Media companies dispute right way to approach data and digital transformation

Panel session at Adobe Summit turns into debate as representatives from Fox News and Turner Broadcasting trade blows over how to tackle data insights within their organisations

Media organisations face common challenges around digital transformation and data integration, but it was the dispute around how and why to tackle these issues that took centre stage at this year’s Adobe Summit.

A panel presentation on how media organisations are reinventing themselves to cope with digital disruption and the data explosion turned into debate as representatives from Fox News and Turner Broadcasting traded contradictory views on how to get a handle on data, as well as the business objectives driving their approach.

What was also strikingly apparent from the panellists from Fox News, Turner and AOL was the lack of any playbook guiding organisations through digital and data challenges. Each is taking a distinct approach to addressing data and analytics, as well as the teams, processes and technology structures they’re putting in place to deal with it.

The primary dispute was around whether to invest in ‘hub-and spoke’ centralised teams that can drive better data analytics across the business through shared KPIs, or bring data insights into existing teams to better utilise.

Turner Broadcasting Systems senior director analytics product strategy and data governance, Colin Coleman, said the first step for his company had been building a house of data across more than 20 distinct data platforms across the business, then joining up silos under unified KPIs.

“A silo is not just data but also the organisation silo,” Coleman said. “Traditionally, the people looking at the churn data sit in the research teams, in brands, ad serving teams. We recognised that to understand the physics and how we were engaging with customers, we had to bring that information together.

“You can’t start integrating data together unless you’re standardised. The unsexy part of this is building that foundation on top for a house of data. That was a big upfront investment, but necessary to unlock how to bring all that data together.”

A major initiative was joining all advertising data with every page served, which gives the company a clear view of how a customer is being monetised across the sites, as well as understanding where audiences have come from, Coleman added.

Another key learning was the need to balance the insights coming in from the front-end, versus the insights developed through back-end platforms. To do this, Turner established a data governance function in the business.

“When that data wave hits you, you’ve got to be able to sustain it,” Coleman said.

Fox News chief digital officer, Jeff Misenti, claimed to be the “antithesis” of Turner and said the company has chosen to instill data insights into existing workflows, rather than invest in specialist data analytics teams.

“If you’re a product manager and you’re laying out your section, you’re using the technology and segments to decide whether there’s a chance to find the new audiences within your existing audiences and first-party data,” he said. “You bring that same information into the editorial team.

“There is a lot of data right now, but the number of people who understand what it does for your business is very small. We take the approach of keeping it as simple as we possibly can. As the new technologies come on-board, we’ll layer them in. One of the things we really pressed for from our technology partners is for a screen to help editorials make a good leap of faith and see that those data insights are actionable for them.”

Coleman, however, questioned the efficiency of leaving data up to the silos. “The bespoke teams offer the most efficiencies, and we’ve seen this help our results across content, business teams and so on,” he claimed.

“As everything becomes IP addressable, we have to be able to handle both the size and the spectrum. You have to place bets on where you think this industry is going – you can’t say this is the exact technology. You have to put in capabilities to address this whatever way the industry goes. The secret sauce is having that unified view of consumers, and having the people, process and technology to derive insights from that.”

Having spent his early years as a resource scientist at NASA and with a PhD in aerospace engineering, Coleman said understanding the physics of data is literally harder than rocket science. “You can’t just keep chunking up data use and expecting different groups to deal with that. You have to start thinking more about how to handle this,” he advised.

But until organisations have the “operating system of data”, and see the clear correlation between data insights and significant bottom-line impact, Misenti said it’s about serving the audience as best it can and protecting revenue streams.

“As much we believe the data will guide us into doing things, we are still making great leaps of faith,” he said. “We’re collecting all this information in the hopes it will lead us to new things, but so much is still based on gut feel.

“We haven’t found the [data] haystack, so how can you expect to find the needle?”

The biggest thing Fox News needs to continue to look at is bottom line, he said.

“In our digital business, margins are near 50 per cent, and we don’t want to touch that. Until you tell me tomorrow that having all this stuff means we can really do something with it, it’s just fun to play with [and adds incremental gains].

“For the business and practice today, I’m still looking for the haystack.”

Offering a different view, AOL’s senior marketing director, Jennifer Towns, said executives already largely believed in data’s worth and are actively supporting investment. A major cultural shift AOL has made in line with optimising data insight is to bring testing and optimisation into every aspect of consumer engagement and content delivery.

“What we know about our customers is driving the experiences, offers, products as are giving them, and the content. And it’s very personalised,” Towns said.

“When we do this, we see huge increases in our core KPI. And at any point in time, if you deliver a lift on an experience, reduce churn, or drive more search volume, it’s a very easy sell to the executives that data matters.

“Data programs are no longer based on assumptions, or whether someone has been an AOL members for many years. Everything about what we do, and all the experiences across all our channels, and even the conversations in our call centres, is driven by this data.”

- Nadia Cameron travelled to Adobe Summit as a guest of Adobe.

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