Connecting the dots: early lessons from INMA’s visit to Silicon Valley

Last week, INMA took 34 executives to 14 companies in Silicon Valley and San Francisco to better understand the fast-changing intersection of technology and media. 

It was an extraordinary five-day marathon with talk of the future, reinvention, innovation, what’s next in social media, computer history, driverless cars, the Internet of Things, talent acquisition and retention, video, retailing, ubiquitous computing, ad-blocking, programmatic, personalised marketing, and native advertising. 

It was Disney World for media executives – even for those of us who might harbour “been there, done that” mentalities. I suspect I speak for my fellow media tourists that you missed something special. 

Yet here I am, in the cold-eyed reality of the week after – surrounded by study tour PowerPoint presentations, notes, Twitter feeds, videos, tour evaluations, Storyful posts, and non-disclosure agreements – wondering what to make of the tour’s sensory perception overload.

Here are four initial thoughts that come to mind. 

Thought 1: We must separate the science fiction of technology from what technology can practically deliver in a time horizon we can digest. 

That’s a lot to ask for on a study tour populated by technology super-fans. 

The great connective tissue of platforms, the Internet Of Things, will not achieve mass-market consumer adoption without a simplified dashboard. Yet it can be an immediate B2B and niche enabler – as Cisco and the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) demonstrated.

The reality is that IoT will be transformative, yet you have to look through a lot of fog to see where news publishers fit. We are mostly a B2C industry, and IoT becomes more important to us when concepts are simplified for consumers and it becomes more of their reality. 

Wearables come to mind when I think of science fiction vs. reality. Version 1 of the Apple Watch is science fiction for Trekkies. Yet we visited fast-growing start-up Misfit and saw the immediate benefit of wearables: sensor-based activity and sleep monitors in wrist devices and embedded into clothing.

The immediate application to a media company wasn’t obvious for me, yet this was a more useful look at wearables than today’s Apple Watch fantasy (can’t wait for Version 2.0!).

Thought 2: Journalism-based companies are at risk for more disruption because the style of communication and organisation at the DNA level are at odds with the emerging digital media ecosystem. 

I connected those dots from visits to the Bleacher Report, Medium, and Nextdoor

Bleacher Report is attacking the sports journalism and community space by drilling down into verticals and more deeply engaging readers than legacy media such as ESPN.

I couldn’t help but wonder if a Bleacher-like entity attacked a regional news player. What would an audience-first, data-infused company do that a legacy company would not? Moreover, Bleacher sees a ceiling for audience growth and has shifted their metric for success to be engagement. Sound familiar, publishers? 

From blog publishing platform Medium, we heard they are expanding internationally. Implicit in that expansion – with a room full of international newspaper executives – is Medium wants to intersect and perhaps partner with publishers.

Yet here was the caveat that got my attention: Medium probably couldn’t incorporate newspaper content the way it is written because that generic storytelling style doesn’t fit their platform. I couldn’t help but think that an inverted pyramid writing style created in the era of the telegraph is foundational storytelling.

Nextdoor is a social networking service for neighbourhoods in the United States, and they, too, are on the verge of expanding internationally. I don’t know whether  this start-up will succeed or fail (reported valuation: US$1.1 billion), yet it was the concept that intrigued me.

Metropolitan newspapers see a big city to serve, hire a lot of journalists, and assign beats. If Nextdoor were to create a “newspaper” using their approach, they would segment the city by neighbourhood, create communities, build up their data, and create a media company from there. 

Fuse the three together, and I see disruption and potential disruption everywhere. I also see a road map for news publishers: 

  • How does our style of journalism/writing/communication work in today’s Millennial ecosystem? 
  • What if engagement within targeted geographies or demographics became the new metric for success? 
  • What if geographical relevance became a trigger for growth?

Thought 3: While companies are understandably interested that Facebook and Google are driving 76% of third-party referrals (source:, what matters is not distribution but ownership of data. 

Google, Facebook, and Twitter are good-faith partners for news publishers. They are more friend than enemy. 

They want your success – if for no other good reason than they don’t want to do the hard work of news, journalism, or content development.

How these three companies intersect with media companies is complicated. They bend over backward to provide tools that publishers need to use their suite of services, yet they struggle with more strategic conversations because they are quickly evolving beyond search, social, and 140 characters. 

They are fighting mightily to make your content work in an optimal way in the new mobile environments. They also are intimately aware of the need to monetise.

Yet here is the bottom line: What won’t work for publishers is if Google, Facebook, and Twitter have data on users who go to you. You monetise if you have good data. 

And that’s the elephant in the room. It’s two puzzle pieces that have not yet synced. 

The other elephant in the room is about the power dynamic between these multi-billion dollar platforms and mere multi-million dollar publishers. There once was a day when the vendors were granted an audience with the publisher. Today, the publisher is granted an audience with Google, Facebook, and Twitter – and feels a bit dated in the process. 

Thought 4: What drives monetary value in the emerging programmatic world of 0s and 1s is that your differentiating value proposition as a publisher is not your content, not your impressions, but the audience. 

I heard this sliced up several ways. Here were some standout observations:

  • What is the agreement between you and your readers? 
  • It’s not about content, but data on users. Who are you attracting?
  • What makes a consumer want your content? 
  • We are not buying impressions but the audiences who are buying the impressions. 
  • My content doesn’t have as much value as the people looking at it.
  • Scarcity + relevance = value. The value lever is directly tied to monetisation. 


So, do you get the feeling that you’re drinking from a fire hose? Then you get an idea of what the INMA Silicon Valley Study Tour was like – Disney for media professionals. 

As the great Al Pacino exclaimed in “Scent of a Woman,” upon being asked whether he was finished talking: “I’m just getting warmed up.” 

Over the days and weeks ahead, I will share more observations from the INMA study tour.

We live in fascinating times.

About Earl J. Wilkinson

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