Wetpaint CEO Ben Elowitz on the Future of Digital Media
This week at the All Things D D9 conference, I found myself telling people that lately I’ve been “tricoastal.” It’s a codeword I’m enjoying for the rotation I have been doing between the Bay Area, Los Angeles, and New York. I seem to run between the three of them continually, as I’m trying to put together my best thinking about the future of media. And, despite the time, expense, and hassle of the travel, I keep finding that blending the three of them is far more powerful than if I spent time in any one of them. And if I didn’t visit all three frequently, I wouldn’t just be facing the catastrophic loss of super elite status on multiple airliner, nor innumerable calls from my mother asking “where are you and are you wearing a sweater??”. Far worse, I’d be missing an accurate picture of media.
My company, Wetpaint, has its roots in Silicon Valley. The Valley is great for its appreciation of the mechanics of digital media. In fact, it’s obsessed with them. The Bay Area practically invented the word “virality,” and it understands distribution – both through search engines and social networks, and from person to person – far better than others. At least at a mechanical level. The Bay Area culture is left-brained; it celebrates analytics, tactics, and leverage created by software and automation to get nonlinear results from human efforts. However, it is blind to the art of content and the realities of the advertising business. It assumes that both of these can be deconstructed successively into analytical components; that all actors are rational; and that these are systems problems, not human problems. But these assumptions are all patently false in media.
New York, on the other hand, recognizes the art of editorial and the less predictable, more spontaneous nature of the consumer. The iconic titles of companies like Conde Nast, and their personality-driven cultures, seem to have established a reverence for the editor-monarch with perfect knowledge, and have embedded a culture of royalty based on editorial superiority that translates into sales prowess. And that last component is met by New York’s enormous advertising machine, which operates based on a currency of relationships and perks.
But it’s Los Angeles that impresses me even more for being image-obsessed. Hollywood’s influence seems to understand the value of brands the best – that brands are greater than the sum of their parts. The LA mentality, however, assumes that content creators have captive distribution – as they do in broadcast and cable TV channel agreements and movie theater agreements. It assumes that once a brand is launched it becomes a pipe through which you can shove whatever content you want, like a cable channel, as though the lead-in and lead-out are guaranteed. And it carries an assumption that brand franchises have immense value to be tapped and negotiated by dealmakers.
In truth, digital media doesn’t operate this way. No distribution is guaranteed. Just as LA has seen the record companies crumbling under disaggregation, now it is happening to other forms of digital content. Published content online needs to find its audience one “single” at a time. The brand value of the collection, while still significant, no longer carries guaranteed distribution online. And the personalities linked to that content no longer have the star-power that an Anna Wintour or Tina Brown have been able to create in the New York model.
None of which is to say that the Silicon Valley mechanists are right, either. They aren’t. Their mechanical analysis of the universe doesn’t survive contact with humanity.
Instead, what I love to find every time I tour is how these pieces fit together.
If you’re not practicing the art of content that the New York media is best at, then you are creating a bunch of meaningless drivel that will never deserve the loyalty of a branded relationship. That branded relationship is the exact mantra of LA’s movie franchise creators; and yet, the distribution mentality of LA (that you can own a captive channel) is all wrong. Instead, I find that the Silicon Valley mindset of each item needing to find its audience – and then self-lubricate for viral distribution – complements it best. And this, then, reinforces the fact that it all starts with the NYC notion of content, in contrast to Silicon Valley’s algorithmic bias that it’s all about the technology.
By putting the three together, we end up with a complete picture of media – content, mechanics, and brands all working together – and that combination is one that represents how the audience behaves, with human drives around interest, engagement, and loyalty.