Content Is No Longer King

This article was selected from Ben Elowitz’s Media Success newsletter as a special feature for AllThingsD’s Voices column.

“Content is king” has been a long-lived mantra of media. And in the 1990s and early 2000s, it was true.

But over the last several years, the Internet has upheaved the aphorism.

It used to be that media was linear. And in that world, content and distribution were married. The HBO channel had HBO content. A New York Times subscription bought you New York Times content. And Vogue and Cosmopolitan each month delivered exclusive and proprietary content from … Vogue and Cosmopolitan.

Until the Internet came along. In every single one of the varied businesses the Internet has touched — from commerce to media to communications to payments — there has been one common impact: disaggregation.

Content and distribution have parted

In the case of the hundreds-of-years-old media business, the Internet has fundamentally separated content from distribution. Today I can watch hundreds of South Park and Jon Stewart clips, all without a cable box — on my Apple TV, my Android phone, or YouTube on my desktop.

But wait, South Park and Jon Stewart? Content is king, you say. It’s now even more free to reign, unfettered by distribution channels!

No; because content is no longer enough. Content has always been a means to an end. And the end has always been audience.

Content isn’t the goal. Audience is.

When it comes to the business of media, there’s no question: advertisers don’t pay to reach content. They pay to reach an audience.

What’s the first item in every brief from every advertiser? It’s not Target Content, it’s Target Audience.

Media has been slow to adjust to this new dynamic. Companies have sunk billions into content management systems — using CMS as the cornerstone of their modernization — under the impression that they traffic in content.

But they don’t. They traffic in audience. And how much have they spent on audience development systems? Not much, if any at all.

Now that distribution of content to audience is no longer linear, distribution decisions are suddenly more complicated. And, at the same time, they are immensely more important — and more dynamic — to create the impact media companies are looking for: drawing an audience! Social distribution can outperform search, if you use it wisely. Day-parting your postings can boost post performance by 100 percent or more. Packaging can triple the effectiveness of content in reaching an audience.

And yet, few in media have even begun to optimize these decisions.

Who’s your Chief Audience Officer?

Distribution decisions are just as important as content decisions in building and serving an audience, and yet they are being largely ignored. Everyone has an Editor-In-Chief or a Chief Creative Officer. But how many have a Distributor-In-Chief? Or a Chief Audience Officer? A Head of Digital Programming?

The myopic focus on content over distribution is widespread, and it’s a bad business decision. It ignores a critical access of leverage, and one of competitive advantage.

The smartest media companies will do three things to take control of their digital opportunity:

1. Put someone in charge of audience development.
Give them latitude to think about the interplay between distribution and content, so that they can marry the two. Like a head of programming for a cable network, they should be tasked to realize the full potential of your digital channels. They should support the delivery of your content, and they should also provide back pressure to your content creators. Don’t merge it into your editorial jobs — that’s too precarious. Make it its own discipline.

2. Adopt an audience development strategy.
There are three basic components you have to master: insights (know your audience segments, and what each one will like); channel selection (identify the highest value distribution outlets for your brand, whether it’s search, social, YouTube, Hulu, or your own channels); and optimization (use data to create a feedback loop and tune your content, packaging, and timing to what works for your audience).

3. Systematize it.
You have sunk millions into content management systems. But how much have you spent on your most monetizable asset, your audience? You should be as systematic in audience development as you are in content creation, if not more so. Whether it’s with established processes or dedicated algorithms, make audience development a competitive advantage. Get so good at it that you truly know how to maximize every piece of content you create — and multiply your ROI. Use technology for what it does best: Systematize your advantages over your competitors.

With the rise of new distribution platforms like Facebook, YouTube and Hulu, there’s no question that the next generation of digital media is as much about distribution as it is about content. Media companies that orient their organizations to prize audience development above all (with distribution as a key component) will catch the upside of these tectonic shifts. And they will be the ones that survive and thrive in the digital age. After all, audience is the ruler of media companies’ fortunes.

9 thoughts on “Content Is No Longer King

  1. I really like this Ben, so thanks for sharing. My own experience in print media has taught me that we are nothing but audience creators and while content is the key to that it is indeed the audience that should come first. A clear view on Who your audience is, or should be, where they might be currently and how you might get to them are the critical questions to ask before even considering a content strategy….thanks for sharing

  2. Not entirely sure I agree here Ben. Audience is important, but context of content consumption is king. No reason you can’t separate content from distro, but retain context. 

    • Thanks John. The context is completely important – and that’s because it’s part of the experience for the audience. Media, at its best, doesn’t give audiences content, but gives them experiences. Those are soooo much more valuable than just content. It’s a good point that creating context and experiences, not just delivering content, needs to be part of the “audience development” strategy for every media company.

  3. i think you have the trend exactly backwards – although i heartily agree with your 3 principles of taking control of the digital opportunity, assuming your goal is to build your own distribution platform – my argument is simply that perhaps that shouldnt be your core competency.  distribution has now been largely solved, and distribution platforms are now competing on content (see netflix, hulu, and youtube).  what this means to me, is that the way to survive for an original content producer is to partner on distribution and focus on your content.  don’t try to build a distribution platform that competes with youtube, cut a custom original content partner deal with them while they’re still available, and let google’s ad sales team sell to advertisers.  this is the trend i see from my perspective, and some of the most respected and innovative content producers (la blogotheque’s takeaway shows, for example) are going down this road – at least as a trial.  i believe youtube’s custom channel partnerships with content producers for exclusive original content is a game changer.  why would anyone try to compete and spend resources building their own distribution network, if you can cut a deal with youtube to do a lot of that work for you?  it’s like being one of the first 100 cable channels.  the model is reverting back to the way the industry has always worked: content creation is separate from distribution is separate from ad sales.  

    just because distribution is ‘free’ on the internet, doesn’t mean anyone will show up to your standalone website to watch videos…

    • Ross, I don’t think most media companies have a real distribution strategy at all. Far too many are just throwing so much against the wall to see what sticks. SEO! Videos on YouTube! Fan pages! iOS Apps! Android!!! Who the heck knows which ones will work? They don’t – they just try em and see what happens. The opportunity is NOT to create your own new platforms. Rather, it’s to get in control of ALL the channels at your disposal, and start optimizing each one of them instenad of just throwing a project against it for a few months and moving on to the next. The YouTube channels are a brilliant example. None of the companies participating would create all that content and just throw it up on YouTube without getting something in return – specifically, a direction from YouTube that they will promote that content in their own audience development system. –Ben

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