You can say a lot of things about the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election, but one thing can’t be argued: Our collective media interest is cresting.
According to figures reported today, Fox News delivered the highest-rated quarter ever in cable news, growing 27 percent in total day viewers compared to last year. CNN also had its best first quarter in 14 years reaching key demos and overall audience. Despite a third place finish, MSNBC viewership was up 55 percent. In Q1 publishers also saw a post-election surge with subscriptions growing at The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New York Times, and more.
While these numbers suggest all is well in the industry, media executives have serious, unprecedented issues to navigate. While we can’t seem to look away, we don’t necessarily buy what we’re seeing. According to Gallup, only 32 percent of Americans say they trust the media. Contributors like fake news, alternative truths and reaching a splintered public are now well known.
Still less clear: What’s enabling the trust erosion to begin with. For those of us working in media and content-driven businesses, interpreting how underlying, disruptive trends mesh is essential to determine how influence and trust is now earned — and how to respond. Based on our own research, work and participation in industry forums, we believe deeper social network sensibilities and distinctive brand value are vital territories to explore.
The conventional wisdom among media and corporate leaders says renewed focus on quality content — in marketing speak a product upgrade — is the answer. The belief is that better journalism, stronger storytelling and higher production standards will overpower niche or nefarious content, and in the process, get the trust mojo back. The talk of production upgrades alone is a trap.
A growing chorus of thinkers like Ev Williams, Jeff Jarvis and Bharat Anand believe a fundamentally new direction is required — not simply to deliver better quality content, but to innovate around deeply ingrained network behaviors. Anand says: “In content worlds, we focus on the actions, tastes, or behaviors of consumers in isolation rather than on what connects them; we focus on making the “best” content rather than on what makes users share; we focus on the creative spark of genius and how to nurture it, or on a particular threat and how to suppress it.”
This isn’t a theoretical statement coming from academia. There are five interrelated factors revolutionizing the way we interact with media content:
- Power: The big switch in information power from media producers to technology platforms is nearing maturity. Platforms such as Facebook and Google are now primary information gateways and referrers of traffic to publisher sites. They’re also our default networks for news. According to Pew Research, 62 percent of American adults access news on social media, up from 49 percent in 2012. With this power, Google and Facebook operate as a virtual duopoly, controlling over 65 percent of digital advertising growth last year.
- Personalization: Optimized to make the user experience as engaging as possible, online platforms capture a billion plus minutes of our attention each week by algorithmically delivering what we like to read, endorse, comment on and share. Have-it-my-way information feeds totally overturn the status quo around media control, influence and trust.
- Context: This power shift isn’t just about how editorial and ad content gets delivered. When platforms serve as information gateways, media producers not only forfeit control, they lose context. The idea of a carefully curated front page or brand experience gives way to a feed where news stories and ad units show up intermingled with baby pictures, offbeat memes and hateful, offensive content.
- Engagement: Declining trust in established media opens the door to new information sources. The best informed, most socially engaged sources will bypass institutions operating on production excellence alone. Those with the deepest understanding of psychology, network behavior and new protocols stand a far greater chance of reaching us than those who simply tell a good story.
- Influence: This is where it gets particularly disruptive for content-centric operators. Individuals who share content are now seen to deliver as much value as those investing big money to produce it. Even more, those who build human connections and automated systems that enable scaled content dissemination completely upend the dynamics of media influence.
New research released last week reinforces why network engagement around news and information is more important to grok today than the content itself. A joint study published by The American Press Institute and The Associated Press enlisted 1,400 US adults to determine how much faith people placed in news sources — and each other.
Roughly 50 percent said stories got the facts right when it was shared by a public figure they trusted, compared to 35 percent who said the same when they didn’t trust the sharer. Participants were also more likely to engage around the article when they got it from an influencer they trusted.
The news source that reported the story didn’t have much of an effect on whether the respondents believed the story to be true. Only about 2 in 10 could remember the source of the article.
Remember, the #1 shared article for the six weeks preceding the election was a piece from the “Denver Guardian.” Apparently, not only do we care less about the media outlets we receive information from, we might not even care whether or not they actually exist.
While the search for truth-well told remains a primary goal, there’s a pressing question for media strategists and producers that accompanies it: Do you deeply understand network and influence patterns around issues relevant to your agenda?
Those who possess more knowledge and power here have a major leg up. Not merely because they are more connected, but also because they actually design and influence the new ways that media works.
In another study, research teams from the Harvard Berkman Center and MIT recently examined the rise and influence of alt-media networks. While post-campaign expert analysis continues to focus on the rise of fake news, decline of truth and outside actors interfering with the election process, it overlooks new, underlying fundamentals that may have swayed election results.
Published this month in the Columbia Journalism Review, the study found that a densely-networked group of alternative news outlets operated as an internally coherent, insulated knowledge community throughout the campaign. Based on analysis of more than a million news articles, social networking behaviors, and patterns that connected them, they uncovered a new, sophisticated organizing system at work.
Repetition, variation, and circulation of content across densely-linked sites and social media accounts made claims — factual or not — familiar to people and elevated them via trending topics, top search queries and mainstream media pick-up.
The study concluded: “This pro-Trump media sphere appears to have not only successfully set the agenda for conservative media but also strongly influenced the broader media agenda.”
TRANSFORMING THE MEDIA BRAND. A common Web 2.o refrain suggests as content becomes king all companies must become media companies. Given the network effects now in play, the tables turn a bit. All media organizations must become innovation driven, user centric brands.
The most sophisticated consumer brands are symbols as much as products — painstakingly designed to embody ideals their target users value and help people express who they want to be. The best brands also recognize that taste, choices and behavior are not static, and therefore, make innovation part of their DNA. And they complement product and intangible qualities with a highly influential voice that leads to a loyal, repeat following.
The New York Times is making headlines for this type of transformational approach. According to Wired, hundreds of Times’ journalists, designers, engineers, data scientists and product managers are hard at work rethinking their business model while breathing new life into their brand.
Beyond their recent “Truth is Hard” campaign, they are developing plans to deliver a new content and services proposition that leads to Netflix-like engagement and subscription revenues.
To help bolster its news brand the company has tasked an internal innovation team to deliver a new suite of editorial products —including apps, blogs and verticals — that span political commentary, cooking, gadget advice, entertainment, real estate services and more.
The products are being delivered through a range of technology and reader engagement initiatives that include content partnerships with Facebook, big bets into VR, augmented reader interaction via artificial intelligence and in-person educational programs for students.
It’s one to watch closely. The New York Times is taking a page out the new marketing playbook: Become a primary information and services platform that comprehensively addresses user needs and social behaviors.
Whether you’re looking into innovation happening inside the publishing and TV news industry, or outside at how brands are becoming media entities in their own right, it would be wise to look at where the engagement and money is going, despite what the current post-election numbers tell us.
As author Clay Shirky notably said, “Communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. It’s when a technology becomes normal, then gets ubiquitous, and finally so pervasive as to be invisible, that’s where the profound changes happen.”
The media industry will need all the help it can get to manage through revolutionary change to sustain their growth — and influence.