Reality Check: Hard Work, Not Technology, Key To DTC

The Sell Sider” is a column written by the sell side of the digital media community.

Today’s column is written by Michael Weaver, senior vice president of business growth and development at Al Jazeera Media Network.

Innovation and disruption are lauded virtues in technology, but they present hard realities in the media business. Today’s publishers have diligently followed technology shift after technology shift. Over time, these supposed paths to a brighter future have instead led publishers down the dark alley in which they currently find themselves.

The latest beacon on the horizon for both publishers and advertisers is the direct consumer relationship. Amidst today’s direct-to-consumer (DTC) fervor, the appeal and logic behind this new aspiration is understandable.

But as technology vendors race to realign their offerings with this new North Star, I’d like to urge our industry to pause briefly for a reality check: Direct consumer relationships are a worthy objective. But no slick new technology layer is going to magically get anyone there at scale.

That’s a nice song, Pied Piper

Technology is at once the source of and solution to all that ails today’s media organizations. It all started with the internet and the imperative to distribute content via websites and apps. Then came the ad networks, walled gardens, social media, native advertising, programmatic media, header bidding and so on. Each pivot has created a new set of compliance standards, best practices and organizational and technological requirements, all of which are expensive. Publishers and advertisers keep waiting for their lives to get simpler and their businesses magically more profitable, but that keeps not happening.

Two decades of this digital “innovation” have left publishing – in particular, news publishing – searching for a viable business model. For many, all the hype around new intermediary technologies and platforms has led not just to a dark alley, but to a dead end. Each new technological messiah is eventually unmasked as a pied piper – a flawed savior underpinned by problematic, fraudulent, unfair, incomplete or otherwise unsustainable tenets.

And now a new cycle is beginning. Brands and publishers alike think that “direct relationships” with audiences are the key to reversing their course out of that deep, dark alley. But what does it really mean?

The hard truth about direct relationships

On the surface, direct relationships might seem like the antithesis of a technology hack. But then this little phrase is thrown in the mix: at scale. Direct relationships at scale. Now we’re talking technology.

Accordingly, we can already see the hype machinery moving to co-opt the “direct relationships” idiom, with DTC themes headlining every event and coloring every marketing push from the vendor layer of ad tech. This vendor layer is the same one that got us into this mess by promising much, requiring much and delivering little.

Implicit within the emerging DTC technology promises are the same flawed assumptions we’ve seen in the past: that scale is possible through technology and that technology can power the lazy, lean-back monetization of the past. This is a notion that our industry as a whole desperately needs to shed.

The hard truth is that there is no substitute for real relationship building. It is possible and powerful for brands and publishers to forge meaningful relationships wherein the brand truly co-opts a publisher’s audience and power. But such a relationship, like any relationship that truly matters, takes hard work. And there are a good number of dimensions of this relationship-building that simply aren’t possible to automate.

And that’s OK. When brands and publishers build successful relationships that more deeply and directly align both parties with consumers, those bonds are strong, and they become more powerful and prolific over time. The hard work doesn’t go away, but it does begin to pay dividends that can move the needle for publishers and get them back on a well-lit path.

Direct-to-consumer is a desirable and noble pursuit. But it is not the end state of marketing and media wherein all parties align in perfect harmony. Most importantly, brands and publishers shouldn’t assume technology will make their DTC journeys any less difficult. Sometimes you need to roll up your sleeves.

What does that mean? For publishers, it means investing in talent and the editorial product as the prime directive, standing by what differentiates it rather than running to so-called safe content to appeal to brands. It means using technology to understand their audience rather than to try and manipulate them. It means constant communication between the revenue generators, the technology piece and the content people.

For brands, it means building relationships with the publishers that stand by an editorial product that resonates strongly with their target consumers. The trust between a publisher and its audience is ultimately what a brand buys when they buy inventory – not just eyeballs, but a relationship of trust.

Direct relationships are trusted ones. That comes from building true brand affinity between brand and audience, not by adding new bells and whistles. In the quest to “go direct,” it’s worth remembering that it’s the bells and whistles that separated brands and publishers from their audiences in the first place.

Follow Al Jazeera (@aljazeera) and AdExchanger (@adexchanger) on Twitter.

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