BETTER THAN SNOW
Thomas Baekdal is a leading media analyst who helps companies via strategic consulting, with clients including Condé Nast, Haymarket, and Google, and through his subscription-based magazine Baekdal Plus. He talks about his background and the digital media outlook.
What led you to set up your business providing advice on digital media through consulting and subscription based editorial?
About 20 years ago, I was working in the fashion industry. At the time, I had been hired by a design company and was travelling around Europe teaching fashion designers how to design clothes digitally. That was my first introduction to creating digital transformation.
Afterwards I shifted my job to work as the digital media manager for one of the largest fashion companies in Denmark, and, around the same time, I was also introduced to the wonderful world of digital publishing because I had launched a digital magazine.
All of this, combined, inspired me to do more. So in 2004, I turned baekdal.com (which was just a personal site up to that point) into a professional site, and then in 2010, I launched Baekdal Plus, a subscription site, and became a full-time media analyst.
You describe helping brands navigate the ‘amazing digital disruption.’ In the face of others’ anxiety, where does your passion for digital come from?
It is something that has always been with me. As soon as I came into contact with a computer, I was completely fascinated by it, and the potential that it brings. So I started out with digital. While there were several things involving print in my early career, my mindset was always ‘digital only’, so there was never really the option for me to not be digital.
The second element is the ‘challenge of change’, something I have always loved: from way back when I was teaching fashion designers to design digitally, to the many challenges that we see today in the media. I have always found those two things to be really fascinating.
Unlike other analysts you’re a digital native, bringing a different perspective. How does this help in delivering for clients and customers?
It is absolutely essential. The critical element isn’t really that I’m digital native (although that helps too), but that I didn’t come from the media industry. Because I started my career outside the media, and because I spent 10 years working with digital media for a fashion company, I have experience in how brands think.
This has turned out to be a really important element because there is a noticeable disconnect between journalists and brands. As a simple example, whenever you hear journalists talk about advertising, there is this belief that advertising exists to support journalism.
For instance, Press Gazette went out last year with a campaign against Google and Facebook, in which they said:
“Channel 4 News has generated literally billions of video views for Facebook - much of it for work created at great personal risk by journalists working inside Syria. By way of financial return it gets almost nothing, while Facebook banks the advertising income.”
This might make a lot of sense to journalists, but it makes no sense to brands. Brands aren’t advertising in newspapers or on Facebook because of stories about the war in Syria. In fact, brands would prefer if their ads didn’t show up next to those stories at all.
It's the same with many other issues. My advantage is that, since I started my career outside the media industry, I come into this industry with a different perspective by default. And this has helped me tremendously over the years with my clients and my writing.
It’s clear your stance is customer-centric and you’ll call out platforms or brands on this. How would you describe your overall digital media ethos?
My ethos is one of constant frustration, which is a common feeling among media consultants. The problem is that there are so many things happening every day where, if you work with future trends, you just know that they are hurting the industry.
A simple example is auto-playing video ads with sound. This is a trend that we see on so many publisher sites. But from a future trend perspective, we know that this is not going to last. It’s an ultra-short-term strategy that might work right now, but is also incredibly damaging for the industry as a whole because everyone hates it.
As a media analyst, these things then become even more frustrating. So my approach around this is to ask, “Is this going to work in 5-10 years? Will this harm the industry in the long run? Does this give the audience what they really want?”
Without asking you to reveal too much of the information your subscribers pay for, what do you see as key trends within digital media in 2018?
A key trend right now is what I call ‘pivot to reality’. In recent years we have seen publishers pivot to Facebook, to video, to Snapchat, to… whatever. And it's clear that none of these things work. So, a key trend today is to stop these ‘pivot to’ motions and instead focus on creating different types of publications.
Another trend is within advertising. A big shift happening in the market is that a lot of advertising today is non-media, as in, something that isn’t related to when people consume journalism.
What do you think we’ll see the tech giants doing and what do you think that they need to be doing in the near future?
This is tricky because it depends on what they are supposed to be.
If we think about Facebook as a channel for everything, it is easy to point out a million different problems that need to be solved. For instance, it could think more like a media company to better support trustworthy journalism, or it could stop thinking like a media company to support brands.
But, if we instead look at how people actually use Facebook, we see that it is primarily a platform for people with a low-intent micro-moment (aka something they look at during quick breaks when they don’t want to think). And thinking about it this way creates a very different future, because, in this case, using Facebook for serious news consumption no longer makes much sense.
So the tech companies need to figure out what they want to be.
What mistakes do you see branding making in relation to digital? What are the basic pieces of advice you would give to brands around digital?
The biggest mistake is to think that it’s about being digital. Digital by itself solves nothing, and a mistake I see all the time is that brands look at some new digital thing and say ‘OMG this is the future.’
It never is. Digital is just the way things are today. The actual transformation is about how you do something useful with it.
Having worked with startups such as VIDA supports, what advice would you give to someone setting up a digital media company now?
Be distinct. The fundamental problem today is that we have way too much of everything. Everyone is suffering from what we call ‘choice paralysis’.
So, don’t add yet another choice to people’s lives among the thousands of other choices. Instead, be distinct. Create a service or a solution rather than just offering people more content.
What do you see as the key trends for digital content in 2018?
A key trend is ‘the opposite of randomness’. This links back to my earlier comment: that we all have too much choice. If your focus is just to ‘give people more’, you are going to fail.
We are seeing a shift in terms of designing for moments rather than just topics. What type of moment do people have? What intent do they have? Are they commuting? Are they at work? Are they looking for something?
… And so forth. All of these require different strategies.
Your website is a great resource, particularly for your subscribers. What are your plans for the site, and for your business, in 2018?
I have a lot of different plans, but I also have very limited time. So, my current focus, where I write 25 media trend/strategy reports per year, is going to continue, but I’m also thinking about starting a podcast. And I’m launching a new site. But, I’m only one person, so I try to focus on what creates the most value.
Are there any brands or businesses that you'd highlight as getting it right with digital content?
It depends on the focus. Basically, anyone who can combine a particular focus, with a strong passion for what they do, the effort that they put into it, and a focus around a specific moment will do well. For instance, this is something we see all the time with Youtube creators.
Do you have a favourite piece of branded content from over the years?
The kind of branded content that I like is when a brand creates a story for their audience in such a way that you feel that the brand is a natural part of it. It combines the product they sell, with the purpose of what that product is about, with the passion of what can be achieved for the people who use it. A good example is from several years ago when DJI (the camera drone maker) created a series called DJI Stories.
Is there any niche media that you really like?
There are many sites that I like. Masterclass is by far one of the best learning channels created in recent years. On YouTube, there are a ton of channels that are very good, including Fully Charged, The Body Coach, Townsends, and many, many more.
All of them are excellent because they found a way to create something truly worth looking at for their specific niche.
Is there a quote that inspires you or sums up your approach?
One of my favorite quotes of all time is from Alan Alda, the actor that most people know as Hawkeye from M*A*S*H. He once described the focus that we should have when we put something in front of people:
“When things go wrong on television, we get snow. When the signal can't reach us, when mountains interfere, we get a fuzzy, chaotic blizzard of electronic noise. When the signal does reach us, of course, then the real challenge begins: to put something on the screen that's better than snow.”