Recently, Jon Steinberg, founder and CEO of Cheddar (“the CNBC for millennials”), and Adam Singolda, founder and CEO of Taboola (a content discovery platform that will achieve $500M+ revenue in 2016), met to discuss the future of media. The conversation, held at Knotel in downtown Manhattan, was wide-ranging. The two men discussed content in an age of personalization, publishers’ influence on the recent election campaign, and their own predictions for the future.
Looking towards the future, the most interesting prediction was that in a year’s time no one in the room would have a cable box. A quick poll of the room showed 40% -50% of attendees currently had one. Despite this, Steinberg and Singolda predicted that soon everyone would replace this with an Apple TV or Roku-type device through which users access subscription services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Sling TV or equivalents. This change will be similar to the way the Internet contributed to the demise of certain newspapers while being the vehicle by which others prospered. The same will happen to TV channels; some will embrace the change, survive, and thrive on these new platforms while others which have been around for years will ultimately fail. It will be exciting to see how these changes take place.
The speakers assessed the current state of the media landscape and the various AdTech companies operating today. Steinberg compared these companies to Enron, saying, “They are not the future, as you cannot do due diligence on any of them. They’re too hard to understand but say they’re the smartest guys in the room—it’s all bullshit.” Fundamentally, we appear to be at the saturation point with such platforms, each trying to twist data. Most metrics these days are an illusion and falsely swollen. Surprisingly, less data is the answer, according to Steinberg. He argues that advertisers don’t know what they’re looking for. They need to figure out what metrics will make customers successful and this is different for everyone. They exist in a world still obsessed with traffic and CTR (click through rate), a term which Steinberg says is now archaic.
Put bluntly, if all a company wants is traffic, the easiest way to do that is put out content on a file sharing or pornography website. Focusing on traffic alone will get the wrong result. The world has changed. Taboola’s revenue model measures acquisitions by telling stories; a mode which is transparent for advertisers. Singolda’s advice to advertisers is to, “try every single channel once. Spend $5K on each. Whatever works the best, repeat it again, again, and again, and never ever touch the ones that didn’t perform.” Buzzfeed, which Steinberg ran before starting Cheddar, was one of the pioneers in this regard. In 2010 they switched to tracking performance based on shares only, as opposed to clicks.
Donald Trump’s surprise victory less than a week ago also dominated the discussion. Singolda suggested that anyone could have predicted the election result by looking at Google Trends where Trump was searched 15% more than Clinton.
Today, Facebook drives more traffic to publishers than search does, which incidentally was the goal of Twitter not so long ago. “The problem with social media and relying on these platforms for news, is that they actually narrow your world view rather than broaden it,” according to Steinberg. The algorithms suggest similar content to what you have liked before, therefore you get more of the same and become convinced that your world view represents the majority. It’s clear now that a large portion of Trump voters aren’t active on social media platforms, nor are they the type to answer online polls. In this regard, the overreliance on social by polling companies is one of the reasons everyone got it so wrong.
The problem is that platforms like Facebook get too big and, “at some point, the machines always take over.” It becomes hard to control all the news (and fake news); to do so, Facebook needs to decide who they are going to be, positive or negative, and filter news for each person accordingly. Cheddar is trying to be different in this regard, Steinberg said. “We are artists, I don’t want to give people what they want. I give them what I want. They can either like it or not.”