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I've 15 years of experience in media, product & technology. By day, I work at a mainstream news site. On weekends, I read & write on media products. Most recently, I was a Knight Fellow w/ International Center for Journalists for 3.5 years.

E-commerce’s influence on media products

Published May 24, 2021
Updated Mar 20, 2022

Today, e-commerce’s influence on media products is vast. But not all methods perfected by the e-commerce industry work for media.

Why e-commerce is dominant: The e-commerce industry was one of the most prevalent early successes on the Internet. They first invented and established many digital marketing techniques, user experiences paradigms, algorithms, and Internet plumbing infrastructure (AWS) that industries later adopted. Many of the product leaders who work in various Internet Products today first learned the tricks of the trade during their time in e-commerce companies.

However, there are significant differences between digital media and e-commerce.

How do these businesses define success? Amazon’s goal is to sell you goods. Amazon’s success is not dependent on whether you’ll wear or use those shoes. In contrast, all media businesses — movies, songs, games, news, entertainment parks, sports — vie for human time. Marvel’s success depends on whether you watched the movie and, more importantly, how vested you are in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

What does the business optimize? Jeff Bezos famously said that Amazon would focus on improving product selection, lowering prices, and faster delivery even decades later. Media companies aim to own your headspace through storytelling and high production quality.

Customer gratification: The value of media is the information it holds. Once the story is told, the media product loses its value. In e-commerce, the information about the product is marketing. How much you read about the product, the user gets gratification only after buying the product. Hence, marketing techniques that do wonders for e-commerce would be disastrous for subscription media.

Customers vary consumption based on relevance: A teapot is a teapot. You cannot purchase half of it. However, how much time media you consume depends on your interest, context, and relevance at that moment. For example, cricket aficionados will spend hours watching a live match. However, casual enthusiasts will be satisfied by watching 15-minute highlights.

Yet, early digital media products adopted principles from e-commerce.

Limited need to invent. When media businesses came online, they already had an active offline business model. Hence, going online was seen as adding a channel and not a make-or-break thing. In contrast, most e-commerce businesses did not transition from offline retail to online retail. Instead, they were new businesses that had to invent their way out.

Attention economy. Additionally, most early digital media businesses, like news sites and Blogger.com, and YouTube, relied on the advertisement or attention economy back then. Each click got a new page view and ad impression. Getting audiences to click through and move around the website became more important than making it easy for audiences to read.

Eventually, the focus shifted from storytelling and owning mind space to improve click-through rates (CTRs) using click-bait headlines and cover photos.

Implications

YouTube promotes Echo Chambers. E-commerce sites like Amazon assume that if you are buying gardening tools, you likely have a garden and hence might need seeds. Consequently, the copy accompanying their recommendation algorithms is “Frequently bought together” or “Buy it with.” But that isn’t necessarily true for media. Imagine watching a video on YouTube on Vaccination Conspiracy Theories and then being offered more conspiracy theories that distort the fabric of reality.

News websites prioritize Click Through Rates over reading experience. Below are two screen grabs: One from Amazon and another from a news site. Both sites have a shopping experience. The user is presented with the broadest sample of inventory/stories laid one below the other and forced users to click to another page.

Professor Damon Kiesow argues that this UX is bad for journalism’s civic role in a recent tweet thread.

In contrast, the print newspaper and magazine was a reading interface.

One could glance at an entire print newspaper in 2 minutes or read through it for 20 minutes. All the stories are then and there to read but segmented by typography, sizes, and placements. Charts, visuals, quotes, cartoons are stitched together into a seamless page for today. Let’s call this concept composability.

NYT’s website is among the few that have achieved this concept well. There are articles, charts, live blogs within the below image area, and all of them fits together as if it were a newspaper. If you have only 3 minutes today, come glance at our homepage, and you get a sampling of everything. The NYT homepage continues to live to its original slogan – “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”

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