Data as Media Game-Changer

Tom Cochran is CTO at Atlantic Media, publisher of The Atlantic, National Journal, Government Executive and Quartz. Follow him on Twitter @tommer.

Proprietary data, open data, big data, liquid data: We live in a digital world of complete data immersion, and if you aren’t at least beginning to shift your focus toward these, you will fail in the digital economy.

Traditional media companies continue to cross the “digital river,” where the real estate is crowded with nimble digital-only companies, born without the burden of legacy operations. This is a neighborhood where power and size are trumped by agility, velocity and innovation.

Less than a decade ago, this was a frontier, where early pioneers like Huffington Post, Mashable and TechCrunch (all founded in 2005) built their digital properties, largely unimpeded by the establishment.

Data and, more to the point, analysis of data are differentiators and potential game-changers for the media industry. The digital devices we can’t live without are loaded with sensors, situationally aware and borderline sentient. That iPhone you’re holding is more intelligent than you are. (Well, I should say, it has instant access to more intelligence.)

This intelligence is a derivative of data, and it’s part of the full data life cycle. Data is inherently valueless without going through the life cycle of capturing, storing, retrieving, analyzing and taking action. In this life cycle, we harvest data as the raw material to manufacture the end product of intelligence. The result is better, more strategic decision-making, adding value directly for the consumer or the advertiser.

On the crowded far side of the “digital river,” data and its resulting intelligence are what drive innovation. This intelligence facilitates the connection of seemingly unconnected ideas to create value where previously it did not exist. This is the very definition of disruptive innovation.

Systems delivering digital content know who you are, where you are, when you are reading, how long you are reading and what you’ve read in the past. Through the social graph, they also knows what your occupation is, who your friends are, where they are and what they’re reading. Combine those data points, run them through an algorithm, and you are provided with deeper and more engaging information experience based on personal, situational and contextual data.

In media, data is the driving force behind personalized content curation and micro-targeted advertising. Digital noise should be eliminated as content relevance is increased. Some may see this as a dystopian world, devoid of choice and serendipity. I see this as a growing paradigm shift where the content I want is delivered to me where I want it, when I want it and in the form that I want.

Innovation like this isn’t new or even unique, but it illustrates the power of data for media companies. As data sets grow and computing power increases, even deeper intelligence will be realized by uncovering relationships between seemingly unrelated sets of data.

Data is acknowledged as a differentiator, and once processed through the full life cycle, it becomes a platform for innovation. It can unlock the mysteries around behavior and content-consumption preferences.

CNN’s Zite is an example of data-driven content personalization. Each user’s experience is unique to the individual, delivering relevant content. CNN aggregates reader behavior of Zite, analyzes it and delivers curated content through the separate channel of CNN Trends. In this data life cycle, all parties gain from the value created through innovating.

In order to survive the digital hunger games, media companies must acknowledge that they are data-driven technology companies. The product will always be insightful content, but the delivery methods require ever-evolving emerging technologies.

We operate in a turbulent environment in which to survive means keeping pace with a highly competitive and accelerating market. Unfortunately, surviving and preserving the status quo is not a long-term business strategy. Eventually, you become a tribute who starves or freezes to death in the digital forest.

If you embrace this paradigm shift and behave like a technology company, it will be self-evident that data as a platform for innovation becomes a clear path to victory. It will be the foundation on top of which you create new business models, differentiating products and, ultimately, disruptive innovation.

This will inject creativity, entrepreneurship and innovation into your company DNA. These characteristics will propel you to the top of the heap — and data is the weapon you will use to stay there.

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