Media CEOs: You Don’t Need A Crystal Ball

What brands really need is to plug into real-time data feeds that can show them how audience habits are changing and how to proactively bolster consumer engagement and loyalty.

As families adjusted to stay home orders and remote work plans, our collective media consumption changed in ways that would have been impossible to predict at the outset of 2020.

If we mark this date on 2021’s calendar and if we reread this piece again in 12 months, how many media brands that are ahead of the industry will point back to the pandemic as the trigger that led to their commitment to data operations? And how many who will have fallen behind, or out of the market altogether, will be judged to have perhaps seen what was happening around them during the pandemic, but failed to act?

There are lessons here for fintech, enterprise artificial intelligence and how they can serve the media industry and media investing.

Big Changes

According to Nielsen, use of internet-connected televisions (for streaming, live television or gaming) in the U.S. increased by more than 1 billion hours a week from early March to the end of the month. Comcast reported in May that families were watching 8 hours of additional TV a week, with more people watching late at night and less viewers early in the morning.

Media, like so many sectors of our economy, had no way to see this coming. But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t prepare for it. Brands don’t need a crystal ball, they need to plug into real-time data feeds that can show them how audience habits are changing, what is driving those behavior changes at micro and macro levels, and how to proactively retain and bolster consumer engagement and loyalty.

Few industries change as fast as media — it was barely a decade ago, in 2007, when Apple launched its first iPhone and Netflix pivoted to streaming content. We know the long-term trends. As of May 2018, cable TV penetration had reached a low of 49.4%. Meanwhile, consumers are watching more than 1 billion hours of YouTube a day, surpassing linear TV.

While these changes are dramatic, and costly for legacy media organizations, it’s not as if television is dead, not even close. The majority of boomers are content with cable, and almost 58 million gen Xers had a cable TV subscription in 2019, according to eMarketer.

What creators, distributors, aggregators and advertisers need, more than anything, is a clear view of the media landscape, and instant updates on audience trends or consumer expectations to drive investment and strategic evolution.

Better intelligence

Despite the rapid change of many parts of media, tasks like ad buying — and monitoring the implementation of contracts — continue to rely on cumbersome manual processes. Shifting to more powerful automated and AI-driven data systems is a crucial step for brands to become more agile and innovative.

None of us know exactly how current trends will shape the industry a decade from now, but brands with a strong data operation will see unexpected changes first and have a much longer runway to keep ahead of the curve. That doesn’t necessarily mean big investments in internal data teams, it means looking for a scalable platform.

Players in the media landscape are right now trying to come to grips with the innovation they need. They are hiring and deploying in-house engineers, data scientists and augmenting their operations with open source software where possible. They’re incubating solutions.

But the advantages of pushing operations internally come at a cost. In-house operations must put out fires during the normal course of business. Open source software only goes so far and imposes limits on scalable advances. Executives are increasingly looking for automation and software narrowly focused on their needs and moving from a homebrew solution to more agile vendors or partners.

Learning from others

Across industries, from health insurance to capital management and cancer research, third-party vendors are deploying AI and machine learning to compile and analyze sector-wide datasets, offering insights more powerful than what most companies could do alone.

Facing uncertainty and disruption, only a few digitally confident media brands may feel comfortable standing up new data operations. But that’s no reason to hold off on expanding data capabilities.

While many of the trending news stories these days focus on the cutting edge of media innovation, brands need to keep a wider view of the landscape, realizing that cable TV will remain an important piece of their distribution puzzle. But they also can’t ignore the rest.

Media and fintech partner companies can gain ground at the center of our at-home media universe, but they certainly could lose ground without adapting to audience demands. While nobody can see exactly what’s around the next turn, investing in strong data operations will ensure they stay on track, and adapt to whatever conditions await.