THE BLOG

What Is the Future for Media Brands in a Digital Age?

02/12/2013 13:26 GMT | Updated 01/02/2014 10:59 GMT

There's no getting away from it: the arrival of digital has had a profoundly disruptive impact on media brands and the role of journalists. Social media, apps, mobile media consumption, news aggregation, digitisation of TV, newspapers and magazines and the emergence of digital-only specialist media, citizen journalism and hybrid media like Buzzfeed are transforming the way in which the media operates and engages with audiences.

With conventional business models under threat, it's not surprising that media organisations have felt under pressure to find ways of monetising the digital revolution by exploring paywalls and digital subscriptions and other often quite clunky coping mechanisms. However maybe it's time for a fresh perspective.

Looking at the impact of digital on media from a service design perspective, it seems to me that media brands don't have a monetisation challenge, they actually have a 'limitless opportunity' challenge, in other words, getting to grips with the many opportunities that digital technology now offers. Instead of media organisations immediately worrying about the impact of digital on their bottom line, they arguably need to take a step back and ask: how should we use design and technology to engage our audiences in different ways? And how will new technologies and the relationships between our brand and our audiences change the role of journalists working for us?

Here at Fjord we've been mulling over four key trends that we believe are impacting the relationship between media brands and audiences:

The first of these trends is the growing importance of 'micro' - the rise of hyper-local blogging by informed individuals about what is happening in their local communities: London's East Dulwich Forum or Brockley Central are good example. Thanks to services such as The Newspaper Club, which negotiates small print runs with print shops these localised blogs don't just exist digitally, they can actually be printed which is a nice inversion of the conventional print product into digital model. The rise of micro helps to illustrate a gorgeous point made by dotcom pioneer Joe Kraus: "the 20th century was about dozens of markets of millions of consumers. The 21st century is about millions of markets of dozens of consumers."

A second key trend is 'short and long': the digital landscape means that the context in which people are consuming news and media is increasingly varied and complicated. At the same time we live in an age of infinite information. To help news audiences make sense of it all, there has been a focus on short formats: bite-sized chunks of information, via aggregators that provide news and views all in one place. But as consumers increasingly feel more at home with consuming media digitally, we are starting to see a move to longer formats. Medium, the new initiative launched by former Twitter CEO Evan William is a good example of this. Twitter of course has turned bite-sized content into a highly successful business model; Medium, by contrast, focuses on longer stories but addresses the needs of time-poor readers by including a line at the top of each story saying how many minutes it will take to read. In my view Medium represents a move towards helping audiences assess the value of content rather than just its popularity and helps ensure the best ideas get recognised.

The third significant trend is 'simplicity'. Consumers' lives are busier and more complicated than ever, and we are bombarded with messages from all directions, across all platforms at all times of day and night. In this scenario, news services that present stories clearly and simply and make them easy to share are increasingly at a premium. Here at Fjord we think there is a real opportunity for increased collaboration between publishers and journalists on the one hand, developers and digital designers on the other in order to simplify the way that news is presented and delivered to consumers. ITV's live news stream is a nice example of a news service that does simplicity well.

A fourth and final trend we have identified is 'involvement': The rise of citizen journalism is a well-documented example of how audiences now expect to get involved with and share news, and forward looking media organisations are increasingly encouraging them to do this. Quartz allows users to annotate individual paragraphs and if the comments are good enough, the user's post will be promoted. In the US, consumers with key areas of expertise can join the Public Insight Network, an information source for journalists which has around 209,000 members, at the time of writing.

And looking ahead, the challenges of digital mean that media organisations arguably need to think a lot more radically about why they do what they do. Traditionally the role of the media is to engage audiences; media organisations have spent vast sums making their digital presence as engaging as possible to maximise the amount of time users spend there. However Jeff Jarvis, author of Public Parts: How Sharing in the Digital Age Improves the Way We Work and Live, has a point when he argues that media organisations should focus on engendering informed audiences and that media organisations should measure success not by how long a user spends on their site, but by how little time they need to spend there - in other words by how efficient their site is in delivering what users need, and quickly.

The digital revolution is having a profound and not very benevolent impact on traditional media organisations. But alongside the challenges digital throws down there are great opportunities for brave media brands to tear up existing business models and find new ways of reconnecting with audiences that may be entirely different but could prove just as profitable.