It’s all about the tech

Digital technology has already transformed and disrupted media and publishing, as it has most parts of the global economy. So, asks Carolyn Morgan, what emerging trends should media businesses be monitoring, that will change how people consume content and how media organisations operate?

By Carolyn Morgan

It’s all about the tech

In November, I attended Web Summit in Lisbon, which bills itself as the world’s largest tech conference, with hundreds of talks and 60,000 visitors, to try to work out what media businesses should be concerned about. Here’s my top seven trends to watch, and some of the opportunities (and threats) they present for publishers.

1. Content needs a digital promotional plan

Social influencers and “born digital” media naturally use social platforms to build awareness of their content and reach new audiences, but traditional publishers consider content promotion an afterthought. This could be a big mistake. Taking a seriously analytical approach to understanding what content drives social sharing, which is at the heart of clicks and views, is the secret to expanding online reach.

Tailoring content to each individual platform, and shifting the balance towards visual and video content, with subtitles or captions, is essential. The producers of major TV series, such as BBC’s Blue Planet 2, think about how to create clips for social sharing before they even start planning production, and reach out to companies like Tencent (owners of the WeChat app) to build partnerships to access the Chinese market.

There are certainly lessons to be learned by publishers on including digital content promotion strategy before commissioning major series or campaigns.

2. Established media brands have to build trust

As it gets easier to use social platforms to find readers, so “fake news” can gain traction with an audience, leaving established media brands playing catch up, and struggling to prove the relative quality of their journalism. News media organisations like the New York Times and the Washington Post have invested substantially in their investigative journalism, breaking major stories that build their reputation. Their editors believe that sources trust established news media and are more willing to talk to them, enabling well researched stories. Both NYT and the Washington Post have seen a big increase in the number of digital subscribers, showing that readers do value quality journalism.

As the news feed algorithms start to dictate what content is seen by a larger proportion of the online audience, there is a risk that trivial but populist content eclipses more editorially important or niche stories. So, media organisations need to find a way to engage with the tech platforms, especially Facebook, to influence how algorithms evolve.

3. Learn to use video, VR and AR to tell stories

Already, video drives social sharing, and publishers are increasing the proportion of video content. In the US, online video viewing is growing at 30% pa. But there are new, even more engaging and interactive forms of visual content on the horizon, so it is worth watching how the gaming and entertainment industry is adopting them.

Volumetric video provides a 3-D video image of a person, shot with an array of cameras, which can be viewed from all sides. This video can be compressed to a file small enough to be shared via a phone. Early applications include museum guides, personal trainers or retail assistants.

By the end of 2017, 100m phones will be able to view virtual reality content using the Google Daydream technology. Users will be able to record their individual path through a VR experience and share with friends. Already, the New York Times is building up expertise in VR journalism, and is funding this initiative via sponsored VR content for advertisers.

Games publishers are creating interactive VR games, with an entire environment to explore, where characters are aware of where the player is and can maintain eye contact, responding accordingly.

And early augmented reality (AR) apps are available for the most advanced phones, adding captions onto the view from the phone’s camera. Current applications are in navigation and education.

Whilst this may seem futuristic, it won’t take long for high volume adoption, and it creates opportunities for media brands to communicate to their audiences in new ways.

4. Voice search is growing

Already, 10% of online searches are voice enabled, and Amazon believes that by 2020, voice will make up over half of all search queries, as it is so much easier for consumers to talk than type. Only very recently has computing power reached the point where it can process language in real time, and work across multiple languages and accents as well as deal with the “fuzziness” of meaning and intent, plus create voices with accurate pronunciation of text. Already 25,000 Alexa skills have been developed, ready to direct users’ voice questions to relevant content and voice answers.

Media brands need to give thought to how their content might be accessed via voice search, and how they can incorporate their existing audio content.

5. AI will enhance customer service and data analysis

Artificial intelligence (AI) was everywhere at Web Summit, powering autonomous vehicles and spookily humanoid robots. But even in its more simple incarnations, AI is going to affect many aspects of media and publishing. Associated Press has already started experimenting with automated news stories around straightforward topics such as sports results reports.

Simple chatbots, such as those built on Facebook messenger, can already automate standard customer interactions by following a decision tree. As AI develops, they will be able to deliver far more sophisticated customer services.

Machine learning platforms can quickly analyse the connections between items of data and identify patterns in vast data sets. Graph database platform Neo4j was used to sift through the 1.4TB Paradise Papers leak for newsworthy stories of tax avoidance, has analysed lessons learned from decades of NASA projects, and also provides real time product recommendations for Walmart customers.

There’s an obvious application for B2B media with access to vast real-time databases, in using AI to identify trends and spot opportunities to create valuable insights for their business subscribers. And AI can be used to analyse user behaviour, possibly to identify segments interested in new niche content, or spot the warning signs of a disengaged subscriber who might lapse.

6. Work and learning is changing

Technology is already changing both the patterns and the content of work. The freelance sector is expanding, as knowledge workers discover they can work remotely, and use platforms such as Upwork to gain clients from across the world. Meanwhile, employers appreciate the flexibility of pulling in specific expertise as and when they want.

The growth of AI will hollow out many clerical jobs, from customer services to conveyancing and accounting, as well as decimate lorry drivers as autonomous vehicles become common.

This affects media businesses both as employers in their own right and as commentators on the industries they serve.

The economy will require new skills: including coding, UX design, data analysis, digital marketing, and there will be a shortage as formal education programmes catch up. But there will also be an explosion in informal, career-long learning, using technology to support people continuously adding to their skills.

This growth in online informal learning provides an opportunity for media brands serving niche industries or even specialist hobbies, to expand their offering to include digitally delivered training, maybe by partnering with online learning platforms.

7. Startups plan to eat your lunch

An overwhelming feature of Web Summit were the startups exhibiting, literally hundreds, covering every sector of the economy, exploring every possible inefficiency and information gap. They were at the event to find business partners and investors, and there were an equally keen set of investors looking for new ideas to back financially. The sense of energy and ingenuity was palpable. And that poses a threat to established businesses in media, as in every other sector. Whatever your niche, the chances are that a group of bright, enthusiastic and ambitious tech savvy millennials are hoping to disrupt, eat your lunch, and make themselves rich and famous. There is little room for complacency.

A final topic at Web Summit was the growing importance of ethics in technology, considering the social impact of disruption in key industries, the risk of people or nations gaming the social platforms algorithms, and the regulation and taxation of multi-national tech giants. Plus, as AI becomes more powerful, how can it have a moral code built in to ensure that choices don’t harm society or the environment? This could certainly be an interesting field for editorial content.

So, media businesses cannot ignore technology, as then they risk being disrupted by insurgent startups who live and breathe it.

It’s important to experiment with new forms of storytelling, to explore how to promote content on digital platforms, make the algorithms work for you, and consider how to access the potential of voice search.

And artificial intelligence can be harnessed to create new valuable content, deliver better customer service and make sense of the deluge of data on which users read which pieces of content and when.

Established media brands need to continue to invest in what differentiates their content from new digital competitors, whether that is investigative journalism, proprietary data or insightful analysis and comment.

Pictures credit: Stephen McCarthy/Web Summit via Sportsfile (CC by 2.0).