Following the BIG Trends

December 27, 2012

thinking about strategyIn the world of strategies and tactics proven in the crucibles of history and experience, everything tends to "work" as expected. If the focal point of the strategy moves even slightly, however, the rest can almost instantly be far out of whack. This is what's happening in our media world today, and 2013 is going to be a year when many ask Dr. Spencer Johnson's difficult question, "Who Moved My Cheese?".

More than any other year since the disruption began, 2013 is going to be known for the status quo's desperation in grasping for any extra buck that can be picked from the carcass of its old business model. Even broadcasters, while coming off an all-time record year in 2012, will be hard-pressed to make budgets in the unspoken suspicion that those record numbers will always be in the past. It's a very dangerous time, for unless we're smart, we're going to turn over keys to our markets to pickpockets who have one hand extended in friendship while the other engages in a skilled reach-around for our wallets.

Data is still the most precious commodity and the biggest value-generator available. Local data that's used at the local level is still a wide-open market that's worth more than anything else in the network of the Web.

I've disciplined myself over the years to stick with following only the biggest of movements and trends, so I don't get side-tracked by the bright and shiny objects of innovation run amok. We are in the midst of a well-funded right brain renaissance, an explosion of rampant creativity that is both wonderful and terrifying. In such an environment, the trick is to determine which innovations to embrace, and, more importantly, which to avoid.

Here are eight significant cultural movements that are only going to become more disruptive downstream. If we are truly interested in reinvention, we would be wise to run any plan or concept through the filter of these trends to see if our ideas are actually capable of producing business growth tomorrow. If not, we might be better off shifting that energy and those resources elsewhere, to plans and concepts that better prepare us for the future.

  1. Consumer Empowerment - The Great Horizontal: Do our strategies and tactics advance the cause of consumer empowerment, or do we resist it or otherwise fight it? If everybody is or can function as a media company today — including the people who used to be our advertisers — are we providing strategic or tactical support to enable this trend (which is Google's goal), or are we doing whatever we can to block or ignore their entry into the media marketplace? By only embracing the relative success of status quo concepts like audience-building or brand extension, are we not opening future's door to others not so encumbered?

  2. The Shift to Real-Time Information Flows and Streams: To what extent are we embracing this shift? If prime time for news online is Monday-Friday, 8am-5pm, are we enabling our users to participate here via distribution of bits and pieces of stories, or is our emphasis still on what's called "finished product" news? The Web works best in real time, and any news effort aimed at the Web must take this into consideration. Otherwise, we're simply transferring to the Web assumptions and metrics of the world from which we came, and those don't work well online.

  3. Portability: How do our products and services perform on portable devices? Much of the web experience itself is moving portable, and while the Web still functions as the Web, portable devices bring additional challenges for media companies in terms of presentation and monetization. Have we "tilted" our functionality to rightly address this fast-moving trend? Moreover, have we embraced the HTML, browser-based portable Web, or do we demand that our content be viewed via closed applications? The latter may be easier to monetize, but the portable Web offers opportunities beyond our brands.

  4. The Web as a Disruptive Innovation, not a Sustaining Innovation: Have we fully embraced the disruptive nature of the Web on behalf of our clients, or are we providing applications that function only as if the Web were a sustaining innovation for local TV or newspapers? We have been wise in the first 15 years to grow our brands online, and in this sense, the online world has functioned as a sustaining innovation. While the Web can help with brand extension and development, this can become a significant barrier to business progress by limiting our vision to only that which supports our offline brands. And in an environment where TV station websites, for example, only speak with TV station fans, what's the point, except to make us feel as though we're doing something innovative for our companies? We must enter into the disruption, if we really want to find profitability downstream.

  5. Value is Moving to the Edge in a Time of Challenge to the Core: Each media company needs to identify and exploit its edge competencies to diversify its options and opportunities within the local marketplace. One big edge competency of ours is our relationships with clients - the advertisers in the market. As business itself is being transformed, we need to take a hard look at how our edge competencies fit the new challenges that confront the business community. We know how to "be" a media company, so who's better qualified than us to teach business how to function like a media company? The biggest edge competency of a TV station, for example, is the reach of that station itself. We should not be afraid to use that to drive new business development for ourselves, especially in a year with no elections to take all the inventory. Google could only wish it had such an advantage in the local market.

    Given that its core competency is the generation of mass audiences, here are some of the edge competencies of a TV station:

    • Our mission and passion for informing the citizenry
    • The marketing value of our legacy product
    • Our people — especially in news and in sales
    • Our brand
    • Our reputation
    • Our knowledge
    • Our roots

    The edge is where we'll find advantages in 2013, and it deserves more than a simple glance.

  6. The Rise of the Network: People are increasingly living their lives as part of a vast digital network that enables up, down and sideways communications, and we're just beginning to explore what this means for culture. For media companies, it's brought about the tricky proposition that "audience" in a network doesn't necessarily behave as an audience outside one. For television, this means that second screen activity is part of the network while actual television viewing is not, and this has pretty scary ramifications for advertising. We are all part of the network now, and future success will be determined, in part, by how well we fit within this obvious movement.

  7. The Rapid Growth of Personal Branding: Repeat after me: the network is people, or as Kevin Kelly wrote in 2004, We Are The Web. Indeed, each of the billions of nodes that make up the network is the same, and most are represented by individual people. This is the core cultural difference between the two worlds represented within and without the World Wide Web, the Great Horizontal described above. Each has the power to promote equally, which is the baffling reality that mass media companies face when trying to practice their expertise online. An entire industry has sprung up around personal branding, where young people can actually present their passion while developing it at the same time. It's no longer necessary to find work within one's field before climbing the ladder within that industry. Media people, for example, lose ground to their young competitors every day they ignore the network demand for personal branding.

  8. The Evolving User Paradigm: This disrupts media more than anybody thinks, because media requires a dumb audience to be successful. "Dumb," in this sense, means inexperienced, passive, and, in many cases, actually ignorant. When the selling to a mass is the requirement, the laws of marketing work best when that mass can be neatly placed into organized, unmoving boxes of sameness, an exploitive form of business equilibrium. Online, however, people don't sit still. They gain experience; they actively move and participate; and they grow and expand their minds. Each year the user gets smarter, because the use of the Web demands it. Moreover, the smartness they acquire isn't the kind that works well with any kind of dumb, because the structure of the network changes the way people think as well. Associated link after associated link moves people away from the rules set in place by the cultural hierarchy, and this doesn't produce the kind of mindless "consumer" that the hierarchy needs.

Always remember that the needs of the culture are different from the needs of any hierarchy within it, and anybody who wishes to do business in the place to which we're progressing needs to understand this. Follow the big cultural changes, and you'll become what my friend and colleague Bob Jordan calls a "surthrivalist." Bob, the news director at KIRO-TV in Seattle, told me in late 2011, "I want to do more than survive this sea change we're in, I want to THRIVE in the new environment." And so he coined the term "Surthrival," which I think is beautifully appropriate for anybody wishing a piece of the pie in our new, networked world.

Lots of people quote Wayne Gretsky's highly revealing comment about success in the game of hockey. To win, Gretsky noted, skate to where the puck is going to be. He didn't say "follow the puck," "keep your eyes on the puck," or even "note every course correction required to keep up with the puck." He said simply to skate where it's going to be. To do this, one needs to have studied, experienced, and fully understood all of the dynamics occurring simultaneously on the ice and be completely on the vibe of what's taking place. Note, also, that he doesn't mention precision, only generally "where the puck is going to be." And he also doesn't say what will happen when the puck gets there, for one assumes a myriad of next moves are at the skater's disposal. The task, the rule of thumb for success, he says, is merely to be there.

This is why we need to make, in some cases, simple preparatory moves to put us in position to strike somewhere on our own evolving playing field. We don't need to have completely planned out our next steps; we just need to be there. And the best way to do that is to move as the culture moves and stay completely tuned into the vibe of what's happening within the evolution or revolution, and not merely the technological advancements either. The biggest, widest point of view is what we need.

In the year ahead, we're going to need the self-discipline and courage to, in some cases, keep our distance from the easy money offered by those who'd rather we simply pay attention to the moving puck. Move with the culture instead, and the culture will provide the reward, even though we may not be able to see it today.