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Strategic analysis
We Need Better Digital Media Studies

Written by on May 2, 2016

One the key reasons that it's so hard for legacy media companies to adjust to the digital world is because old media is defined by formats while new media isn't.

And one place where we can see this very clearly is when we look at the many media studies. Almost all of them are format-based. This makes sense if you are measuring old media, but it's completely useless for explaining what's important and changing with new media.

Let me give you an example.

Last week, The Danish associations of media, Danske Medier, released its annual ad spending report. And, in raw numbers, it looks like this:

First of all, there is nothing surprising here. The trends for where brands are spending their advertising budgets is as crystal clear as it can possible be, and has been so for 10 years.

But let me just point out a few things.

TV is small

One of the differences between Europe and the US, in especially the smaller European countries, is that the European advertising market is far more print focused. In the US there is a massive market for TV commercials, simply due to the size of the country and the enormous number of channels available. But in Denmark, and other smaller European countries, TV plays a much smaller role... and always has.

This has an impact on a number of things, one of which is that European brands have a much harder time adjusting to video online. Video is a format that many smaller brands have never really used before.

The internet has long been the leader

Many publishers (and also brands) still think of digital as this new and emerging market, which, of course, is no longer true. This shift happened back in 2012, when digital became the primary channel.

Digital is no longer new. It's now the default.

Print was hurt badly by the financial crisis

Another thing you will notice from the graph above is that when the financial crisis hit in 2008, brands were forced to reevaluate their advertising budgets. This caused an immediate 22% drop in advertising spending on print. But look at digital. It didn't increase during the same period (nor did it drop).

But then notice that, two years later, when consumer confidence started to come back and brands could invest in their future again, that's when we see the digital push.

In other words, when brands had to evaluate their cost, print was cut. And when brands could again think about their future, print was ignored.

This very simply illustrates just how much print has become obsolete.

The drop is rapid and shows no signs of recovering

You will also notice that the drop in print is rather dramatic, but let me show you how bad it really is. Here is what it looks like in percentages:

Yep, this is almost a 50% drop in 7 years. And while it isn't dropping as much today as it did just after the financial crisis, the drop remains persistent and predictable. There is no sign that this will change in the future.

This is a very common pattern for when things are replaced. First we see a dramatic drop when people realize the change is real, and then the remaining market just slowly fizzles out until it is no more. By 2021, it will likely be down to 25%, and that is only if another financial crisis won't hit us again before that.

Think about what this means.

Over the past seven years, you have barely survived by focusing on extremely aggressive cost-cutting. And I do mean barely, because many media companies are still doing badly.

But can you survive another 50% drop over the next five years? That doesn't seem likely, does it? Sure, a few publications might survive the next push, but many smaller and especially local newspapers won't. And even if you make it to 2021, will print then come back? No, of course not.

The trend here is crystal clear.

Print is done. It doesn't matter how much we want print to stay. It doesn't matter whether we like print or not. It's done!

This is why I have been advising my clients to stop trying to save print, and that every single moment you spend on print is time lost to the real future.

For instance, last week, I got a phone call from one of the salespeople from my local newspaper. And the first thing he said was that he wanted me to buy a print subscription.

This is not the first time they have called me about this. They have been doing this repeatedly (using the same sales pitch) over the past many years, during which they have seen a 41% drop in print circulation.

So why are they still doing it?

Sure, it's hard to transform to digital, and, sure, today's digital market is a mess. But why are they focusing their salespeople's time on selling people something that, for seven years, has proven to be the wrong focus? If their circulation has dropped 41%... doesn't that mean that their salespeople are absolutely failing? And that your 'product' (AKA the newspaper) isn't resonating with your market?

What I have been telling my clients is this:

If you are a big publisher with several publications, define it as a goal that at least 50% of all your publications should be digital-only by 2021. And for publishers with single publications, you should be 100% digital-only by 2021.

What this means is that January 1, 2021 is the day you stop the presses. That's the day you mark as when you no longer offer print, in any form.

At the same time, define it as a goal to stop selling print today. It's absolutely idiotic to spend your time converting people to the old world. You are asking them to take two steps back, before you can later convince them to take one step forward. You are shooting yourself in the foot.

Instead, define it as your goal, starting right now, to convert every new subscriber to a digital-only plan. Not a print + digital plan. Not a print + epaper plan. Digital-only!

And if you think this an overly drastic form of advice, look at the trends I showed you above. You need to focus every single waking moment on getting people to shift to digital, and the obvious way is to make sure all your new readers are digital from the very start.

I'm not saying you should stop printing today. That would be foolish considering that it's where you are getting most of your revenue. But you need to stop converting new subscribers to print. And you need to focus your efforts, over the next five years, on convincing your old print subscribers to convert to digital as well.

Let print die. Accept that this is happening. Focus on the future!

And mind you, if the financial outlook of digital advertising makes this impossible to do, you need to rethink your editorial focus so as to make you worth paying for as a digital subscriber.


Why we need better digital studies

As I said, there is nothing surprising about the trends that you see above. These trends have been crystal clear for a very long time. But what does this have to do with what I started out by saying about needing to move away from the format-first thinking?

Well, take a look at the raw numbers, this time for 2015, and tell me what you see.

What I see is a bunch of formats which, for the old print category, is highly detailed into each separate format of print publication.

This made sense in the old world. Before the internet, our world was defined by these formats. A TV channel was an entirely different form of media than radio. Radio was entirely different from newspapers, and newspapers were entirely different from magazines.

You defined yourself by the format, and you could look at the physical dimensions of the publication and from that define what it was.

This thinking is why we today see studies like this one, defining the entire world of digital as a single format. So now we have TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and 'internet', which is a completely hopeless categorization and, again, shows how incredibly out-of-date the media industry is.

You can't just define the internet as one format. The internet is many different things, and many different dimensions. This study does nothing to help you understand the future of digital. It doesn't tell you anything about what is trending on the internet. Is it websites, blogs, platforms, messaging, video, newsletters, mobile, laptops, micro-moments, VR, live, multi, native... or what?

This study doesn't tell you that. It's just defined by the old formats of a now out-of-date definition of the media.

Yes, it's interesting to see that print is still in decline and that the internet is now dominating. But that's nothing new. So what we need today from everyone doing media studies is a new type of studies that define the media in an entirely different way.

We have to stop defining it by formats. That's not how the world works anymore.

But, you ask, can't we just do a more detailed study and then add sub-categories like mobile, laptop, tablet? No, because those devices aren't what defines how people consumed the media.

In digital, people consume media across both mobile and laptops without even thinking about it. People are multi-device by default, so dividing digital consumption by device is misleading.

It's the same with platforms. Couldn't we just add Facebook and Google as a sub-category? Well, for Facebook, maybe. But that is only because it is increasingly turning into a niche type of consumption (granted, on a massive scale), but you couldn't do that for Google. Google's advertising varies across many different types of consumptions, channels and behaviors.

The simple fact is that we cannot define what we do on the internet as format, and this is one of the biggest reasons why legacy media struggle to understand digital. You are approaching it as just another format.

What is defining digital, however, is the moment. As in, what type of moment do we have?

I have written about this extensively several other articles. In "Publishers and The Snacking Economy", I illustrated it like this:

Here you see four very different types of moments, which require entirely different forms of publishers. The difference between a micro-moment for people who are bored (snacking / low intent), and a macro-moment for people who are inspired (deliberate / high intent) defines two completely different forms of media.

To illustrate these different forms, I also wrote "The Five Behaviors That Define The News Business". Here I talk about the behaviors that exists within these moments, which I named the break, the update, the lookup, the story and the passion, and the recline.

This is what defines digital media. It's not about the format anymore.

So, what we need from newspaper associations doing studies is to stop categorizing the data by formats. It's useless to categorize a media study by TV, radio, newspapers, magazines, and digital. That doesn't tell us anything.

For instance, wouldn't it be awesome if we could have a study that detailed ad spend based on what behavior and intent it was linked to? How much are brands spending on micro-moments and how much are they spending on macro-moments? How much are they spending on reaching people when they are just having a break, versus how much they are spending when they are looking for something?

Think about the amazing level of insight that we could get from that. But we have no such studies today, because everyone is still measuring the formats of the past.

To win the future, we first have to redefine how we think about it. And to do that, we first have to measure it differently to understand what is actually happening.

So, this is my call to action to everyone in the media industry. We need better digital media studies. We don't need yet another study detailing the formats of print and how much they have lost to digital. That's old news and obvious.

Let's all redefine how we think about the media... and let's do this today!

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Thomas Baekdal

Thomas Baekdal

Founder of Baekdal, author, writer, strategic consultant, and new media advocate.


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