“The Sell-Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.
Today's column is written by Jim Spanfeller, CEO at Spanfeller Media Group.
About a year ago, I predicted the consolidation of ad tech and its move away from the main stage of the digital ecosystem. With all due notation of the great early days of the Rocket Fuel IPO, most of my musings turned out to be correct.
Sure, the middlemen have provided some value, but nowhere near enough to generate the large percentage of dollars they need to be profitable and support their many offerings, many of which are incredibly similar in nature and promise.
For some, this era has been a bother. For others, it has been incredibly financially rewarding. And for the industry, it has taken longer than it should have, but has indeed added value to the ecosystem.
The question looms, though: What is next?
For a great many, the answer would be big data. They would likely suggest we are already in this era. But my sense is that big data, or the general assumption of what that term stands for, is more of a bridge and underpinning between what was before and what needs to come next. It is too amorphous, ill-defined and meaningless to really have significant control of our world in and of itself.
Will data be more important in the future? Of course, and it undoubtedly has a decent level of importance right now. But as many have postulated already, it is not the data itself that is important, but the understanding one attains from it and the ability to invoke that understanding in pursuit of individual goals.
Perhaps this will initially feel like I am splitting hairs but, to me, the next big thing will focus on being personal. Not necessarily personalization, although that will have importance, but truly bringing meaning, insight and entertainment to the right people, about the right stuff at the right time.
Personalization has been discussed for some time. Of late, Marissa Mayer has pushed personalization as a key component of Yahoo’s future by serving a home page based largely on your past viewing habits at the site.
In many ways, this is really a next step from the strategies that drove two of the most interesting traffic successes on the Web. The Huffington Post, for example, really catapulted to scale by paying very close attention to what was trending on Google and other search engines, and creating – or at times, regurgitating – content to meet those interests. Jonah Peretti, one of the masterminds of that effort, has taken that same strategy to the social ecosystem to his next endeavor, BuzzFeed, and is enjoying very similar, if not greater, success.
In each of these examples, companies looked to the past in hopes of winning the future. The success of BuzzFeed and The Huffington Post are undeniable but, that said, what I am suggesting here is something substantially more interesting.
There always has been, and always will be, a case to be made for “fast following,” which is really what all this is about. But truly being personal not only showcases content based on what a consumer has viewed before, but it provides leadership and guidance to content around what the consumer will be interested in for the future.
At their best, this is what the great magazines of the past did, including Time, Newsweek and, more recently, The New Yorker and Vanity Fair. They took readers by the hand and showed them things in which they might never have thought they’d be interested.
The issue, of course, with magazines and other legacy media, is that it is very hard to scale these businesses for extended periods of time. They are almost driven by one or two incredibly talented editors who divine where the zeitgeist is going for enough people to produce large and loyal followings. They do not use algorithms or computer programs; they simply “feel it.”
The successes of The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed and perhaps Yahoo have come from algorithms and data, not intuition, but they have been relatively scalable.
Looking back will be standard operating procedure across the landscape. It will not be a defensible position to drive long-term separation from competitors in the content ecosystem. It will simply be table stakes.
At that time, we will indeed be in the era of being personal, where we deliver experiences in content, commerce, research and social that go beyond what has come before. The experiences will include serendipitous discovery that is framed and presented on a one-to-one basis.
These will be experiences that are created by science and art, and an enormous scale of offerings. The science is obvious; it is the data and the individual histories, algorithms and raw brute processing power that now comes from just about every corner of the business. The incredible advances in individual computing, the advent of the cloud and the huge and ongoing strides made in database management all are important here.
The art will come with a renewed focus on content. This is becoming clearer and has actually been presaged by every medium that has come before. The technology and platforms are the most important things, all the way up until they are not. After a relatively brief time, for example, one did not win in TV by having the best technology, although it certainly did not hurt. They won because they had the best content.
We now face the same phenomenon in the digital space. But like so many other things in digital, it will be a much more complex and messy future than what we saw in the past. It will be better, but it will also be harder for the suppliers working to meet an incredibly higher set of demands from readers, buyers, users and viewers.
This brings us to the third component of this new era: scale. Scale not in our overall reach, although clearly that will continue to be the goal, but rather scale in what we offer the end user. The only way to actually get sustainable success in this era – success well beyond what was seen in 20th-century media and retail – will be to have enormous offerings for consumers that not only satisfy yesterday’s needs, but delight with today’s introduction to something new and meaningful. And personal, if you will.
This will not come easily. User interfaces, semantic understanding, raw processing power, interconnected networks, big data and so much more will need to be brought to bear, but it will come.