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The media bubble and the looming content demand crunch

The media market is red-hot. Don’t expect it to last

Stock market news has been dominated by Reddit-GameStop mania. But many are more worried that the broader market (not just “meme stocks”) is in a bubble. Meanwhile, the media sector could also be facing a looming “content demand crunch.”

It’s pretty clear the market has been frothy. Normally on the slower side, the media sector itself saw almost a year’s worth of deals in just the first 4 weeks of 2021. All of a sudden everyone is launching newsletter platforms, buying-up apps and raising money to expand. MediaTech and FinTechs are popping up, eager to get publishers to use their solutions.

What is driving the media boom?

Several reasons for this spike in attention: more money to the sector overall, scaling new revenue streams, faster digitization of media operations and a boom in demand for content. 

The first is in many ways the simplest. Years of “easy money policies” by Western central banks have created a glut. Interest rates are on the floor, while record piles of capital are looking for a home. As a result, private investors are ready to explore riskier and lower margin options like media (donor funding, too, is steadily rising).

Next are new revenue streams, especially subscriptions. Just a few years ago, most media managers were sceptical about just how much revenue regular users could bring. Now, many media are posting best results to date, while everyone from Netflix to Substack confirms the model’s potential. (Patreon is considering a public listing as soon as this year!)

The other global trend that affected the media was the shift to remote working. Lockdowns led to years’s worth of workplace evolution happening in mere months. In turn, digital adoption means there are potentially greater benefits from automation (meaning the trend to use Artificial Intelligence/ Machine Learning has been sped up). 

Perhaps more importantly, an industry with higher tech costs will likely be more consolidated, which in turn should make the average player more profitable (low barriers to entry are a major reason media bled profits for years). That means land-grab investments now make more sense than they have in years.

Finally, and this might be the kicker, 2020 was a boom year for content demand. According to the recent Digital 2021 report by Hootsuite and WeAreSocial, the number of social media users jumped over 13% in 2020 – twice the rise from previous years.

It seems obvious, but the lockdowns really shifted a big part of humanity into cyberspace. As a result, Google’s parent company Alphabet posted record results (on digital ad spend), so did Amazon, and gaming… Everything points to the fact that so did news publishers overall. 

The question is: Once people emerge from their year of hibernation in the online world, and rediscover bars, clubs and restaurants, what is going to happen? 

Source: wearesocial.com/digital-2021

More from The Fix: Coronavirus drives massive, but unequal, spike in traffic

Deflation in content demand

It’s not entirely clear whether most of the new consumption came from more users, or more time spent per user. 

The Digital 2021 report suggests that time spent on social media remained flat overall, meaning the boost in digital content-driven industries came from new people (who discovered cyberspace, subscribed to a bazillion Substack newsletters and downloaded several weeks of podcasts). 

However, average time online also increased by 4% (that might seem small, but it’s already at 6h 54min – not much room to grow further). This means that both factors are at play. This makes sense – starved of opportunities to meet and socialize with people offline, most people ended up consuming more digital content.

Some of these news habits are definitely here to stay. Experience shows that a share of people keep paying for subscriptions even after they stopped using content. People will continue to open newsletters in the morning, to join Clubhouse at night. Just perhaps not as much. 

The next 12 months are unlikely to see as fast growth as the past year did. That will probably mean some consolidation, with smaller, less successful producers throwing in the tool or getting bought up by bigger players. You can already see this in the platform space, which has been on a shopping spree. 

But it does mean the publishers, media-tech and related players need to shift their focus. Rather than trying to grab new groups of consumers coming online, they probably need to keep a closer eye on the competition – and retaining hard-fought relations with new audiences even as these rediscover the great outdoors.

More from The Fix: European publishers should pay attention to US local news experiments in 2021

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