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The Tech Challenge: media’s biggest obstacle to survival

For many publishers, tech capability is the biggest challenge before, during and after the coronavirus. Jim Bilton looks at what publishers need to be doing.

By Jim Bilton

The Tech Challenge: media’s biggest obstacle to survival

Everything has changed, yet nothing has changed.

The pandemic has thrown everything up into the air in both our personal and business lives. Currently, the key resources we all need are cash, resilience and optimism, as we question every habit, practice and assumption. All our givens are no longer given.

Yet, in business, what we are actually experiencing is an extreme stress-test of the underlying fundamentals which make any operation work, and always will. Over the last ten years of the Media Futures benchmarking project, we have tracked media company “Change Assets” – the resources to drive change and innovation through the organisation. This covers things like company vision and culture, the right departmental structures, staff headcount and skills, as well as the simple cash in the bank to keep going.

Yet of all the requirements, what comes consistently bottom is IT and Tech. This is the area that worries publishers most, year-in year-out, and where they feel they are slipping behind in a fast-changing environment: a world which seems to be filled with robots, automation and AI everywhere you look. And with people like Amazon, Netflix and Spotify seeming to be light years ahead of the rest of us.

To be fair, the scores for Tech Competence actually rose slightly year-on-year in the latest survey. There was a sense of starting to “get there” – at least among the larger companies – but that there was still a long way to go. Let’s dig a bit deeper and look at four distinct tech dimensions…

What we are actually experiencing is an extreme stress-test of the underlying fundamentals which make any operation work.

1. Content delivery to end users

This, predictably, has the highest score – it better had, because if media companies cannot deliver their core asset of content to their audiences, then the industry is in real trouble. Yet the score is not a strong one and it shows only a modest year-on-year increase. While Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality still catch the headlines, these have pretty limited usage in most media organisations. It is video and audio where the big changes are taking place, as text-based delivery comes under increasing pressure. Of the two, audio is probably the more far-reaching. It ranges from the revitalisation of the good old podcast at one extreme through to smart speakers and digital assistants (Alexa, Siri, Cortana and the like) at the other. The long-term impact of the shift into voice and audio is still difficult to forecast, but it will not just affect how users absorb content, but it will also hit search and ecommerce. At the same time, old activities such as the trusty enewsletter are making something of a comeback to sit alongside the newer stuff like chatbots. Yet, lying behind every content delivery mechanism is the need to tailor the whole experience for individual users – personalisation is the key driver of every tech development in content. And that means automation and AI.

2. Interfacing with external partners

This comes in second place, with another modest increase in year-on-year scores. As partnerships and collaborative promotions increase, companies need to be able to swap data quickly and to fuse distinct information pools together: this has become just as important as trying to create a single, self-owned data warehouse – for many organisations, still just a pipedream.

Then come two areas, both growing in importance, but where publishers feel that they are particularly weak…

3. Process automation

This has two dimensions. Firstly, internal processes, especially in the area of insight and analysis, where many publishers feel that they are making progress, but are only beginning to scratch the surface. Secondly, in marketing communication with end-users. Being able to automate as much as possible across every activity is central to delivering more efficiency and productivity and to improving the delivery of solutions that are tailored to specific situations and audiences – personalisation again.

4. A wide & flexible range of payment options

Another area rapidly growing in importance. Low friction payment is at the core of the whole Amazon service, both online and in physical bricks-and-mortar outlets. This is setting new levels of UX expectations among users in both consumer and B2B environments.

So, how to rise to the tech challenge?

Here are a few tips which emerge from the shared experiences of the benchmarking companies…

  • Start with the user – their needs, requirements and UX – and work backwards when specifying tech developments.
  • Involve every key department in the speccing process in order to gain a truly holistic view.
  • Have engaged, board level champions who can drive the whole process: people who have the power to set and enforce priorities across the whole company.
  • Focus on a discrete, single process or system to upgrade first. Trying to overhaul everything at once is over-ambitious and is usually what causes overruns, overspends and tech disasters.
  • Be clear which route you are going to take. Building a complete system in-house is usually limited to only the largest companies: it also often turns out to be the slowest and most expensive option. Most media organisations need to use external suppliers. Committing to a single vendor with a turnkey, end-to-end solution looks the simplest route, but can often turn out to be more expensive and less flexible. Developing a bespoke system that cherry-picks the best component parts from a range of providers needs more project management, but is usually more flexible.
  • Create a new internal team who are tech-savvy and data-comfortable to run and tweak the new set-up.

And a final observation. If you still have people in your company with “digital” in their job title, you are not yet a digital company.

Personalisation is the key driver of every tech development in content. And that means automation and AI.

Media Futures is an annual benchmarking survey undertaken by Wessenden Marketing in partnership with InPublishing.

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