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Summary:

Media companies have collectively spent billions of dollars on content management systems.  As they upgraded their offline businesses to the digital world, they turned to big enterprise systems to organize their content in an orderly digital database.  And whether via internal systems or a purchased system,  […]

Concert Audience - fans at a concert
photo: Corbis / Tim Tadder

Media companies have collectively spent billions of dollars on content management systems.  As they upgraded their offline businesses to the digital world, they turned to big enterprise systems to organize their content in an orderly digital database.  And whether via internal systems or a purchased system,  each piece of content knows its place, and the digital migration of media is a fait accompli.

But after so much investment in such important systems, why are media companies still miles away from a profitable model?  In part, it’s because these intricately designed systems have been based on one big misunderstanding:  that a media company’s most valuable asset is content.

Content is just a means to an end.  The end – and media’s greatest asset – is audience.

Advertisers don’t pay to reach content – they pay to reach audience.  And building an audience that will earn you advertising is only partly about content.  In truth, just as much hinges on distribution.  If your delightful content can’t find and catch the attention of your audience, the value of your content drops to zero.  If a tree falls in a forest

Media companies over the last 10 years have invested in an enormously expensive card catalog, while spending only pennies to bring people into the library.  The big opportunity with digital media is not to organize your content closet or have efficient workflow – it’s about driving demand and building an audience using digital channels and all of the rich data that comes with them.  That’s the way to use systems to multiply the topline, not just streamline the expense line.

Other industries made the leap a decade ago.  The ERP category boomed as manufacturing companies’ inventory tracking systems evolved to fully manage and even stoke demand, with the realization that driving sales is far more valuable than just knowing what you’ve got in the back room.

The time has come for companies to step up from tracking data to driving results.  And over the last 24 months, huge advances in technology have enabled us to not just capture, but harness, data.  The next generation of CMS won’t be CMS 2.0.  The technology that powers media companies going forward will be ADS: audience development systems.  And it will help media companies that use it multiply their topline and improve their offering to their audience.

What does it take to add the last, most important part to your systems?  Here are five steps every content manager needs to take to make the shift:

1. Manage across the many channels of distribution.

Stop thinking it’s just “the web.”  Today’s web is composed of myriad channels:  Google’s search index, Facebook’s news feeds, Twitter’s tweets, and YouTube’s video marketplace, not to mention pins and tumbles.  Each of those channels is more than a dumping ground – it’s a pipeline that, if well optimized, can deliver compounding results for your audience.  The TV networks have recognized this for decades:  they carefully arrange lead-in and lead-out to maximize audience compounding.  Now every content publisher has the opportunity to maximize channels this way – alas, their CMS isn’t built for that. Shift your systems to be oriented around the channels, not the asset.

2. Adjust the focus from audience to individual.

The idea of publishing once for “the audience” is absurd today.  In the past, we didn’t have the ability to see the “I” in audience.  Today, technology enables us to connect with individual users, and to actually get to know them.  Showing the same featured article that you showed me last time I visited your home page is a waste of precious attention.  Your users expect better, and you should too.  A CMS that knows and exploits the differences between you and me will dramatically enhance the value of any media company’s content.

3. Use abundant user data to know what works.   

Thanks to the social rewiring of the web, Big Data technology, and real-time analytics, data is available to provide feedback and allow programming on all major channels in real-time.  Everyone recognizes the incredible audience-building potential of behavioral data, but most companies still don’t know how to leverage it.  It’s time to measure not just what you publish, but who interacts with it – and how.  Use that data to know what content works for what audience, and what audience works for what content.  Personalization is the future of media – and it starts with data.

4. Make your systems look forward, not back.

The CMS model of the web is retrospective:  it’s a trackling log of content, created, edited, and published once and forever, set on a URL and then forgotten.  But today’s web prizes relevance – and relevance right now – above all else.  Past performance should impact all your actions – in real time.  Predicting, programming, and optimizing your distribution can multiply your ROI on content by many times.

5. Fully socialize your distribution.   

According to comScore, audiences are spending 1 in every 5 minutes of their online lives on social networks.  Social will soon surpass search to become the #1 traffic source to companies’ websites.  It’s not what’s published to the web that matters, anymore – it’s what’s published to the newsfeed.  A CMS built with Google in mind will soon become irrelevant, while one built to optimize social distribution can capture growth to the tune of many millions of users.

Digital distribution, when done right, can have a multiplicative effect:  a great piece of content delivered to the right person at the right time in the right package is worth 10x that same content paired with the wrong (or non-existent) distribution strategy.  A company that can fully incorporate social, real time, data, channels and personalization into their distribution strategy will dramatically enhance the value of their offering by developing a loyal audience relationship.

You heard it here first: the Audience Development System will be the killer app for web companies in the next five years.

Ben Elowitz (@elowitz) is co-founder and CEO of Wetpaint, a web publisher, and author of the Digital Quarters blog. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile, the online retailer of luxury goods. He is also an angel investor in various media and e-commerce companies.

  1. You guys always have the best articles. Nobody is looking the online media industry and the future the way that PaidContent does.

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  2. Is no one doing anything you recommend in this post? Why no examples of successes, or of tools that can help achieve what you envision? What you suggest makes sense but isn’t very helpful as-is.

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  3. Great piece. Now if only paidcontent adhered to item #2. Prior to the GigaOm acquisition I got fresh headlines in my email every day. Now fully half the headlines on any given day are least one and often two days old.

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  4. So says today’s vision of social media ADS while Facebook stock values plummet…

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  5. Do not forget that ‘content’ is the backbone of what a web MUST HAVE, so u shud still invest in honing intellectually of wat content u shud share. it shud work hand-in-hand with how it can be utilized to develop and communicate well with ur web audience. ‘audience development’ starts with it, and its an undeniable fact. Then, start spreading it, syndicate, and maximize the use of social media as one of the tools for audience development.

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  6. Here at eZ systems we now call our CMS a Customer Experience Management Platform. It delivers all the above. Audience management or development is integral to this process. It is important to consider platform development holistically so content and audience optimization go hand in hand with other important facets such as payment systems, digital rights management, workflow, analytics and more. Its an exciting paradigm shift. Next is to move the entire application to the cloud so that publishers can get on with their business and lighten the load on infrastructure management.

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