The change, the tech, the opportunities facing newsmedia are not necessarily about changing the product, but the experience in which it is delivered.
That was the key message from the INMA World Congress’ opening module, delivered on New York time but with contributions from around the globe.
President Damian Eales was in Sydney although his promotion to News Corp global head of transformation requires him to work on New York time, Juan Senor – whose wife is Canadian – was “incarcerated” in Calgary, while marketing science professor Barbara Kahn was in Philadelphia.
And the 331 delegates to the Zoom-based conference session were in those and 40 other countries around the world, INMA executive director Earl Wilkinson reported.
No matter: The future beckons, and from an “abyss of uncertainty” – to quote Eales – many have “found footing in ways they could not have imagined”, Senor describing this as “a fantastic moment for our industry”.
And somehow the name of Jeff Bezos kept creeping into presentations, one speaker quoting the cheery ‘if you fail to do this, you will be fired; have a nice day’ transformational message of 2002.
As contributing author of the Today Institute’s tech trends report Sam Guzik warned, “things can change really quickly if you’re not paying attention”.
So how will reorientation and the switch to a subscription economy affect news? A Barclaycard UK survey found subscription spending had grown 40 per cent, and on “things you would have bought”, from toothbrushes to pet food, the software in your Porsche (!) and on your Xbox console… while competing for a share of wallet.
“Publishers had a record year,” he says, “but we need to re-evaluate who we are dealing with, offer insights to advertisers, plan and act.”
He points to shifts in devices and the ways in which media is created and revenue earned, citing Alexa’s Echo Frames (pictured), a device to capture wrist movement, and Fortnite’s gaming model – free to play, but taking US$3.7 billion in revenue from users looking for a personal experience and an outlet to express themselves – adding that 85 per cent of players have spent money in the game.
He asks whether your subscription offers a personalised experience, and offers bizarre deepfake examples from synthetic media as technologies which might deliver a one-to-one experience.
“It must be contextually relevant, and you should plan for it, or current offerings won’t be enough,” Guzik says, “it’s not enough just to observe.
“If you’re not building the future you want, you’ll find yourself in a world that’s been built by someone else with different priorities.”
Of the newsmedia business, he warns that “being essential” doesn’t guarantee the future, “and it’s far too important to just assume we’ll be OK.”
Among questions, we learn the cost of a news subscription is now about 20 per cent of the current average annual subs spend, with Senor warning “we’ve been burned before chasing new shiny things.
“Video has not paid off for everyone, and many chased VR, while podcasts – the lowest tech – has worked,” he said. “Maybe we should follow the Apple approach, not to be the first, but the best, and let someone else be first with synthetic media. Some of these things are massive investments but long shots.”
Guzik agrees, but warns of the risk for news organisations of sitting back. “I don’t think the takeaway is to go straight away and build a team for synthetic or special computing and ignore other basics. It’s also not where consumers are today.”
Earlier Barbara Kahn, who is executive director of the Marketing Science Institute and professor of marketing at Pennsylvania University’s Wharton School, brought lessons from a retail world in which 250,000 stores had closed in 2020.
She’d said in 2018 that “if you get the customer experience right, you’ll drive traffic”, citing the success of Sephora against that of Macy’s, which had been closing stores before COVID-19 hit. “Since COVID, we’ve moved away from malls and more into neighbourhood stores while of course, online got bigger.”
She pointed to the success of digitally-native vertical brands such as Harry’s against the established Gillette, with Harry’s, “more in tune” and dealing direct with – and gaining data from – end-users, while traditional companies still dealt through wholesalers. “Direct is taking significant market share,” she said, pointing also to Nike, which has announced it is dropping many of its wholesalers, with “big implications” for customer experience.
Also important is sustainability, and a new focus on safety – buy online, pickup kerbside – with a shift to “sticky ecommerce” predicted at 25-40 per cent.
Working from home, and the move to more customer-centred data are “here to stay” in an enduring trend to customer-centred omnichannel retailing.
Instore experiences needed to inspire trust, with customers still loyal to the stores they had supported, but wanting something back to “show me you value my loyalty”.
Kahn said retail’s big winners were those with an omnichannel, 24/7 customer experience. “What’s new is to think what that experience is.”
While “everyone was focussing on digital”, Amazon had doubled its business, opening ‘ghost stores” and getting more data from the process. In September, it had opened its first grocery store, 12 more following.
The app technology there was also apparent in airport shops, and in the luxury market used by stores such as Neiman’s – where you still connect with personal buyer, but digitally – and Nordstrom, where app-connected small local stores without inventory, “will have what you want because they know you through the app,” Kahn says.
“Expect a big emphasis on ‘shoppertainment’ as well – the Roaring Twenties won’t just be in the physical stores, with digital content marketing bringing together the idea of shopping, content and entertainment.”
In China on one-stop WeChat and AliPay sites, an “incredible boom” in live-streaming has key opinion leaders online four hours a day, “connecting and selling product”.
In the US “and all over”, shoppertainment in is especially important for GenZ-ers – with 85 per cent of teens regularly consuming YouTube – and the rise of content marketing.
While she is “a loyal consumer of newspapers”, Kahn says GenZ-ers are getting their news content through influencers, and will expect you to anticipate their every move. Publishers need to ask how news media fits into the “everything in one place” model, and Kahn cites the New York Times’ “second quadrant”, leveraging pleasurable experiences such as cooking. “Most of physical media is going to go away, but the physical retail catalogue is still getting a lot of attention,” she says.
Is there a danger of miss-step in planning for a post-pandemic world, while still in the midst of the pandemic? Kahn thinks not: “Nothing happened that retailers didn’t predict, it’s just that it happened fast.”
Author and Harvard Business School professor Karim Lakhani placed the conversation firmly back with news with a 2014 Tweet from an airline passenger who had famously “just crash-landed into the Hudson river” – a reminder that media and platforms continue to change.
The “AI hype” was driven not only by the huge number of people seeing entry opportunities, but also because the cost of interacting with AI had dropped radically. “We’ve been looking at it for more than 30-40 years. Now we have the opportunity to take advantage of it,” he said.
Thankfully too, the money is on ‘weak AI’ – specific algorithms that do one thing – Lakhani citing a Chinese insurance company’s use of facial recognition for an app to count pigs, and AI’s use for radiation therapy targetting. Alibaba-related Ant Financial’s MyBank was using AI for its 3-1-0 concept, delivering an account in three minutes and an approval in one, as 1.2 billion users were serviced with just 10,000 employees. “They use AI to drive digital learning, and as they get to know us better, they keep offering us new things,” he says.
Publishers need to consider how to create, capture and deliver value, and an ‘AI factory’ feeding data and modelling systematically, and focussing on patterns and “what we should do next” should be a priority, Lakhani says. “Every company will have one, and it will look the same at Google News as at McDonald’s.”
Traditional operating models – functionally organised, but with diminishing returns – can constrain value, while online operating models have “near marginal” costs and can generate network and learning effects, with AI sharpening learning, says Lakhani, who has browser firm Mozilla Firefox and vaccine-maker Moderna as clients.
The disruption-to-‘collision’ curves of traditional versus digital businesses are also the exponential systems process of COVID, he says describing Moderna as a data company that “happens to do biology”. The “fastest time” for vaccine creation of 42 days was actually four hours, with the rest used for safety and checking. “Think about it,” he says. “Their chief digital officer is also their chief process excellence officer.”
Publishers “need to foundationally rethink processes”, transforming to an AI-first company in the same way that Amazon had, enabling rapid innovation, experimentation and growth, looking for multiple ways to create and capture value as they had since the 2002 Bezos mandate to staff.
“You need to be doing R&D on your business model – how you will test things out, and how to innovate the business model – but it has to be a board level, CEO-level commitment.”
Another quotation: Author William Gibson’s ‘The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed’. Lakhani cites the example of Disney’s transformation, and the NYT’s data programme development, and urges, “Go to China to see what the future looks like.
“Transformation is in front of our eyes… and it can either happen to us, or we can drive it.”
He urges investing heavily in technology, but focussing on the organisational architecture. Use pilots, stop “zombie” projects, build inclusion. Above all, build a data pipeline, fix it and “do the janitorial work”.
Algorithm development is “mostly off-the-shelf” but will need customising, and to be capable of deployment at scale. The best bit is that if you’d started this a decade ago, it would have been very expensive. “The cost now is not so high,” he says.
Publishers need the confidence to make the necessary transition, in many cases requiring rebuilding, and Lakhani says that pre-pandemic, he wouldn’t have had much hope for incumbents. “What the pandemic did is fastened decisionmaking in corporate boards, many organisations having done the work but needing the ‘green light’.
“The pandemic has unlocked this view, and now is the time to make these investments.”
• INMA’s World Congress of News Media continues on Tuesday at 10am (US eastern time) with a second ‘Smart data’ module, Deploying data to extract opportunities. Details – and very likely the opportunity to catch up on the first day – are here.
Pictured (from top, left to right): Amazon Alexa’s Echo Frames;
Juan Senor, Earl Wilkinson and Damian Eales;
Barbara Kahn and another distress sale; and
Karim Lakhani and the pig-counting app