How media owners are grappling with digital transformation

To find out what drives (or hinders) change in the media business, we focussed one of our recent organisational digital maturity roundtables at Friday on this sector and invited people with responsibility for the end-to-end customer experience.

Before the session, we met with each of the attendees to assess the relative digital maturity of their organisation, using our framework. This allowed us to benchmark their businesses against the 50+ organisations from other sectors we have worked with before.

This is a summary of the key themes that came out in the peer discussion.

Is “digital” still special?

In all of the digital maturity roundtables we’ve held, we end up discussing whether “digital” is special enough to be treated as different to the ordinary course of business. This roundtable was no different.

Unsurprisingly, the organisations that thought of themselves as being in the foothills of a digital maturity journey — with some sort of current or imminent big push intervention on digital — regarded it as necessarily special. They had digital visions and strategies, and specialist digital roles, digital departments, digital sponsorship and governance. These organisations were engaged in internal campaigns to create the appetite for change — highlighting the shortcomings of the now-co, and the promised land of the digitally-enabled future-co.

The organisations that thought of themselves as further along the digital maturity development path — having had a big push intervention in digital in the past — had infused their organisations with digital. They had business strategies that were inconceivable without digital. They’d re-drawn and re-tooled their organisations, clarified their purpose and re-shaped their people in ways that were inextricably digital. But this was the whole organisation — not a specialist digital enclave. The distinction between digital and the-normal-business was, for them, no longer useful.

We don’t have a digital strategy — we have a customer strategy. We are no longer a broadcaster, we are a digital business.

– Chief Technology Officer, UK Broadcaster

Somewhere between these two extremes — between the pre- and post-big push intervention on digital — are the organisations which are on the path but without creating transformational change. In our roundtable, the multiple title publishers were mostly in this camp. The diversity of their audiences, products, revenue, etc. makes single-minded transformational endeavours harder. There isn’t a shared role for digital across the organisation, or a single target customer experience.

These organisations were still experimenting, and often in a cycle of switching periodically between models of centralised digital and distributed digital. Each change, they noticed, breathed energy into the organisation — but somehow organisation-wide transformation was elusive.

Challenges of the sector

All sectors are shaped by pressures that give rise to common characteristics in organisations. The media sector has some shared patterns in the challenges associated with digital.

The culture of perfect

Print and broadcast publishing has long celebrated the quality and beauty of the finished product—and mocked when standards slip. Often this appetite for pixel-perfect publishing stands at odds with the perpetual-beta nature inherent of digital products.

For print editors, the loss of absolute control over the customer experience represents a challenging and fundamental change in workflow, mindset and culture. And so a culture of perfect causes project delays and wholesale re-starts.

Competing for talent on culture

Everyone around the table was feeling the talent-pressure of increased digitisation — in terms of getting new skills and roles into the business and attracting the talent to make it work. For all of the participants, this was a new field of talent competition, particularly for engineers and product development/management people.

A number of attendees described the emergence of new, hybrid roles such as creative technologist, digital-first creative directors, or ‘unicorns’ and highlighted the difficulty of narrowing down skills and qualities for these individuals in job descriptions.

We have ‘the unicorns desk’ because they’re a mix of people, technology people and marketing people with editorial insight and commercial savvy.

– Digital Director, Global Media Organisation

Perhaps for the first time the competition is now across other sectors. We talked about the scooping-up of talent by new digital pure plays growing in London — not just Google, Facebook, Twitter et al, but the lure and dynamism of London’s startup scene. But there’s more established competition too. London’s vast banking and finance sector, with it’s ever increasing technical needs and significantly higher pay, is a powerful draw.

This means that talent acquisition, most acutely in technology, means competition on two fronts: against a dynamic pure digital start-up culture and against higher rewards from the financial sector. The answer, everyone around the table identified, is to compete on culture.

Embracing agile working practices, providing the latest devices, allowing for flexible forms of work, supporting multi-skilled people and silo-traversing roles, digitising workflow, organising teams around products, distributing authority through networks instead of hierarchies, etc. were all cited as ways to create increased transparency within the organisation and foster cultures more desirable to talent.

Legacy IT, traditionally low publishing salaries, command-and-control structures (and editors!) all serve to inhibit publishers ability to compete on culture.

They have such high expectations and want to work in organisations that have a genuine purpose beyond the bottom line.

– Chief Delivery Officer, UK News Organisation

Spikey revenue

Most media organisations have been managing decline in revenues for over a decade. For subscription titles, the value of a digital subscriber is normally lower than a print one. So, there’s been a corresponding quest for huge volumes and it’s hard to escape an industry-wide sense of managed decline.

But the challenge from digital is more nuanced than that. New patterns of consumer attention are driving new patterns of revenue, with corresponding challenges for publishers to adjust to this, plan for it and take advantage of it. For everyone present, there had been, before digital, a relatively predictable level of sales that allowed for stable forward planning. Digital revenue has proven more volatile, and so much harder to predict and depend upon. Where there was or is decline there’s at least a consistent visibility of it which represents — for many — a kind of “warm safety blanket”. It drives the insecure people from a print heritage back to what they find familiar.

The emotional lure of “the good old days” is, for some, an inhibitor to embracing the speed and agility needed to thrive now. It seems there’s a drag effect from people legacy, alongside technology legacy and revenue legacy.

Buzzfeed has been able to just accelerate without having to figure out how to repoint the organisation in a different way. I think that is the advantage they have: speed and agility.

– Chief Delivery Officer, UK News Organisation

Sector strength

Alongside sector-wide challenges in relation to digital, we uncovered one powerful sector-wide strength.

A long history of selling advertising has created a necessary set of skills and practises in publishers — understanding their audience in enough detail to package them up for advertisers. Publishers have always invested in related technology and capabilities — it’s been core to supporting revenue. And this is one of the areas of publishing that has, on the whole, benefitted through digital — for better and more immediate audience profiling.

Several of our participants talked about the rapid feedback that digital brings, especially about the behaviour of their audience — and how it strengthen their hand in leading change. All the leaders around the table enthused about using customer data to support their arguments, to win over stakeholders and realise change. Immediate and visible customer data drives discussions about the detail of design and standardisation; it can win over the strong convictions of editorial teams, sway journalists and publishers as to what properties should be supported, retired or launched; it helps drive change in the organisation and enables a new data-led way of doing business.

At Friday, we use our own model to assess large organisations. Read all about measuring digital maturity in this recent post by our CEO Alex Wright, which explains Friday’s framework. We run regular organisational digital maturity roundtable sessions, so get in touch when you want to join one of our upcoming events.