Today we welcome Brian Tu, a leader in the fast-paced and complex space formed at the intersection of technology, media and finance. Brian has worked with some of the most prominent—and interesting—media technology companies in Silicon Valley, helping them find ways to turn pageviews into dollars. He was the Head of Revenue Operations at Medium.com, a Senior Vice President of Revenue Strategy and Operations at DEFY Media, and has held similar positions with Break Media and America Online.
1. How did you get started in the digital media industry?
I’ve always been interested in the intersection of media and technology and particularly fascinated with the ability of technology to connect people and promote the sharing of ideas and information. I remember being one of the first of my friends and family to have an email address with CompuServe and America Online, back when a 14.4k modem was still a big deal. When I graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1999, I leveraged all of my personal connections to get a job in the nascent tech industry in Northern California. I landed an entry-level sales coordinator position with AOL right after I graduated, which was the perfect entrée for me into digital media. AOL was a real powerhouse and was poised right at the intersection of traditional media and technology and I’m profoundly grateful for the experience, opportunities, and friendships I gained while working there.
2. What do you see as the most interesting or impactful change in the digital media industry since you started with AOL in 1999?
The monetary life cycle of digital media has come full circle. In the early years, users paid for content on places like AOL and CompuServe. Then, as digital media exploded along with the proliferation of smartphones and tablets, the financial model shifted to an ad-supported system . Users became accustomed to free content—they would pay for the technology and Internet access, but not content. The problem, though, is that free content has eroded the quality of content in general. And, of course, the need for free content has caused content providers to look for other sources of revenue—advertisements and harvesting information from users. Certainly this has contributed to the firestorms surrounding “fake news” and the sale of user data to analytics firms. Now, there is a growing backlash against these practices and a concomitant growth in subscription models for high-quality content providers. Users are reembracing the old adage that, “You get what you pay for.” Publishers are realizing that a purely ad-supported model may not be the best model, and consumers are realizing they are willing to pay for better quality.
3. Do you see any potential for significant disruption in the digital media industry over the next several years?
Yes. People are becoming increasingly educated to the fact that their personal data—how they use the Internet, what they are reading and watching, what sites and pages they visit, all the data about how they consume the Internet—is being harvested, packaged and sold, and that this information is one of the most significant components of value in the digital ecosystem. People have come to realize that they are essentially selling their personal data in exchange for free content. This has enormous potential to change how people use the Internet.
Also, there is potential for disruption and growth in that a few major players control a vastly disproportionate share of the revenue from digital advertising. Some people would tell you, and I think this is reasonably accurate, that the two largest sellers of digital advertising receive roughly 85% of all digital media dollars spent. Everyone else is fighting for the remaining 15%, and of course the digital media market continues to swell as more and more consumers have access to the Internet.
4. What changes to your industry do you see happening over the next 10 years?
I think digital media publishers are going to be smarter about how they work with some social media platforms. For a long time, those platforms have been able to convince publishers to provide free access to the publisher’s content, primarily through links or embedded stories and videos. I expect that publishers are going to push back on this. And I think that people are going to be much smarter about how they share their data or allow it to be used.
5. Does the digital media industry need more, less, or better regulation?
We should expect changes to the regulations governing how data is collected and used by publishers and other websites. Frankly, in the advertising industry, everyone already knew about the widespread practice of harvesting data to provide advertising targeted to specific consumers. That’s been happening in digital media forever. Now, however, recent events have really opened the public’s eyes to how organizations use their data. We’re probably only scratching the surface as to what companies are doing with data—right now consumers really have to work hard to find out how a company is collecting and sharing their data. Usually these disclosures and settings are buried inside account setting pages or the end user license agreements. I would not be surprised to see regulation that increases transparency or requires more robust disclosures from websites that are collecting data.
6. How will the need for consumer privacy and data protection (and the massive legal exposure arising from data breaches) shape future business models?
I think we will see a ripple effect as consumer privacy issues spread to other industries. Right now, the focus seems to be on digital media and the use of analytics and targeted advertising. This may open people’s eyes towards how other industries such as finance and banking are collecting information. Digital media advertising is usually focused on immediate data collection, where ads are targeted to the consumer while they are actually browsing online. But many traditional industries are still collecting data, using it for slower-response advertising, and re-selling it to other companies.
Eric A. Bevan is an attorney with the law firm of Fox Rothschild LLP and a member of the firm’s Litigation, Financial Services Industry, Fiduciary Litigation, Construction and Government Contracts practice groups. He represents clients in the resolution and litigation of complex commercial disputes, including federal and state court litigation as well as alternative dispute resolution methods such as private arbitration and mediation. You can contact Eric at 561-804-4470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.