No. 315: The Digitally Natives


Aggregation defined an era. The aggregation throughout media, retail, and service platforms determined the economic viability of many in the vendor-class throughout the modern digital economy. Uber began as a luxury black car service. Spotify streamed music. Youtube published silly videos. Amazon began by selling books. And Netflix rented films by DVD. Imagine a world without these companies as aggregators. Companies grew market share by adding products and services, rendering their analog competitors incapable.  Like the inevitability of westward expansion, the aggregation theory continues to move certain platforms towards critical mass.

The theory is akin to the digital version of Manifest Destiny. For a time – platforms maintained an advantage, much like physical retailers possessed an early advantage over e-tailers. In the traditional retail model, individual product brands were less important than the shelves that they were marketed on. Consumers came for product selection, ease, and the universal checkout process. The one stop shop was the draw; product loyalty was a secondary feature.  In this way – content publishers, product brands, and services were merely value-additives for existing platforms. Few learned this hard lesson like popular musicians at the beginning of the streaming era. Podcasts seemed to have learned from those difficult lessons.

Gaining leverage is the mission.

The market-making opportunities that began with early digitally vertical native brands (DNVBs) began to influence adjacent industries as that sales model had its success. For decades, it was nearly impossible to achieve critical mass in retail without partnering with a brick and mortar retailer or a department store. To defend against what seemed (for a time) to be physical retail’s Manifest Destiny, digitally natives circumvented the infrastructure and went direct to consumer (DTC). This meant that they had access to increased margins, efficient customer acquisition, access to data, and stronger relationships with the consumer.

With little access to mainstream consumer channels, physical brands launched native channels with the help of platforms like Shopify and BigCommerce. It’s unclear whether or not the intent of the DTC industry was their indefinite independence from big box retail. I’d argue that it wasn’t the goal. But, regardless, the result of the last ten years has been palpable: product brands have never possessed more leverage than they do right now. Even if that leverage is temporary.

As newer platforms go to market, vertical brands are beginning to notice a shift in leverage from platform to the vertical. This is an untimely shift in momentum for platform companies, businesses that once had the leverage to act indiscriminately.

DNVB-speak in digital media

In early April, comedian Russell Brand was interviewed by the host of the Joe Rogan Experience (JRE), a wildly popular podcast that covers everything from combat sports and geopolitics to archaeology and sociology. It’s important to note that JRE is consistently ranked in the top five of the most downloaded podcasts. Toward the end of the discussion between the two men, Rogan prompted Brand to promote his business interests. And though it was a subtle promotion, this is where things became interesting.

Luminary is the premium audio publisher and content aggregator that has set out to become the Netflix of podcasting. Founded in 2018 by Lauren Sacks, the company raised $100 million from New Enterprise Associates. The funding equipped Sacks and team to recruit several sizable podcast networks and high visibility media personalities to include: The Ringer, Guy Raz, Trevor Noah, and Wondery Media. Wondery is the last remaining podcast network known for its original programming and Ringer, a successful podcast network in its own right, is still in search of Barstool Sports-level network effects. In hindsight, Spotify’s acquisition of Gimlet and Parcast were as defensive as they were offensive developments.

In the episode – Russell Brand promoted his latest venture, a podcast with Luminary. The elevator pitch had somewhat of a dual purpose: (1) use one of the most influential platforms in audio to promote a business interests and (2) recruit Rogan into the fold of the Luminary-faithful. The second part did not work, the jury is still out on the first proposition. But the effects of that conversation were immediate. Within 72 hours, JRE was pulled from Luminary’s catalogue. From Hotpod News

The [JRE] team explicitly cites licensing issues as the reason behind the intent to withdraw. “There was not a license agreement or permission for Luminary to have The Joe Rogan Experience on their platform,” a representative from the team told me last night. “His reps were surprised to see the show there today and requested it be removed.”

The Joe Rogan Experience wasn’t the only big name in podcasting that removed content from the platform. Spotify denied Luminary access to their shows and the New York Times pulled The Daily. PodcastOne, Barstool Sports, Endeavor Audio, and many others followed suit. From No. 304: In-app audiences:

The pending acquisition of Gimlet Media is about more than building a direct-to-consumer podcasting powerhouse, it’s about monetizing DTC audio in new ways. Spotify doesn’t own the music that millions of us listen to, they license the rights from three music labels: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment Group and Warner Music Group. With Gimlet’s pending acquisition, Spotify is positioning themselves squarely as the Netflix of audio. And Gimlet’s portfolio of audio properties could be another tool that Spotify uses to convert casual subscribers to premium, paid users.

And here’s Luminary CoFounder and CEO Matt Sacks:

We want to become synonymous with podcasting in the same way Netflix has become synonymous with streaming. I know how ambitious that sounds. We think it can be done, and some of the top creators in the space agree.

Spotify and Netflix were exclusively aggregators before they began to pursue their modern subscription growth strategy. By acquiring popular properties (like Gimlet and Parcast Network) or by investing in the development of  the native properties that Netflix is now known for, both companies moved further away from aggregation and closer to becoming digital natives. For Netflix, this was timely. Media companies like Disney have begun to pull their properties to develop their own digitally native businesses. Another sign of aggregation theory’s diminished role for newer companies.

Perhaps, the age of aggregation is nearing its maturity. According 2017’s Defining Aggregators by Ben Thompson:

Aggregation Theory describes how platforms (i.e. aggregators) come to dominate the industries in which they compete in a systematic and predictable way. Aggregation Theory should serve as a guidebook for aspiring platform companies, a warning for industries predicated on controlling distribution, and a primer for regulators addressing the inevitable antitrust concerns that are the endgame of Aggregation Theory.

Two years later, we’re witnessing a war over proverbial land rights. As platforms have begun to lose leverage over specific verticals, they’ve heavily invested into the development of their own properties (private labels / native brands / native media projects). In some cases, like Spotify’s acquisitions – they chose to acquire the properties to move consumers along the content-to-subscription funnel. For Luminary Media and their Head of Partnerships / Business Development Meaghan Quindlen, the stakes are much higher than they would have been 3-5 years ago.

She has an unenviable job; she must convince alienated podcasts to work with them by communicating her vision, by employing a new licensing compensation structure, or a combination of both. Even Spotify and Apple Music had their own similar episodes. But with $100 million in funding and grandiose aspirations – Luminary will have to out-Spotify Spotify on its way to becoming the Netflix of podcasts – a title that the first audio platform to achieve 100 million paid subscribers wants all to itself.

Who is to say whether digital media properties returns to the types of  platforms that were once required for growth; there is now a dueling loyalty between independence and potential reach. This contradiction didn’t exist a few years prior.

Digitally native retailers are open to working with big box retailers (the original aggregators) as long as they can maintain a unique in-store appearance with access to some form of consumer data.  In this way, DTC retail is a decent enough analog for what’s happening in podcasting today. Product and media brands now hold the levers – they’re the draw. Consumers walk through the door, proverbial or otherwise, for their beloved brands. Aggregators must learn to operate in a world where the leverage exists with digitally natives. At the very least, aggregators need to learn to develop real symbiosis.

Luminary may need to raise more money.

Report by Web Smith |Join the Executive Membership

No. 304: In-App Audiences

If you’ve built a great product, you’ll need an audience. And if you’ve built a captive audience, you’ll need a great product. Spotify has one of the most captive audiences in the entertainment industry. The most recent measure places Spotify’s paid subscriber cohort between 90-95 million. This is an extraordinary number of consumers with a payment method on file. But most importantly, it’s an opportunity for the streaming music company to continue evolving with the digital commerce economy. An unconventional leader in this respect, Epic Games could teach Spotify the most about what’s possible with licensing partnerships and micro-transactions.

Member Brief No. 1: Linear Commerce

The digital economy rewards the companies that work along the line that separates traditional digital media and traditional eCommerce. A great product needs an organic and impassioned audience. Captive audiences need products and services to offer the community. Linear commerce is the understanding that digital media and traditional online retail will eventually meet at the center – along the line – the most efficient path for growth.

Linear Commerce

Spotify’s ability to overcome Apple’s recent and notable growth will hinge on the service aligning their brand with exclusive partnerships. The platform’s defensibility will be closely tied to their faculty to “sell” their product. While this is of little surprise, Spotify’s future may be influenced by how it sells content and physical products.

No. 287: Spotify’s Brand Potential

Audience and then commerce; or commerce to build the audience. Spotify identified an opportunity that – in the short term – will benefit its unpaid and premium consumers, alike. And, in the long term, will benefit Spotify if Gimlet Media continues to create content that other platforms want to license for large scale projects. But perhaps the most significant example of linear commerce, from the past week, was Fortnite’s Marshmello concert (see here).

Pictured: a screenshot of the in-game concert

Fortnite, “The Oasis.” This Saturday, Fortnite teamed with EDM performer Marshmello to debut a new concept for attracting and monetizing digital audiences. An estimated 10 million users were “present” (active in the game) for a live, in-game, digital concert that tested the boundaries of our definition of reality. Millions more watched the streams online. For days, the DJ set had been teased throughout the game by way of signage and in-game posters. Fortnite allowed players to enter the stage area in “Pleasant Park”, a well-known area in the game’s playing field. The game automatically removed all of their weapons so none of the attendees could be removed.

Share of Fortnite players who have ever spent money on in-game purchases (June 2018: LendEDU / Pollfish)

Epic Games was reported to have generated a “sizable sum” in microtransaction revenue from two of Fortnite’s in-game properties: skins (appearance) and emotes (dance skills).

The value of Gimlet Media

The traditional podcast network like PodcastOne, Midroll, and Headgum monetizes groups of podcasts by negotiating advertising rates and / or providing the podcasts with production expertise. There are dozens of podcast networks but few are built as direct to consumer operations. Gimlet Media is one of them, they own and administer the podcasts that they broadcast. This could potentially provide value to Spotify in three ways:

Advertising revenue: podcasting’s main revenue stream is ad sales but the entire industry generated north of $360 million in sales in 2018. Spotify will be able to count on a new revenue stream. But there is also Gimlet’s innovation in co-branded podcasts. Led by Creative Director Nazanin Rafsanjani, the podcast network has partnered with the likes of eBay, Virgin Atlantic, Microsoft, Gatorade, Reebok, Squarespace, and Lyft. When the deal is finalized, I’d expect this to continue.

Premium listens: speaking of advertising, consumers don’t enjoy listening to the same five ads about meal kits and recruiting. Spotify can now market that their Gimlet podcasts have no ads, potentially driving more listens of the streaming music app. By advertising ad-free podcasts, the content can be used to convert trial and regular subscribers.

Intellectual property and licensing: Spotify isn’t just acquiring a podcast network, they’re bringing a proven creative group in-house. Reply All, one of Gimlet’s properties is reportedly in the early stages of film development. In 2016, rights to their Homecoming podcast were purchased by Universal Cable Productions. In 2017, Variety magazine reported that director Richard Linklater would lead the adaption of their “Man of the People” episode. It is last slated to star Robert Downey Jr. And in 2018, ABC debuted a sitcom based upon the founder of Gimlet media and their StartUp podcast called Alex, Inc.

Like Wondery and Parcast, Gimlet Media is more than a traditional podcast network. Paired with the streaming giant’s sizable and enthusiastic user base, Gimlet’s properties can become more valuable to potential media buyers. With the added listeners that Spotify would be able to provide, Gimlet could increase the opportunities that it has to license intellectual property or sell the television rights to high paying media partners like Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, and HBO.

The pending acquisition of Gimlet Media is about more than building a direct-to-consumer podcasting powerhouse, it’s about monetizing DTC audio in new ways. Spotify doesn’t own the music that millions of us listen to, they license the rights from three music labels: Universal Music Group, Sony Music Entertainment Group and Warner Music Group. With Gimlet’s pending acquisition, Spotify is positioning themselves squarely as the Netflix of audio. And Gimlet’s portfolio of audio properties could be another tool that Spotify uses to convert casual subscribers to premium, paid users. And incentivizing users to stay away from Apple Music.

Gaming platforms like Epic Games‘ Fortnite and PUBG have captivated audiences while storing their payment methods for ease of purchase. And services like Netflix and Spotify are learning that they can do the same. The monetization of audiences through innovative, exclusive partnerships will continue to build a foundation for how media companies to address an evolving digital economy. By recharacterizing commerce conversion as the beginning of the funnel and not the end, Spotify can reframe the value of their content acquisitions and partnerships – both within and outside of their native platforms.

Read your No. 304 curation here.

Report by Web Smith | About 2PM

No. 287: Spotify’s brand potential


Spotify’s chief marketer is leaving Spotify and their next CMO has an opportunity to continue its sprint towards 50% market share. In his parting words with AdWeek, Seth Farbman said:

By all measures, we’ve achieved [our] goals, but we’ve also done something most companies only dream of doing—we’ve turned affinity for the Spotify experience into love for the brand. 

And he’s correct. During his tenure, Spotify found ways to grow brand equity despite the offensive by Amazon and Apple Music. The numbers from January to June tell the story. Spotify maintained a 36% market share with a total of 83 million subscribers. Apple grew 2% market share, reaching a 19% stake of the market (43.5 million subscribers). While Spotify added 11.9 million subscribers, Apple has grown 9.2 million members. And Amazon added a half a point of market share, currently holding 12%.

But according to reports, Apple Music is set to overtake Spotify in terms of paid subscribers. Apple’s early Apple Music strategy consisted of music exclusives (Chance the Rapper, Drake) and live DJ sets (Zane Lowe, etc).

The relationship between Drake and Apple Music benefited both parties. Apple Music got first dibs on Drake’s record-breaking 2016 album Views, while the rapper is now the avatar for the paid music streaming era.

An often overlooked part of Apple Music’s library is Beats 1 radio, which in the case of Drake, who has his own OVO Radio show named after his recording imprint, means his fans have a reason to hold onto their subscription even if no new album on the horizon. Artists like Bad Bunny, Pharrell, Deadmau5, Elton John, Charli XCX, and Frank Ocean all have their own Beats 1 shows, reaching dedicated fans who’d rather connect with their favorite musician than trust an algorithm for song recommendations.

Slate: Why Apple Music is Winning Spotify’s Game

The the recent strategy seems to be Apple’s deepening moat around its hardware. While Spotify’s brand is more beloved, Apple has a growing technical advantage: its devices. By all accounts, iPhone and Airpod users are discouraged from choosing Spotify over Apple Music through subtle UX and Siri roadblocks, akin to Apple’s preference of Maps over Google Maps. This is most noticeable when attempting to control the Spotify app through your Airpods or playing music on your lock screen. In Spotify forums, moderators and community members are advocating that users delete Apple Music if they want a better Airpod x Spotify experience.

Apple’s continued growth will be closely tied to how well it develops Apple Music into the iPhone’s default. By cutting off Spotify’s seamless performance with Apple phones, their strategy is similar to Instagram’s uncoupling from Twitter’s timeline. By making it difficult for Twitter users to view Instagram photos, Facebook fostered its own ecosystem of engagement. Apple is benefitting from the same.

Apple music is for music enthusiasts and Spotify is for casual listeners. While Apple Music believes that this is their advantage, it is Spotify’s key differentiator. And it could decide the future of streaming.

By design (according to Jimmy Iovine), Apple Music makes it difficult to discover music. He believes that the service should exist for music lovers; Spotify is quite the opposite. The platform’s entire user experience is designed around (1) the promotion of artist discovery and (2) amplifying pop music’s inertia. Either you’re learning something new, thanks to their algorithmic and manually-curated playlists or you’re being steered towards the songs that are popular. Apple deemphasizes discovery, in this way.

Spotify’s ability to overcome Apple’s recent and notable growth will hinge on the service aligning their brand with exclusive partnerships. The platform’s defensibility will be closely tied to their faculty to “sell” their product. While this is of little surprise, Spotify’s future may be influenced by how it sells content and physical products.

Brands have sounds too

Screen Shot 2018-09-17 at 10.36.45 AM
One of dozens of user-generated playlists.

There’s a vibe when you walk into Ralph Lauren’s restaurant in downtown Chicago. The walls are mapped in gold framing, velvet, and vintage pictures of anyone who’s ever worn a tuxedo and evening gown well. But something sticks with you long after you leave, the restaurant’s music.

In a conversation with Lean Luxe founder Paul Munford, he had this to say about his effort to build his media brand through music playlists:

Keeps people engaged, keeps things interesting and fresh. Gives folks something cool to listen to each week under the LL banner. Keeps the brand top of mind in that way. It’s not a huge thing but is just another plot point for the brand that adds to the total sum, so to speak. Plus, it’s fun. I don’t think people are used to media or publications behaving this way. But that’s not to say the interest for publications to do more things like this isn’t there. You never know until you try.

Browse Spotify for your favorite retail brands and it’s possible that the brand will have some presence in the app, whether through an official brand playlist or – more commonly – as a fan-generated project. You’ll find “The Glossier Megamix”, “Ralph Lauren Classy”, “Lululemon Spring 2018”, and dozens of lists devoted to Victoria’s Secret. Spotify has a unique opportunity here. More and more brands are using playlists to shape their brand image. Music can provide a halo effect that helps to keep retailers at the top of consumer minds.

2PM Data

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August 2018 on Spotify: “Lucid Dreams” and “In my Mind” bolstered by Spotify playlists
Screen Shot 2018-09-17 at 11.15.10 AM
Method for music discovery (United States: 2018)

Growing playlist spins through partnership

Given Spotify’s recent decision to secure exclusive podcast partnerships with two celebrities, it’s clear that partnerships are on the executive team’s whiteboard. But this isn’t just about performers and brand evangelists aligning with Spotify. Spotify takes pride in experimentation and, as such, the company is primed to take a page out of Apple Music’s original playbook. The streaming service could make great progress by emphasizing its partnership division.

By the time a song lands on Today’s Top Hits or other equally popular sets, Spotify has so relentlessly tested it that it almost can’t fail. “There are very few artists that get into the flagship playlists and then get kicked out,” Holmsten says. When “Call On Me” made that list, it was already destined to go viral—even though most people had still never heard it.

WIRED: on the power of Spotify’s playlists

Spotify has been somewhat of a kingmaker for independent artists and on-the-bubble pop stars. To amplify this effort, Spotify is overdue to take a page out of the direct-to-consumer marketing playbook. Here are the top proposed partnerships with physical “retailers.”

By attaching discovered music to positive, physical retail experiences, Spotify can amplify a key performance indicator (KPI): repeat listens of new and popular music. Here are a few ideas:

  • Orange Theory | OT has earned a network of over 1,400 locations and a loyal following of fitness enthusiasts and business travelers.
  • Core Yoga | This studio is known for its unique practice and a franchise network of over 160 locations.
  • Soho House | The famed members-only club has 50,000 members and a unique vibe in each of its 23 locations.
  • WeWork | Their offices manage 100,000+ members and over 10,000,000 sq. ft. of workspace.
  • Delta Airlines | known for its pre-flight track list, the premium airliner has the ability to set the mood and the wifi for the Spotify deep-dive to continue throughout the flight.

By generating playlist spins through these locations, Spotify can accomplish two things: (1) generate more revenue for artists and (2) convince artists to sign exclusive deals by way of guaranteed minimum spins per month based upon estimated engagement times at Spotify’s potential retail partners.

Apple Music is catching up to Spotify’s by building a competitive advantage into its hardware; the Cupertino company has grown despite glaring weaknesses in the app’s user experience. Spotify may not be able to ship hardware like its chief competitor but that doesn’t mean that it cannot partner with physical retailers. They can redefine their approach to hardware. Beyond their superior engineering, Spotify’s chief advantages could be their partnerships with retail spaces, up-and-coming musicians, and exclusive content offerings. Spotify has an opportunity to find an advantage where Apple has yet to look.  Spotify’s CEO says it best,

I think long term, we at Spotify have some defensible moats, but success for us will be determined by our ability to move faster than everyone else in the space. And just keep on innovating.

Read more of the issue here.

By Web Smith | About 2PM