Digital media is still very much in its infancy, but change is in the air. David Lerman, Co-founder and CTO, Say Media explores five industry trends that signal that the ‘Golden Age of Digital Media’ is upon us.
Digital media is still very much in its infancy. The fact that a whole generation has grown up not knowing what life is like without the Internet makes it easy to think of Web publishing it as a mature medium. But if you consider that the first banner ad was sold just 20 years ago, the first search ads appeared 18 years ago and WordPress only arrived on the scene in 2003, it’s clear that the technology and tools for digital media still have a lot of room to grow.
To put this in perspective, consider the last brand new medium that developed from the ground up: television. If you go back and look at TV in the late ’40s, it looks primitive and dated. The 30 minute sitcom and the 60 minute drama weren’t established yet; the ads were painfully heavy handed and poorly integrated; the performances were often pretty weak because the best talent was working in a more established medium – the movies.
By the mid 1950s however, shows such as I Love Lucy, Hitchcock Presents and the Twilight Zone arrived and television began to come into its own. These shows, while clearly immature, look a lot like modern television today. That era is now called the Golden Age of TV; the period where television became what it is today. Technical advances combined with enough distribution allowed the rapid evolution of the form from early experimentation into truly modern television.
We’re in these same formative years with digital media today. The templates we use are basic and unappealing; our sites are crowded by poorly performing and poorly integrated banner ads; we’re just starting to attract top talent to digital that used to create content primarily for print and television.
But change is in the air. We’re on the cusp of discovering the potential of what digital media can be. These 5 trends in the industry that tell me the Golden Age of Digital Media is almost here:
1. Design finally matters again. Print magazines are beautiful and engaging, yet when we moved them online, too much was lost in translation. But that’s starting to change, and I think we can thank mobile for that. Mobile turned up and suddenly designers had a new problem to solve, and digital design woke up. Take Weather.com as an example. When you were just trying to find out today’s forecast, they managed to cram in every possible piece of related content.
When it came time to translate that to the phone, there wasn’t room for all the crap. Designers had to go back to the drawing board, think about what was essential and what wasn’t, and build something simple, functional, and beautiful.
We’ve since started to see a new crop of specialized publishing platforms that differentiate on simplicity of design and mobile readiness, platforms like Flipboard, Medium, Exposure, or Say Media’s own platform called Tempest.
2. Publishers are investing in storytelling. It’s great that we’re finally catching up to print in our layout and use of design, but we can do things in digital that are impossible in print, and we’re finally started to invest in creative digital storytelling. The now-iconic example of this is a piece in The New York Times called Snow Fall. The Times spent many months and a lot of money producing a really beautiful piece of journalism that blended great edit with beautiful digital artwork that helped tell the story of 16 skiers and snowboarders caught in an avalanche. Since then, we’ve seen dozens more examples of these big feature articles. Pitchfork is a digital music magazine that does some of the best. This feature article profiles the band Daft Punk, and uses a technique called parallax scrolling where different elements scroll at different rates to create a more interactive effect. What all of these feature article have in common is a collaboration between editors, artists, and technologists to find creative ways to tell stories in a uniquely digital way.
3. New tools are democratizing content creation. Building one-off pieces like Snow Fall might work for publishers like the New York Times that can spend thousands of dollars producing a single piece, but smaller publications need tools for telling rich stories that are more cost effectively and efficient. Providing tools to be able to do things more simply is one of the keys to unlocking creativity. Instagram launched in 2010, and provided a super-simple photo upload app that let users crop and filter to create beautiful images they’re proud to share. It now has over 200m registered users. Instagram wasn’t doing anything fundamentally new – the technology to digitally filter images has been around for decades. But they made it easy for anyone to use and for anyone to easily create something beautiful. As similar tools becomes available for digital publishing, we can expect to see a huge leap forward in how we tell stories online.
4. Publishers and advertisers are rethinking metrics. Part of the reason digital has struggled to find its stride is that we picked the wrong metrics out of the gate. As long as we’re judging the success of our sites on page views and getting paid on CPM, publishers have incentives to make online pages noisy and cluttered. But it feels like the tides may be finally turning on that. In the last year, we’ve finally seen movement on rethinking metrics. Upworthy announced that it’s moving to measuring their success on “Attention Minutes” – the time a user actually spends consuming content. Medium has done the same with a metric called “Total Time Reading.”
The analytics platform Chartbeat has been moving aggressively from page views to “Engaged Time.” This summer, the Financial Times announced they were experimenting with actually selling viewable time – so rather than buy an impression, an advertiser would buy some number of seconds, minutes, or hours of total viewable time. With our Adaptive ads, we’re selling on a Cost-Per-Viewable-Impression, so the advertiser only pays when the consumer actually sees the ad. Broadly, it feels like the industry is finally starting to care about viewability, and measure and buy and sell ads based on viewability, which is great for publishers who are working hard to create quality content and ad experiences that actually work.
5. Advertising is getting interesting again. Standard banner advertising doesn’t work anymore, at least not for brand advertisers. From a publishing standpoint, it contributes to the clutter that’s devaluing digital media; from a reader standpoint, it’s easily ignored; from a brand advertiser standpoint, it’s a terrible medium for actually telling a story or making anyone feel something about a product. We’ve always said that having a rich, engaging, large format ad in the content stream would perform massively better than an IAB display ad – and now that we’ve been running our Adaptive Ads for a while, we have the data to support it; we see dramatic lifts in ad recall and brand favorability with Adaptive. Importantly, we’re also seeing other media companies starting to build similar products. Quartz has been selling only rich-media interstital ads since its launch, Time Magazine is getting in the game with its Magnetic ad, Vox has a Triton ad, Yahoo’s new magazines are selling a large-format ad similar to Adaptive. And there are many more following suit.
This is great for the industry. The more we can move away from display ads and into high-impact, high-quality ads that reward great experiences and great content, the more we can design our sites without the constraints of banner ads and think about better ways to creatively integrate marketing messages.
None of these things can happen without the other. We can’t tell better stories without better tools and better designed sites. Publishers won’t move towards better reader experiences until we have better metrics to incentivize them, which can’t happen until advertisers stop paying for bad impressions. The progress we’re making in each of these areas unlocks new possibilities in the other, in a way that will amplify and accelerate digital media’s evolution over the next few years. By concentrating on creating experiences that can only exist on the Internet – and by marrying amazing content, beautiful editorial design, and intuitive and simple user interfaces – we’ll finally be able to usher in digital media’s Golden Age.
co-founder and CTO
Follow him on Twitter @dlerman