Getting in the New EPG: Every Media Company Must Master the Science of Programming

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Image copyright Norm Hall | Getty Images Sport

Web, mobile and social platforms have created a huge conundrum for media companies: We are experiencing an explosion of content, and yet it is harder than ever to find an audience.

It’s a stark contrast from the glory days, where distribution was fixed and scarce, and all we had to do was put a great product out there. At the time, all content had found its own native distribution outlet — a channel on the dial, a spot on the newsstand, a movie theater, video store — that delivered it to the bulk of its audience. That distribution was beautifully limited — there’s only room for 12 channels on the old VHF dial, 16 movies at a multiplex and maybe several thousand titles at video rental stores.

But today, distribution and consumption are in constant flux. Look at TV. To be truly “Everywhere” these days, a TV show has to be on network, cable, YouTube, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, Facebook and Amazon, have its own native app in Apple and Android stores — at a minimum — and a presence in Google’s mighty search index.

To succeed today, digital media companies need to get control of their distribution. The opportunity for savvy media companies is to abandon the outdated if-we-build-it-they-will-come mentality, and master the craft and science of programming.

Programming is the skill of matching content to audience. Programming is what built the global TV and film industry from $200 billion to $300 billion in the last decade. If you want to succeed in digital media going forward, programming is everything.

I spent time recently with a friend from CBS and told him about what my company Wetpaint does to program social as a channel: In short, we deterministically deliver the right content to each audience at the right time. That might mean, for example, a recap of yesterday’s news timed for the morning bus ride, a short-form video clip posted to coincide with a mid-morning coffee break, a gossipy tidbit just as lunch begins. “That may work in entertainment,” he said. “But it would never work in breaking news. In news, everything needs to go out immediately.”

So I did some research, and it turns out he’s wrong. When you look at what our editors consider breaking news within the entertainment category, the vast majority of stories — more than 75 percent — perform better when they’re packaged and presented at another time of day, and not when they first break.

While immediacy became the mandate in the ages of CNN and Google, smart programming is far superior in an age of multiple distribution outlets.

The expertise of digital programming is in its infancy, but some of the secrets for success have emerged. Here are a few:

  • You don’t have one big audience.
    Digital media companies need to know who their audience is and what they like, and then customize their product and pitch accordingly. But convention on the Web has been to serve everyone the same thing — and the folly of that is a massive missed opportunity. Instead, understand your value to all your major audience segments. After all, each person you reach thinks of herself as an audience of one. Meet her where she’s at, and you’ll find your resonance — and performance — will be much greater.

    For decades, the National Football League operated on the basic assumption that football is for guys. That conventional wisdom was upended in 2010 when research by the NFL and Nielsen found that more than 40 percent of the league’s fans were women. (It’s upward of 44 percent now.) Of course, football fans (both male and female), segment along many lines — and NFL marketers will have to find ways to speak to, sell to and grow all those demographics. But acknowledging women was a huge and lucrative step to grow the league’s opportunity massively.

  • Learn what will resonate. (Hint: In the battle for consumer hearts and minds, heart wins every time.)
    Once you know who your customers really are and can group them by their common interests, the world opens up. You have the freedom to design new content and experiences to delight them. It doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all any longer; your brand doesn’t have to be watered down to its most basic and neutral. Many brands and publishers struggle for relevance — but once you articulate who your audiences are and understand what they’re interested in, the door is open to all kinds of new conversations. Research, feedback and analytics can all help you become expert in each of your audience segments. Then use those insights to grow your brand.

    Sticking with the NFL as an example, when the league learned about its popularity with women, it took that finding and ran with it, introducing a new website, ad campaign and product lines — all aimed at the now 80 million women who tune into NFL games each weekend. Female fans rewarded the new attention by dropping millions on NFL apparel, jewelry, nail polish, yoga mats, etc. The league went further and partnered with the American Cancer Society to raise awareness about breast cancer, which explains all the pink flourishes (gloves, socks, wristbands, etc.) on the field and the sidelines these days. This overdue — and heartfelt — outreach strengthened the bond between the NFL and its huge female fan base. The league’s bottom line smiled. In 2012, NFL fans spent $3.2 billion on consumer products.

  • Timing is everything.
    Of course, the most basic element of the art of content programming, one that has been mastered by the TV networks, is knowing what performs when. Prime-time shows don’t work in the mornings, and re-runs would squander the huge opportunity of evening viewing. There’s a time for opinion and a slot for hard news, and reversing them tanks performance and tunes out audiences.

    But on the Web, well, somehow the only rule of thumb our industry seems to know is “the best time to post is now.” And that’s preposterous.

    In terms of social, the state of the art sounds better, at least at first: There are lots of generalizations out there about when to post content: Mornings are better than evenings, Facebook sharing spikes on weekends, tweeting peaks on Fridays. Well, that’s all great in theory, since it documents average behavior of average audiences. But the point isn’t to get it right for someone else’s average consumer. Whether we’re talking about work or play, we all develop our own individual routines and habits. Discovering the personal quirks of your particular audience is a goldmine for programmers.

    How powerful is it? Several years ago, a U.K. content agency called Collective Content was helping a small management firm develop its programming strategy. Traffic to the client’s website waned on weekends. Nothing surprising there. But Collective Content began to notice an uptick in Sunday visits. “Sunday evenings had become the new Monday morning,” wrote Collective Content founder Tony Hallett. “Execs and other managers were getting a jump on the working week. This was a great time to feed their need for information.”

    At Wetpaint, we try to time content delivery to the distinct habits of our audiences, which vary from show to show. The very young (13-24) “Pretty Little Liars” audience likes a fast-paced, high volume content diet, so we serve them fresh stuff all day long. Older (55 percent are over 24) “Grey’s Anatomy” fans catch up on new content in the evening, just before they get into TV-viewing mode. So we freshen our “Grey’s Anatomy” pages late in the day. If you program according to someone else’s guidelines, all your best shots will miss your target. Instead, know your audience and you will hit the mark.

  • Like it or not, people judge books by their covers. Design your packaging to resonate.
    In pre-digital days, content packaging discussions went like this: How long is the story? Do we need photos or illustrations? Today, fuhgeddaboutit. Digital editors have lots more arrows in the quiver. They can trot out old packaging chestnuts like long-form profiles or Q&As, or they can present content in slideshows, video, audio, polls, quizzes, clickable infographics, Spotify playlists, etc. The packaging options just keep growing — and so does the menu of social media megaphones you can use to trumpet the final product.

    Working all those levers in a way that engages your audience and exploits the strengths of each packaging and delivery option is an art and a science. BuzzFeed is one of its master practitioners. In its self-proclaimed rules for “How to Go Viral” (an infographic, of course), Buzzfeed recommends making lists (“9 out of ten Internet lists go viral”), using quizzes to appeal to user vanity (“People online love talking about themselves”) and staying relevant. We won’t quibble with the BuzzFeed rulebook. But in our own experience, packaging — like timing and just about everything else — is audience-specific. Fans of “Vampire Diaries” like to vote, for example; so we give them polls. And it works — to the tune of thousands of Facebook ballots click-cast for star Nina Dobrev in our sexiest legs poll.

  • Test, test, test, for insights you can use.
    If you follow my Digital Quarters blog and Media Success newsletter you know I’m a nut for data. I firmly believe that the only way you can truly know your audience in all its wondrous eccentricity is to embrace testing with a gusto that borders on obsession. (Yes, I am seeing somebody about this.) Every shred of content you produce, from the glossy video to the tiniest tweet, is an opportunity to learn something about the consumers who visit your site. Don’t waste it.

    As you generate (via surveys, focus groups or, our favorite, A/B testing) and then sift through the mounds of data, trends will unfailingly emerge. These insights into user preferences help drive programming decisions at Wetpaint.

    Testing tells us that our “Bachelor” and “Bachelorette” fans revel in relationship gossip. Stories about dating, cheating, break-ups, pregnancy rumors, etc., perform four times better than episode-related news like recaps or sneak peeks. But within that relationship news subcategory, the two audiences diverge: Bachelorette watchers are scandalmongers. Bachelor fans are sentimentalists. We tailor our content accordingly. Testing has also made us smarter about social media. Facebook posts with photos work best when we’re promoting content for scripted (“Grey’s Anatomy”) or reality (“Bachelor”) shows. For breaking news, text-only posts do just fine. If the news is big, words are enough to catch the eye.

  • The News Feed is the new EPG, and you must be present to win.
    The greatest opportunity of all in digital media is the chance to be relevant to your audience — not once a day, not on an appointment basis once a week, but minute by minute. To do that means being where your users are at all hours of the day — with exactly the right content at the ready. For consumers, it would be like the “Electronic Program Guide” that we’ve had on TV for the last 20 years — only it would be completely personalized and constantly refreshed. Quel fantasme, n’est-ce pas?

    Lo, there’s an app for that — and it’s the No.1 app on every smartphone. Yes, Facebook is the new Electronic Program Guide. Consumers check Facebook many times a day — usually just briefly, sometimes longer — to see “what’s on” in their lives. In fact, 23 percent of all time spent on smartphones is spent on Facebook mobile apps.

    For media companies, the great opportunity here is to cement your relationship with your audience by getting in their network — and then turning up the content they’ll enjoy to whatever frequency interests them. Do it right — with great audience targeting, insight, timing, packaging and testing — and you earn a position at the top of the News Feed hour after hour, day after day.

    Who understands this well in media? Of late, Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer has been talking about building a “daily habit” with consumers. Why not twice a day, or more? That is the power of presence in the feed. And it comes from meeting each member of your audience where she is.

Smart programming is like a good relationship. It requires paying attention, being responsive, trying new things. It’s hard work, but the rewards are enduring — a loyal, ongoing relationship with a growing audience. And that surely makes it worth the effort.

This is a guest post by Ben Elowitz (@elowitz). Elowitz is the co-founder and CEO of next-generation media company Wetpaint, and the author of the Digital Quarters blog about the future of digital media. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile.


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