Top tech: Five media technologies that should be on your radar
How your company can best take advantage of these five advances
By Mary E. Morrison
Technology alone may not make or break a media company, but it's certainly one of the most important pieces in the modern-day publishing puzzle. Media Business asked a handful of industry executives about technologies that are changing—or will soon change—the media landscape and how publishers can best take advantage of these advances. They identified these to watch:
Mobile platforms have yet to really take off for media companies, but many publishers believe it's a question of when and how—not if—the “third screen” will change their business. Already, according to Nielsen Co., 87 million cell phone users in the U.S. subscribe to services provided on the mobile Web.
At this point, however, publishers are still looking overseas to Asian and European markets to see how mobile devices are changing the way people consume information and how accordingly marketers target them. “People outside of the U.S. use their mobile phones to [do things like] file their health insurance claims,” said Linda McCutcheon, senior VP-online at Nielsen Business Media, a unit of Nielsen Co. “That's all happening internationally but hasn't yet hit the U.S. in any significant way.”
Nielsen Co., has jumped into the mobile space with Nielsen Mobile, a service that provides research to the telecom and mobile media markets, and TotalWeb, a cross-platform Internet measurement service the company announced last month that shows how mobile traffic increases Internet audiences. “TotalWeb measures usage on all screens,” McCutcheon said. “It's helping us understand how consumers are using not only their desktops or their laptops but also [mobile devices].”
Colin Crawford, exec VP-interactive at IDG Communications, said that while it may still be a few years premature, mobile will provide social network opportunities. For instance, Crawford envisions a scenario in the not-too-distant future in which an attendee at a conference such as MacWorld could look at his phone and see that there are 10 other passionate Mac users from his network within half a mile of him. More advanced visual communications such as video mail also will come, he said, though again, it might be a while.
“Some of this is early .... but in the next two to five years, mobile is going to surge forward,” he said. “As publishers, we're going to have to get our heads around exactly what is the right type of content to serve up to our users through various mobile devices. I don't believe it's a replica of ... the Web. I believe that we'll have to develop specific content and display it in the right way.”
2) Content syndication/RSS
A few years ago, most of the buzz about RSS focused on how the technology allowed publishers to connect directly with readers. What's turned out to be far more significant, however, is the content sharing that it's enabling between publishers.
“RSS as the disintermediation of the Web site for users kind of peaked a couple of years ago at frankly a very low uptake,” said Stephen Howard-Sarin, VP-products at CNET Networks. “Users for the most part looked at it and yawned. But publishers have all adopted it as core background lingua franca that simply works.”
Part of content syndication's renaissance is attributable to the fact that publishers are eager to reach their audience wherever they may be—even if they're on a competitor's Web site. “What's really notable these days is that we're in a period where people are letting their prized content out of the house,” Howard-Sarin said. “Everybody is syndicating content to everybody else. So the need for some common protocol to get content from site A to site B is on everybody's to-do list, and RSS just fills that need pretty basically and effectively.”
On the flip side, aggregating content from other sources helps publishers keep up with the demand for constantly updated content in a cost-effective way. “Content aggregation through RSS, widgets and partnerships is important,” said Traci Young, VP-product development at Reed Business Information's RBInteractive division. “A critical part of our content strategy has been ensuring users have a reason to come back to our sites daily. Content aggregation provides an automated mechanism to add fresh content daily.”
3) Ad networks
B-to-b publishers of all sizes are asking themselves what the role of ad networks should be in their business, and the answer taps into both technology and business strategy issues.
“It's the great unavoidable technology question of this year and the years to come,” Howard-Sarin said.
First, publishers are asking themselves if they should create and anchor an ad network in their sector or if they should join other networks, he said. If they decide to join other networks, then there are the questions of how many to join and to what extent it will create a channel conflict with the sales force.
“What's the yield? That's the critical question,” Howard-Sarin said. “If you open up your site and your inventory for someone else to sell it, are you going to benefit from some sort of competition, like we've seen with Google AdWords where, over time, more and more advertisers bid up the price of inventory—and clicks and therefore everybody makes more money—or are you opening the floodgates to an inventory glut that drives profits down? The answer to that is unclear.”
How publishers integrate ad networks onto their site can control their exposure to that risk somewhat, he said. “The technologies of your site and of the ad networks, and the advance targeting features layered on top of the ad networks, change the mass,” he said.
The media world may be abuzz about online video this year, but it's still about five years away from things getting really interesting, said Stephen Saunders, creator of Internet Evolution (www.internetevolution.com), a Web site about the future of the Internet that is owned by United Business Media's TechWeb unit.
Saunders said he envisions b-to-b publishers' Web sites acting as guides for buyers, providing everything they need to know about products, prices and different vendors. When there is more advanced video technology and increased network capacity, video will play a key role in connecting these buyers and sellers. “In the future conversation, that will be done in video, and it will be done through Web sites such as the ones set up by b-to-b publishers,” Saunders said.
In preparing for that day, publishers must keep abreast of video technology and talk to their customers to determine if using video would be useful and well-received. “In most cases, the best customer to talk to isn't a megacorp or a global hegemony ... because they always want the new new. And they're so vast, so people are looking to differentiate themselves in those organizations by saying, "Look, we have this. It's new,' “ Saunders said.
Instead, talk to a VP-marketing at a midtier private company—someone who reports to the sales organization—and ask what they want and which technology can help them achieve their goals, he said. “Customers will tell you when the time is right,” he said.
In the meantime, Saunders cautions publishers against using video just for the sake of seeing talking heads. “Video is a great example of technology that can be really uninteresting; it can be quite damaging to your publishing business, particularly in terms of P&L,” he said. “If you do it very, very well, it can be expensive, and people typically don't want to pay for it. If you do it cheaply, it can look horrible. ... You have to ask: What is the function of putting something in video?”
5) Lead generation
Many b-to-b publishers began pursuing lead-generation programs a few years ago, but their efforts were focused on providing relatively simple data—such as name, address and job title—to marketers. Such basic information is no longer enough, and publishers are feeling the pressure to provide more.
“Marketers want a much deeper understanding of where these individuals are in the buying process, what is their true responsibility and how likely they are to complete a buying transaction,” Crawford said.
The goal is to provide active buyers to marketers in the most efficient way possible, Crawford said, but it's also to build a long-term relationship between the marketers and the buyers. “There could be a lifetime value associated with a lot of these buyers,” he said. “They'll come back and buy different services from the original vendor, so really it's an ongoing conversation.”
The technological challenge, of course, is collecting customer information that is rich in detail. IDG took its original print databases, enhanced them with information from online users and consolidated the databases across multiple brands. Those efforts yielded a sophisticated data mining and customer intelligence database for IT buyers in the marketplace, Crawford said, and the result is that lead generation accounts for 40% of the company's total revenue streams.