Several weeks into a 37-day trip to visit with hundreds of INMA members at 22 companies in 10 countries on four continents, Earl Wilkinson, executive director/CEO of INMA, reflects that each visit has been a little different. Sessions often last all day, with multiple groups that include boards of directors, management teams, editorial departments, advertising departments, and digital teams. This is the arena in which ideas are exchanged and in which Wilkinson shares best practices, strategies, and benchmarks from news media from around the world.

Technological change is both exponential and accelerating, Wilkinson told delegates at the INMA European News Media Conference in Oslo on Friday. The only constant is Moore’s Law, but we see resulting improvements in quality of life — from health to wealth to education. Nonetheless, these massive leaps create losers as well as winners.

INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson talks about lessons learned on his 37-day INMA road trip during the European News Media Conference.
INMA Executive Director/CEO Earl J. Wilkinson talks about lessons learned on his 37-day INMA road trip during the European News Media Conference.

Such abundance brings unintended consequences, he said. For example, within the first 10 minutes of 2013, humans produced as much information as was created in the time period from 5000 B.C. to 2003 A.D. There are 4.4 gigabytes of information today — 90% of which was created in the past two years. By 2020, that quantity is likely to swell by a staggering power of 10.

Just imagine where this can take us by 2030, Wilkinson posits:

  • Empowering technological change will accelerate.
  • Consumers will face information overchoice — too many choices and a resulting inability to make a decision.
  • Content will be directed at ecosystems.
  • Markets will tilt toward extremes with overchoice.
  • The brand will become everything.

Wilkinson enumerates these points to nudge listeners from their comfort zones toward a future that may be nearer than most expect. What does digital-first mean? he asks. Culture. Audience. Revenue. And although on the road to transformation, some will live with print until the end of their lives, that’s holding us back and will change, Wilkinson says.

The plethora of revenues models today means that it simply does not make sense to try to implement them all. Wilkinson recommends picking three or four of them of those most relevant to the publisher, and use them to leverage talents inside media companies.

But he also offers cautionary notes to a media industry that he believes is “chasing bright and shiny objects” without firm footing:

  • Media companies are doing programmatic and paywalls without data, and digital transformation without the right talent.
  • The industry is going further out on a complexity limb without management and without focusing enough on business opportunities and segmentations.

Wilkinson recommends media companies know what business they are really in — journalism, audiences, advertising, technology, influence, or profitability. Most news media companies, he says, are in the audiences business. The good news is that they are getting better at it. 

Wilkinson lists four foundations of media companies:

  1. Brand.
  2. Culture.
  3. Data.
  4. Audience.

Media companies should ask themselves what their news brands stand for. They should get their consumers to embrace their brand messaging. And they should consider de-linking the brand from a specific platform — like print, TV, radio, digital (although that potentially affects pricing and requires marketing spend).

Four attributes that work almost universally for brands are trust, autheticity, differentiating, facts. Quit saying your brand stands for truth, Wilkinsons says, and don’t say it stands for journalism, because it’s like one priest talking to another about priestly things. Nobody else gets it.

He makes several key points about data:

  • It is one of the foundations of media brands.
  • The ability to translate data leads to improved business outcomes, as does recognising that Big Data is a fire hose of information that will grow in importance.
  • Media should use today’s capital base to create a foundation for a future where Big Data is a growing factor.
  • Pay attention to the current shift to data-based metrics marketing, already quite noticeable today.
  • Operations costs will be lower in the future, as companies will be smaller in the long term. 

There’s a rising consensus among publishers that media cannot give content for free, Wilkinson says. Most popular paid content models are metered paywall, freemium, and freemium hybrid (editor-select freemium). There is trend among non-global brands to shift away from metered paywall to freemium.

The ongoing challenge for media is implementing paid model in competitive environments. The metered model works well for brands in which journalism is the overwhelming percentage of the value proposition, like The New York Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, or The Economist. But that model requires scale that local brands can’t deliver, and it’s mostly underperforming for non-global and non-national brands. Digital subscriptions fundamentally change the culture of organisations.

Here’s what really creates value, according to Wilkinson:

  • Brand perception matters greatly.
  • “More” is rarely better … “relevant” is better.
  • Being in the middle is the most dangerous place today.
  • The goal should be passion, not satisfaction.

At the end of his presentation, Wilkinson shares strategy principles for 2018:

  • Invest heavily in the things that won’t change (foundations).
  • Love the brands that pay the bills.
  • Identify and embrace the big bets.
  • Constantly get better because everything will change.

Following Media Viking Week, which culminated in the European News Media Conference, Wilkinson hits the road again for a few more days before heading back to Dallas. Follow along at #INMAOnTheRoad.