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Expert Q&A: Challenges & Strategies for Building Audiences

2023 was a year of both growth and challenge for the streaming industry. A flood of new premium content coupled with a soft ad market left publishers and streamers in a tough position as they tried to reach and retain their audiences effectively.

In this Expert Q&A with Dave Bernath, VP Sales & Partnerships, Americas for Wurl, we get his perspective on the challenges and strategies for building viewership in today’s crowded and complex streaming market, and how ContentDiscovery’s AI-powered performance marketing can help.

Hi, Dave! You had an interesting career in cable TV before joining Wurl. Tell us about your background, and how you see the industry adapting to the new streaming landscape.

DB: I’m a longtime cable TV programmer, having worked for companies like E! Entertainment, BBC America, and Comedy Central. My job, simply put, was programming networks to maximize their audiences and advertising revenue.

For a long time, it was a straightforward game and highly lucrative for the networks. As it is wont to do, though, the internet – and specifically streaming – disrupted and broke down the old business models, slowly at first, but with increasing speed over time. Legacy media companies have been straddling this issue for more than 10 years now: trying to follow the audience to streaming  while holding onto as much of the legacy ecosystem as possible. It’s not easy and not much fun!

What do you think were the most important developments for the CTV industry in the past year?

DB: On the free side, NBCUniversal and Warner Bros. Discovery finally jumped into the FAST pool in a big way, launching over 70 channels between them. This was emblematic of the increased quality of content on FAST, but also of how crowded the market has now become. In the early years of FAST, being ‘cable-like’ was a tailwind – viewers recognized the experience and started watching. Now, at 300 to 400 or more channels, still in a mostly traditional EPG (electronic program guide), it feels like a headwind, limiting audience growth. There will likely be some consolidation and winnowing of the herd, and UX innovation continues to be needed.

On the subscription side of streaming, 2023 was the year it became clear the ‘all in’ on streaming strategy for the legacy media giants was not going to work. You saw scaled-back investment and production generally (made more pronounced by the strike), along with a return to selling content to the highest bidder rather than funneling everything to a vertically integrated streaming service. On the distribution side, the Disney Charter deal was ‘Exhibit A’ that trying to roll 100% direct-to-consumer won’t work. So, we’re in a recalibration moment, and 2024 promises to be just as impactful or even more so.

With so many apps and programming choices, CTV viewership remains extremely fragmented. What are you hearing from Wurl’s customers about the consequences of this fractured landscape?

DB: From the streamers – and I’m talking FAST linear platforms here – the primary thing we heard in 2023 is, “we’re pretty full.” Whereas a year or two ago they were looking to actively grow their channels, now these platforms are adding very few – and, as a publisher, you better have breakout IP or some sort of exclusivity to have a chance of making your way onto one. The door is still ajar to new channels, but not as wide open as it was a couple of years ago.

From the publisher side, they’re saying a version of the same thing: It’s getting harder and harder for platforms to take their content because it’s getting so crowded. We’re continuing to see a huge influx of FAST content from Lionsgate, WBD, NBCU, and other major studios who can offer high-quality content. Everyone’s still looking to get new real estate and offer something different, but at the same time, they’re all realizing it’s not as easy to get things launched as it was a year or two ago.

Discoverability remains a pressing challenge for viewers and publishers alike. What interesting tactics are you seeing the industry adopt in order to solve the ‘discoverability problem?’

DB: Most content companies rely on promotion from the streaming platforms to impact viewership. This can take the form of contractual guarantees for promotion on the home screen, heavy promotion for channel launches, or editorial placements tied to holidays, stunts, or specific programming. These can be pretty impactful, but supplies are limited – as is control.

CTV offers the ability to target audiences and measure performance in ways traditional TV marketing cannot. So, what’s exciting to see is some companies starting to market their content using these new capabilities. It’s much easier to invest in marketing when you can show actual results.

That’s a nice set up for a question about Wurl’s ContentDiscovery. Tell us why you think it is such a game changer for marketers in our industry.

DB: I’m really excited about our ContentDiscovery solution because it harnesses the power of AI to help any content platform (FAST channel, AVOD, or SVOD app) efficiently grow their audiences. Being such a massive monetization player in the space, Wurl is in a unique position to be able to leverage first-party insights to help streamers and publishers connect with their ideal audiences.

And second, as I touched on before, it’s measurable. This is totally different from the way things were done in the past with traditional television, where one’s ability to evaluate the effectiveness of a campaign was limited to surveys or Nielsen ratings. If you saw a bump in the Nielsen ratings, you would tell yourself it was because of your marketing campaign. This might have been true, but it came with a lot of questions. Could you have spent half as much? Did you engage a lot of people that were never going to watch the show? Was word of mouth helping you out more than you thought? With ContentDiscovery, you eliminate all of these ‘what-ifs’, and benefit from powerful targeting and measurement.

Tell us a little about how ContentDiscovery works and what makes it so successful.

DB: ContentDiscovery uses AI to target relevant audiences who are likely to download your app, tune into your content, or subscribe. What makes it so successful is that it gives streamers and publishers the ability to define specific campaign goals and measure their return on that investment. It’s performance marketing – which is a completely new way for television marketers to buy media and track their campaigns.

It’s been cool to see our partners like Scripps and A+E Networks have real success with ContentDiscovery. We hear directly from platforms and publishers like them that one of the biggest ‘edges’ ContentDiscovery gives marketers is its transparency and data – the ability to see performance data in real time and act on it.

Looking ahead, what do you think are the key learnings from this past year that can help ensure a successful 2024 for publishers and streamers?

DB: The biggest learning is that now is the time to invest in building your audience. Publishers can’t assume that if they’re on a platform, that’s enough. While growth in overall viewership seems modest at this point and the programmatic ad market continues to disappoint, I think the decision still remains obvious for platforms, publishers, and OEMs: Marketing dollars will be required to grow their audiences – organic growth alone is not going to cut it in 2024.

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