How Brands Can Fix the Relationship Between Platforms, Audiences, and Media Companies (Hint: It’s Not a Boycott)

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(Second of a series. The first post reviews the media and platform ecosystem, and laments the role brand marketers have played in its demise.)

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Hi, folks on Medium. It’s been a minute. I’m sorry for that, long story. I plan on writing more overall, and I thought given we had built something of a connection a couple years ago, I’d start cross posting here. Hope you’re all good and enjoying the Medium vibe.

In my first post of this series, I laid out a fundamental problem with how digital media works today. Large digital platforms like Facebook and Google have cornered the market on audience attention, often with devastating impact on our national dialog. Along the way these platforms have developed sophisticated prediction and targeting engines which give marketers the ability to buy audiences with precision and scale. While this has been a boon for marketers’ businesses and the platforms’ profits, it’s also drained resources from independent, high-quality editorial outlets and stripped our national dialog of much-needed context.

The loss of that context is at the core of an ever-growing #StopHateForProfit social media boycott, which now includes huge brands like Unilever, Coca Cola, Verizon, and Honda. I’ll be writing about that next, but today I want to focus on how we got here, and what we can do about it.

Over the past ten years, media companies have responded to their loss of audience by creating “viral” editorial that performs well inside the platform’s engagement-at-all-costs ecosystem. Predictably, however, quality editorial — the context journalists create for a living — rarely qualifies as viral. Besides flooding the platforms with videos of slippers which double as mops and two-second beer bongs, media companies have embraced Facebook and Google in other ways — selling them programming that never seems to gain audience or get renewed, building expensive and often unprofitable versions of themselves on each platform, or becoming platform advertisers themselves, a practice I call arbitrage in which media companies buy audience impressions wholesale and then mark them up to their marketer customers. In that first post, I spent a fair bit of time on arbitrage — mainly because I believe it’s a particularly despicable and self-defeating business practice.

If we’re being honest with ourselves as media companies, none of our strategies of engagement with platforms have proven to be long-term business model winners. However, platforms own audience, and no amount of wishing it was otherwise will change that fact. If we want independent and quality editorial to maintain a vital place in our democracy, we have to imagine a new set of relationships between platforms, editorial, marketers and audiences. A promising innovation is already in place at one platform: Twitter.

Twitter’s Unique Path

Twitter has always been the underdog of the social networks — smaller, messier, less hell bent on conquering the world. But the service’s fast-twitch nature meant it quickly became an indispensable place for people to discover What’s Happening Right Now. Anything live and worth discussing — sports, news, gossip/culture — thrives there. News breaks on Twitter, but the rise of digital video ten years ago presented a significant barrier to growth. Given Twitter’s roots as a text-based service, the company needed to convince major media companies to view Twitter as a home for video content. Facebook and Google had YouTube and Instagram, and Twitter was playing from behind.

In response, Twitter adopted a media-company friendly solution they called Twitter Amplify. Amplify has a unique model that fundamentally changes the power relationships between players in the media ecosystem. Most who use it give those fundamental changes little thought — they just see Amplify as a partnership tool, pure and simple. But once you grok Amplify’s unique approach, you realize its potential is wildly overlooked.

In traditional media business models — which I call Packaged Goods Media — media companies create editorial, which attracts audience, which then attracts marketers, who pay media companies for access to the audience’s attention. Simplified, the ecosystem looked like this:

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In this simple model, marketers place their advertising messages inside the media companies owned and operated product, which the media company distributed itself. The advertising message was delivered in the context of quality editorial — editorial that the marketer had chosen proactively (within limits of church and state, of course) as part of a media planning process. A critical assumption of this early model was this: Pairing relevant advertising messaging with quality editorial was vastly more successful for marketers — particular brand marketers — than advertising messaging delivered devoid of context. Before platforms, in fact, there were really only two channels for context-less advertising: Billboards and direct mail. Neither were particularly effective for building brands, though both had their place in the media ecosystem.

But the rise of platforms created a new gatekeeper in this once-stable environment. Platforms quickly gained enviable audiences, but advertising models were slower to adapt. Early in their development, Facebook and YouTube realized that to win even larger audiences, they needed to accommodate media companies’ editorial product on their platforms. To do so, they adopted a Packaged Goods Media model that looked an awful lot like the picture above.

The bargain was simple: If you were a media company, you set up shop on the platform, acquired your own organic audience there, and once you got to a certain scale, you sold ads there — either on your own or in partnership with the platforms. Media companies early to these platforms — major TV networks, large newspapers, digital pioneers like Buzzfeed and Vox — quickly built large audiences. But after a while, media companies realized that maintaining those audiences would prove difficult and expensive. Facebook and YouTube now controlled distribution. The media companies had built on the platform’s land, and if there’s one truth in capitalism, it’s this: landlords will always demand their rent.

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Media companies found themselves increasingly subject to the whims of the platforms’ algorithms and business models. They replicated a Packaged Goods Media model on top of the platforms, and discovered — shocker! — that they no longer owned the audiences they were trying to sell to marketers. Instead, they had to buy audience from the platforms, and resell it to marketers — again, on the platform. That deal wasn’t very good for anyone (save the platforms), and as marketers realized they could go direct to platforms to get their audiences more efficiently, the decline of traditional media was accelerated.

How Amplify Works, And Why It (Really, Really) Matters

Twitter’s Amplify points to a powerful new narrative. It works like this:

  1. Media company partners with Twitter to become an editorial partner, stands up editorial on platform (Twitter).
  2. Media company partners with marketer to support editorial on platform.
  3. Marketer and editorial use platform tools to identify both editorial and audience the marketer wishes to reach.
  4. Marketer uses its dollars to distribute both editorial and marketing messaging to audience.
  5. The platform and the editorial company split the revenue. All parties are aware of and read into the terms of the deal, no arbitrage is possible.

In some ways, this feels similar to Packaged Goods Models of old. The marketer is wrapping its advertising message around editorial, just like in the pages of a magazine or a website before platforms dis-intermediated editorial from audience. And the results speak volumes: Campaigns that are contextually paired with good editorial tend to perform far better than campaigns without an editorial pairing.*

But what gets missed is the revolution inside step #4 above. Amplify allows the marketer to use Twitter’s massive investment in advertising technology and audience development to define what audience it wants to reach, and then use a media company’s editorial as a lure to draw that audience through its marketing messaging. Let that sink in: The marketer — not the media company, not the platform, but the marketer — is responsible for putting the audience together with editorial.

The result is that on Twitter, a marketing partnership like the one The Recount has with Bank of America is a four-way win for every participant in the media ecosystem. The marketer gets scale, precision targeting, its choice of editorial (which allows for brand safety), and the resultant lift on the performance of its campaign. The editorial gets a direct revenue and business relationship with the marketer, and is exposed to audience members it otherwise would have to pay the platform to reach. The audience gets contextual advertising wrapped in content the audience finds interesting. And the platform, in this case Twitter, has a happy marketing partner, quality content distributed across its platform, and a revenue split with editorial. Win, win, win, win.

Amplify’s model puts the power of connecting audience and editorial in the hands of marketers — highlighting the crucial role marketers have always played in determining which editorial thrives in the media ecosystem. As I argued in my last post, far too many marketers have abdicated their responsibility as arbiters of which editorial deserves their financial support, opting instead to let Facebook and Google’s algorithms choose their audiences and their business results. Those algorithms will always favor a platform’s bottom line over the context and healthy dialog that quality editorial can provide. Programs like Amplify finally combine the power of a platform’s scale, data, and precision with the marketers’ responsibility to support editorial’s crucial role in social discourse.

Finally, and importantly, the best Amplify partnerships deepen what have become attenuated relationships between large brands and the media companies that depend on them. If companies really are serious about “multi-stakeholder capitalism” and becoming a “force for good,” they have to start engaging with — and supporting — the story at a deeper level. It’s time for marketers to lead again.

As I write this, the media world is embroiled in a multi-layered narrative involving hate speech, platform boycotts, health crises, and economic catastrophes. But the way forward is not to pull back spending indiscriminately and walk away. Instead, marketers must do the work of understanding the problems at hand, then actively lean into solutions that can address them. Memo to all you marketers out there: Don’t sleep on Twitter Amplify.

The third post in this series will explore the current “social media boycott” in light of the first two posts.

* Far, far better. If you are marketer, please be in touch and we’d be happy to share just how much better — jbat at therecount dot com.

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