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Making Free Pay: The New Data Battle Ground [Mark Mulligan]

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From Spotify to Xbox Live and the New York Times, 2018 is the year that paid subscriptions took hold. But the nasty truth is that most consumers still won't pay, as evidence by the100M who prefer Spotify's free tier. “This means ad-supported strategies are going to play a growing role in the digital economy," says Mark Mulligan. “But set against the backdrop of growing consumer privacy concerns, we will see data become a new battle ground."

By Mark Mulligan of MIDiA and the Music Industry blog

2018 was a big year for subscriptions, across music (Spotify on target to hit 92 million subscribers), video (global subscriptions passed half a billion), games (98 million Xbox Live and PlayStation Plus subscribers) and news (New York Times 2.5 million digital subscribers). The age of digital subscriptions is inarguably upon us, but subscriptions are part of the equation not the whole answer. They have grown strongly to date, will continue to do so for some time and are clearly most appealing to rights holders. However, subscriptions only have a finite amount of opportunity—higher in some industries than others, but finite nonetheless. The majority of consumers consume content for free, especially so in digital environments. Although the free skew of the web is being rebalanced, most consumers still will not pay. This means ad-supported strategies are going to play a growing role in the digital economy. But set against the backdrop of growing consumer privacy concerns, we will see data become a new battle ground.

Industry fault lines are emerging

Three quotes from leading digital executives illustrate well the fault lines which are emerging in the digital content marketplace:

“[Ad supported] It allows us to reach much, much deeper into the market,” Gustav Söderström, Spotify

“To me it’s creepy when I look at something and all of a sudden it’s chasing me all the way across the web. I don’t like that,” Tim Cook, Apple

“It’s up to us to take [subscribers’] money and turn it into great content for their viewing benefit,” Reed Hastings, Netflix

None of those quotes are any more right or wrong than the other. Instead they reflect the different assets each company has, and thus where they need to seek revenue. Spotify has 200 million users but only half of them pay.  Spotify cannot afford to simply write off the half that won’t subscribe as an expensively maintained marketing list. It needs to monetise them through ads too. Apple is a hardware company pivoting further into services because it needs to increase device margins, so it can afford to snub ad supported models and position around being a trusted keeper of its users’ data. Netflix is a business that has focused solely on subscriptions and so can afford to take pot shots at competitors like Hulu which serve ads. However, Netflix can only hike its prices so many timesbefore it has to start looking elsewhere for more revenue; so ads may be on their way, whatever Reed Hastings may say in public.

The three currencies of digital content

Consumers have three basic currencies with which the can pay:
  • Attention
  • Data
  • Money
Money is the cleanest transaction and usually, but not always, comes with a few strings attached. Data is at the other end of the spectrum, a resource that is harvested with our technical permission but rarely granted by us fully willingly, as the choice is often a trade-off between not sharing data and not getting access to content and services. The weaponization of consumer data by the likes of Cambridge Analytica only intensifies the mistrust. Finally, attention, the currency that we all expend whether behind paywalls or on ad supported destinations. With the Attention Economy now at peak, attention is becoming fought for with ever fiercer intensity. Paywalls and closed ecosystems are among the best tools for locking in users’ attention. As we enter the next phase of the digital content business, data will become ever more important assets for many content companies, while those who can afford to focus on premium revenue alone (e.g. Apple) will differentiate on not exploiting data.

Privacy as a product

So, expect the next few years to be defined as a tale of two markets, with data protectors on one side and data exploiters on the other. Apple has set out its stall as the defender of consumer privacy as a counter weight to Facebook and Google, whose businesses depend upon selling their consumers’ data to advertisers. The Cambridge Analytica scandal was the start rather than the end. Companies that can — i.e. those that do not depend upon ad revenue — will start to position user privacy as a product differentiator. Amazon is the interesting one as it has a burgeoning ad business but not so big that it could opt to start putting user privacy first. The alternative would be to let Apple be the only tech major to differentiate on privacy, an advantage Amazon may not be willing to grant.

The topics covered in MIDiA’s March 27 event ‘Making Free Pay’.  The event will be in central London and is free-to-attend (£20 refundable deposit required). We will be presenting our latest data on streaming ad revenue as well as diving deep into the most important challenges of ad supported business models with a panel featuring executives from Vevo, UK TV and Essence Global. Sign up now as places are going fast. For any more information on the event and for sponsorship opportunities, email dara@midiaresearch.com 

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