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Tech Stacks: The ongoing media challenge

Tech, once an afterthought for many publishers, is now very much front of mind as it underpins virtually everything publishers are trying to do. Jim Bilton reports.

By Jim Bilton

Tech Stacks: The ongoing media challenge

Media companies have always had problems with their tech stacks. There are two reasons why. Firstly, the whole area has never really been seen as a core competency for the industry. Traditionally, it had always been regarded as a bit of a “back-end” process – along with distribution, something that happened after the content had been lovingly created by the editorial luvvies and the ads had been aggressively sold by the suits in Commercial. Secondly, modern media businesses have grown into very complex, multi-platform, multi-channel operations, which require standards of tech capability which increase year by year and which are much more demanding than in most other industries. Put those two factors together and there is a real challenge.

That challenge has always registered in the mediafutures survey. Every year, the project looks at seven ‘change assets’ – things that equip any organisation to drive change and innovation. ‘IT resources & platforms’ has consistently come near the bottom of this asset ranking, year-in year-out. In the 2020 survey, the tech scores were beginning to rise. Yet this year, that improvement has stopped. The slow progress which was being made appears to have stalled. As the key enabler of most strategic developments on the corporate “to do” list, this is worrying.

Yet there are some qualifications to this rather depressing picture. There are many companies in the benchmarking programme who have made significant advances.

  • The smarter companies have been investing in tech for some years and are now seeing the fruit of that long-term view – Future being a very high profile and oft-quoted example.
  • The last 18 months have also seen many more companies decide to invest in building more robust platforms.
  • Yet there are still some who are leaving it late and know that they have to spend serious money – and quickly – to tool up properly, typically moving from a collection of siloed (and usually sellotaped together) platforms to the ultimate target (or unachievable Holy Grail? – another point of debate!) of a “single view”.

These company-to-company differences also flow through into the key industry sectors. So, for example, the ‘Tech Competence’ scores show B2B companies (6.7 out of 10) appreciably ahead of Consumer (6.0). A key theme of the whole mediafutures survey this time is that the gap between B2B and Consumer across a whole range of metrics is growing, as Consumer companies look to be getting left behind.

In addition, the competence levels vary markedly from process to process. The survey tracks four core areas:

  • Revenue models. These “front-end” areas include activities such as building memberships, creating data products, programmatic ad delivery and ecommerce. Each one has its own complexities and issues, as well as very different priority ratings from company to company. The competence levels also vary massively from operation to operation.
  • Content formats. Delivering content across a range of platforms and products from newsletters, audio (podcasts and streamed channels) and video through to whitepapers and on to workflow tools. This is the area that publishers generally feel is their strongest zone of tech competence.
  • Distribution channels. This ranges across a number of content channels from social media through to publishers’ own websites – an area which is clearly the biggest priority at the moment, where a number of paid strategies are being executed in a variety of ways. Again, a wide range of competence, but real progress across the whole industry seems to be being made here.
  • Productivity and automation tools. This “back end” area is now a top priority for many publishers, ranging from paywall tech, through CRM, CMS and marcomms, onto smarter payment mechanisms. Yet the big leap forward for many companies will be to streamline internal, operational processes (eg. accounting and admin), which is seen as the key to unlocking real productivity gains.

Three other points to bear in mind. Firstly, a key variable in all this is whether the tech stacks are self-built internally or bought-in from external vendors. There are pros and cons of both approaches and it usually ends up being a mix of the two – sometimes a messy mix if executed badly. Secondly, there appears to be no pattern to the scores when looking at company size. Each operation is finding its own specific solutions within its own budget constraints. Thirdly, data security and dealing with cybercrime is now a serious (and really scary) issue which can destroy a business overnight.

Rising to the tech challenge remains one of the biggest tasks for the media industry in 2023. Not only will it deliver tangible benefits, which are critically important to surviving in a permacrisis world, but the very process of speccing out tech requirements teases out all kinds of issues as to why one does things in a particular way. And whether it is actually beneficial to be doing some of these things at all anyway.

Get it right and solving the tech challenge will transform most businesses. Get it wrong, or delay addressing the tech issues, and the whole operation could disappear very quickly.

The new ‘Deeper Dive Report: The Media Tech Challenge’ spins off from the core mediafutures project, and is sponsored by CDS Global. To get a copy of the report and access to a recording of the webinar launching it, then contact Jim Bilton (

About mediafutures

mediafutures is an annual benchmarking survey of the industry undertaken by Wessenden Marketing in partnership with InPublishing and Collingwood Advisory. Now into its 14th year, it covers consumer media, B2B, live events and exhibitions, news media and customer media, ranging from “traditional publishers” through to 100% digital pure plays, and from the major industry players through to smaller, independent businesses. It maps the key drivers and metrics that are transforming the shape and direction of the whole media business.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.