to developing episodic video series that carry the torch of Anthony Bourdain
Founder-owned, fast growing, profitable, and have reached significant scale without having to pull the traditional growth levers for IPO-bound DTC brands — huge runway ahead
2: Impressive how far Axios has gone by making a newsletter format smart and easy.
Axios is forging its own path when many of its digital peers are merging to increase their audiences and better compete with the big technology companies for advertising. Mr. VandeHei sees opportunity in local news, a space that other publishers have moved away from, and is bullish on Axios HQ, the software company-within-a-company that he thinks could eclipse the multibillion-dollar messaging service Slack.
3: When the internet needed tour guides. The Internet Show is an hour-long introduction to the mid-90s Internet. Can’t wait to look back at now from the metaverse!
4: And for more 90’s, required reading for GenX. Less of a narrative journey than a collection of insightful tidbits. Very fun.
“No stories were viral. No celebrity was trending. The world was still big. The country was still vast. You could just be a little person, with your own little life and your own little thoughts. You didn’t have to have an opinion, and nobody cared if you did or did not.”
And… we love you Frankie… that’s who. The beginning of this is a wonder.