Publishers Learn NewFronts Equation: Content + Scale = Impossible

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As I write this, NewFront week 2018 has come to a close. The web’s biggest publishers have concluded their yearly presentations for the advertising community. It’s a week of hyperbole, where the dividing line between business presentation and pep rally is regularly blurred.

I’ve been covering these events for years, and I remember the early events fondly. Back then, publishers trotted out the biggest Hollywood stars who would work with them, as if A-list magic alone would shake money out of advertisers.

A lot of those projects never got made, and others never found an audience. That’s why the strategy shifted to using online celebrities and focusing on useful content rather than entertainment. That’s pretty much where we still are. Advertisers love the shift, since they want their name on useful videos.

While publishers have gotten a better handle on content, they still fail on distribution. Even the biggest publishers have to admit they can’t get a big enough audience on their own to satisfy national advertisers who want targeted advertising at scale (i.e., reaching extremely specific shoppers, and reaching a lot of them).

That’s why the big winner this newfront season was Twitter. Twitter doesn’t create video, and you’ve probably never watched more than a few video clips on it. But Twitter has a monthly active user base of over 260 million (according to Statista). This year, publishers decided they need to be there.

At its newfront, Twitter announced it signed more than 30 agreements with premium publishers. The biggest was with NBCUniversal, which will bring live video and clips from NBC, NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, Telemundo, Today, and E! News to the platform. Twitter also announced deals with Ellen Digital, Hearst, Live Nation, and Viacom. ESPN is bringing a SportsCenter spinoff—SportsCenter Live—to the platform.

Even the biggest names in broadcast and cable need Twitter to pull in viewers. I wouldn’t make a habit of returning to a site to check for a new episode of a show, but if that show regularly appeared in my Twitter feed, I would see it more often.

There’s another reason publishers are turning to Twitter, and that’s discoverability. Hunter Holbrook, a media planner for ad agency Mekanism, says the move is all about attracting new viewers who wouldn’t normally visit those platforms.

“I think it’s true some publishers need social platforms in order to scale, but I think both big and niche publishers are realizing people want to consume content from influencers and the scale of social allows for more opportunities for people to discover their content,” Holbrook says. “The earned media potential is much higher for niche publishers who extend to social channels, as a few shares can mean they reach people who might not otherwise navigate to their sites at a really efficient cost.”

This year, publishers know consumers have a lot of viewing options open to them, Holbrook says, so providing a positive experience is key. “People will continue to use a platform that’s authentic, non-invasive, and caters to how and when they want to consume content. With so many streaming platforms and channels to choose from, publishers understand they have to adapt to what people want, and find a balance between providing both content and a lighter ad experience in order to solidify that platform loyalty.”

As a video destination, Twitter has bugs to work out. For one thing, there’s no way to sign up for a video series in your feed. I can follow ESPN, but what if I only want SportsCenter Live? There’s no way to get notified when it’s streaming. And the platform lacks a landing page that tells you what shows are on and when. Finding out when a favorite team is playing is more work than it should be. A Twitter spokesperson tells me a live-event landing page is coming soon.

Twitter is making a video push, and a lot of big names are relying on it, but the only way to know if it’s successful is to wait until next year’s newfronts and see where the announcements land. If these moves don’t work, publishers will have to pivot their thinking and try something else. They’ve done it many times before.

[This article appears in the July/August 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "Content + Scale = Impossible."]

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