6 Lessons For the Key Players In New Media

This post was originally as a contributed piece to Fortune.  It is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

Tech’s top firms — from Apple and Google to Amazon and Netflix — are vying to reshape media with different game plans. Here’s what they each need to know.

Digital media has the power to change the world. Actually mastering this 21st century business (and art) is unbelievably hard, however. That begs the question: The top media companies all know they need to make changes — but how do they find the right change and execute well? Let’s look at this question through the lens of six key players in the digital media revolution.

Apple (AAPL): Transform the rest of our digital experience.
It may seem arrogant to give advice to the one company that has surprised everyone again and again by being light years ahead of the industry — as well as the consumer. Yet, in a new era of leadership, the most important thing for Apple will be holding on to Jobs’ core values and strength. As corporate leaders go, Jobs was always the best change agent on the planet, and he was never willing to accept the status quo. That’s why Apple is a perennial leader when it comes to devices and distribution for premium media content like music and movies.

The Apple crew must extend its golden touch to the rest of the digital media device world. It’s time to supply the living room with a first-class TV experience; and to seamlessly flow all entertainment between the mobile, iPad, TV, and desktop worlds. AirPlay, iCloud, and AppleTV aren’t all the way there yet. Apple’s next challenge is to make devices that leap forward and bring entertainment and applications wherever I am, and to know me as one person across all of these environments. To do so — and to do so well — will take a huge imagination. And, even without Jobs himself, it’s clear that if anyone can do it, it’s still Apple.

Facebook: Be everywhere the consumer is.
More than any other company on the Web — even Apple — Facebook has changed the nature of digital experiences. It’s already established itself as the dominant social operating system for consumer audiences. And yet it has the potential to go much, much farther. If you need more proof, just this month Facebook announced that it will be facilitating the spread of mobile applications, not to mention linking into them — finally bridging the gap between Web and app. It’s invading Apple iOS’ and Google Android’s territory, providing the cross-application linkages that have always unequivocally been the job of an operating system.

Increasingly, Facebook has the opportunity to wire consumers, applications, data and devices together. But for Facebook to do this, Mark Zuckerberg will need the kind of imagination that Steve Jobs had. Indeed, Zuckerberg will have to imagine a whole new ecosystem, this time one where Facebook facilitates all connectivity. He’s proven he can execute already. But can he take on a vision this big?

Google (GOOG): “What got you here won’t get you there.”
This trademark phrase from Wetpaint COO Rob Grady is particularly apt in Google’s case. Google is the undisputed king of finding answers to questions — as long as they’re being asked from desktop and laptop computers. But when it comes to applying its great search strength to mobile environments, tablet devices and communications, Google is still lost. While the Android operating system is clearly one of the winners, it doesn’t give Google the essential financial success in mobile that it has on the desktop. Google needs to reinvent itself. It needs to make a bold “burn-the-bridges” move, adopting a Reed Hastings-like philosophy that the company cannot rely on search alone. Only, in Google’s case, it’s even harder.

Here’s why: Hastings had already clearly identified the next wave’s product at Netflix (NFLX) — streaming video over the Internet — but Google has to find a new vision altogether. This is not to say that Google needs to exit the search market by any means. But, instead, it must reinvent its own search portfolio, the way Intel (INTC) reinvented the microprocessor generation after generation, always allowing its newest chip to put the last one out of business, before the competition did. Indeed, Intel’s sustained success was built, in part, on destroying what worked and replacing it with something that worked even better. Google’s new vision should surely have three components: mobile, search and social. The good news is that, thanks to Android, Google already has A+ platforms to build on the first two.

But search needs to get beyond the query box, and the mobile device can be more than a phone plus PDA. Google’s challenge — and its opportunity — is to reinvent it as a completely connected device that is woven into the fabric of daily living. It should know where I am, who I’m with, and what I’m doing — or at least have some educated guesses. It should make the next interface leap that helps us leave the thumbs behind. And, it should be a digital companion that picks up on environmental cues and helps me live my digital life. Siri has opened our imagination; but Google has amazing voice recognition, algorithmic and platform strength to accomplish these things. Now it sorely needs to understand people. That’s the most pressing — and most problematic — task for Larry Page and his team in 2012.

Amazon (AMZN): Fully bridge digital media and commerce.
If Facebook is the ultimate platform for social connectivity, it’s pretty clear that Amazon should be the ultimate platform for media and commerce. Amazon has already made amazing progress in redefining itself. It started as a bookseller, became a retailer, began representing other retailers and, most importantly, has morphed into a media and device company. And, as if that’s not enough, its Web Services power tons of other companies that make the Internet fascinating.

That said, a scattershot approach won’t help Amazon become the single defining platform that bridges digital media and commerce. Amazon has tremendous assets in its catalogue, in terms of both physical and digital goods. And it also has devices that give it a unique channel to the consumer — for the time being, at least. But to fulfill its true potential, Amazon needs to extend its platform all the way to commercial transactions, wherever they happen.

Beyond digital goods, Amazon should be working on digital currency and customer management; an acquisition of Square would be a tremendous accelerator here, and it would ultimately help Jeff Bezos and his team power transactions wherever in the world they take place. What Facebook is to our social transactions, Amazon should be to our commercial ones — an OS for commerce. Indeed, Amazon has the opportunity to provide OpenTable-like services, for all commerce, not just for the restaurant industry. It’s already got the goods and the customer relationships. <ow it just needs the focus on the bigger opportunity.

Yahoo (YHOO): Decide what the brand really stands for.
On one hand, Yahoo is the most impressive all-digital media company there is. It has tremendous access to a huge audience of consumers, a broad product portfolio, an unrivaled heritage as a first-generation superstar and a unique reach into Asia. And yet, it’s also the most disappointing digital media company in the marketplace, so much so that its brand increasingly stands for nothing in particular to most of its audience.

Of late, attention has been focused on Yahoo from a financial point of view. But whoever eventually buys the company must look beyond integration, splitting and cost cutting. Instead, the acquirer will have to figure out what to do with Yahoo’s core. And it all comes down to one key question: What can Yahoo provide to its audience to earn their attention every day?

To date, the hook has been email. Yahoo Mail is responsible for about 75% of Yahoo’s media traffic. But Yahoo Mail isn’t growing. In the last year, it shrank slightly (<1 %), according to data from comScore. So, for Yahoo, the choices are to innovate in communication to leapfrog Gmail, Skype, and the lot; or else to do the hard work and start figuring out again what Yahoo really stands for. The company has great roots. It has a natural brand for serendipitous discovery, for fun and interesting news to make your day. The bottom line is that Yahoo should be able to execute on both the options listed above, hopefully without waiting for the financial dust to settle.

Washington Post (WPO): Re-inventing media’s most ravaged category.
If we had to name the most ravaged sector of media, it would certainly have to be newspapers. Don Graham recently said the industry is “collapsing.” But, he’s not just watching it happen; he’s actively and energetically intervening. I’ve been incredibly impressed by the way Graham and his team are up for re-inventing the category, especially as I’ve talked to other organizations that are nearly paralyzed. Instead, WaPo is applying the greatest growth trend of the Internet — social media — to its business. With its inordinately valuable and trusted brand at stake in the Washington Post, the risks are clearly high. Rather than acting out of fear, Don and his Chief Digital Officer, Vijay Ravindran, are taking aggressive advantage of opportunities to engage, grow and retain their core audience. At the same time, they’re downshifting to the younger audience that just isn’t buying newspapers. The Washington Post Social Reader is the flagship example, and it’s a bold move to jump ahead of the consumer and create a new experience for people that they didn’t know they needed, all on the social Web. [Full disclosure: My company Wetpaint works with the Post.]

We will see other awesome and amazing talents emerge in digital media over the next decade. These greats-in-the-making will help build on the staggering changes that technological change has wrought.

Are You a Media Company or a Technology Company?

One of the most important questions publishers are grappling with today is whether they oversee a media company or a technology company. In the following article, which appeared originally in my Media Success newsletter and was subsequently republished at AllThingsD, I explain why every media company has to be a technology company. Then I offer several keys to success in the current digital environment, which is dominated by the rise and evolution of the new social Web. Please take a read, and let me know what you think.

Two Truths

Let’s start with two truths.

First, publishers need cutting-edge technology to hook an audience through today’s digital media channels of the Web, mobile, social, and search.

And, second, the breakthrough technology can’t just be about product design – it’s got to go beyond to create distribution advantages on the new connected Web.

One Question

Okay, now that we have the truth out of the way, let me ask you a question:

“Is your company a media company, or a technology company?”

I love getting asked this question.  And every digital media leader I know hates answering it.

Discomfort, Uneasiness, Anxiety, Fear

The uneasiness begins with the mistaken idea that the two are separable.  And they were – back in the 15th century, when Gutenberg first worked his printing magic, and up until a few years ago. But we all know digital technology has inserted itself inextricably into the guts of publishing, replacing ink with bytes and paper with pipes.  And now, over the last two years, technology has transformed the basis of publishers’ relationships with their audience, by connecting them through social operating systems, as we discussed last month.

And yet, our uneasiness escalates to anxiety when we realize we still don’t fully understand the new technology’s potential or impact on our business.

That is a scary thought. 

Technology Drives Media

I think we all need to collectively swallow our fear.  We know every media company must be a technology company today.

In the first generations of digital media, it was easy.  In AOL’s past, technology’s key role was simply to provide basic Internet access over dial-up lines. Today, while that access provides cash flow, it no longer has any strategic value in media.  Similarly, Yahoo’s early technology prowess was applied to create significant products like Yahoo Mail.  But while Mail still drives 73 percent of the audience to Yahoo’s media properties, it won’t secure Yahoo’s future ability to be a great media destination.

These two companies – as well as the rest of us – need to use technology for something more advanced than access and ancillary products. We need to put it right into the heart of media so that we can create breakthrough user experiences and new connections with audiences.

Millions of Ways to Engage

To do that, let’s start by recognizing what’s changed about the medium itself: In analog days, publishers’ products were two-dimensional; and all we had to work with was ink and some paper.  And similarly, distribution was mostly two-dimensional; a subscription list and newsstand sales was all there was to it.

But now, consumers have access to millions of sources at their fingertips, and each one can be rich and interactive, reaching us through several different digital channels.  Both our product experiences and our distribution can be much more intricate – and much more valuable.  And combining the two gives media the chance to do something it’s always aspired to do before, but never been able to.

The Future Will Be Personalized

We have recently become ready for a whole new vision for media.

And that’s giving every audience member the right content in the right place at the right time.

To do this takes a combination of data – from the social operating system – coupled with media’s greatest power, that of creating experiences and distributing them.

To achieve this, though, we need technology to do more than output HTML pages; instead, it has to chaperone customized content to every individual.

This is a big change from the original Internetization of media, which was, like generations of offline media before it: “If you publish it they will come.” That worked when directories like Yahoo and search engines like Google matched consumers to content. But that attitude was passive; and today’s social Web is anything but. So publishers now have the opportunity – and the challenge – of taking charge of their distribution.

The key is using the emerging social Web to get signals from, and connect to, the audience.  And when we do this, we are putting technology in the role of relating uniquely to every consumer in order to create the ultimate experiences they crave.

Now that’s a refreshing concept for media.

Three Ways to Get Ahead

But what does this mean, practically speaking?

I believe the role of technology in media success must embody these three things:

  • Use technology to determine the right content – The social Web offers a wealth of real-time data.  Use it to see what matters to your constituents. Tools like Newsbeat are helpful moment by moment, and article by article. But you have to go further. The great breakthrough of digital media is being able to connect to your audience as individuals, not just in aggregate. No longer do you have to create for a persona or prototypical user; instead, you can create for real users. Media companies need to develop technologies that give them a proprietary edge when it comes to understanding the specific needs of their potential audience; that way, they can serve consumers better. And the opportunities abound. At Wetpaint, my company, for example, we process Twitter, Facebook, Google, and our own site’s data, all in real-time to know what content matters – and to whom.  And yet, we can go much further, to ask and intuit feedback from each user individually. The future is a completely personalized experience from every publisher. It’s not far-fetched; in fact, it mirrors what consumers already patch together with all too much difficulty.
  • Take control of your distribution – Reach consumers with the right content at the right time and place (via Web, mobile, video, social, and search).  Don’t just have your social media team pump the same content from your Web CMS through Facebook and Twitter. Instead, use technology and research to understand the secrets of what works.  Truly engaging your potential audience can improve your results by a factor of two or more.

We’ve already seen this at Wetpaint, and the results are still getting better each week. Our database of everything we publish tracks all the distribution causes and effects, so we know what works. We also pay attention to who the influencers are, with technology that identifies them as well as who their influencers are; and now we’re building a “CRM”-like system to help us know more about these individuals and win them over.

  • Package it into the right experiences – Print is static and flat; but so are too many digital media properties. That’s why I applaud The New York Times for continually looking at how to repackage into mobile apps; and that’s why I like Flipboard, which takes a data-rich, but visually cacophonic, content feed and packages it into an immersive experience.  AOL’s riff of ultimate personalization has impressed me even more:  they’ve recognized that every consumer should get their own Edition – nailing the concept of personalization better than any media approach before. This is the opportunity for each of us now, as we connect with audience members and try to offer them more compelling experiences in return for loyal usage.

Technology Changes Businesses

Let’s circle back to the discussion of whether you’re a media or technology company.

By its very nature, digital publishing is a technical medium. But, beyond that, what makes technology interesting isn’t its ability to carry bits; it’s its ability to change businesses. And we need to change our own by updating our sense of audience, distribution, and experience creation to provide thousands of times more precision than media ever has before.

When we do that, we’re making the content thousands of times more relevant. And I believe that’s how you build a thriving digital media business in the next decade.

 

 

 

 

Xconomy: Facebook, Google and Beyond

A couple of weeks ago, here in Seattle,  I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion about the future of SEO (search engine optimization) and SMO (social media optimization), along with one of the top SEO experts in the world:  Rand Fishkin.  The conversation was a lively one, moderated and reported –by Curt Woodward, at Xconomy.

My view is that – particularly for media – we are at a tipping moment.  The web is no longer a field of static documents navigated by a precise search engine.  Instead it’s a living organic distribution machine from person to person, through the ether of “social operating systems” like Facebook and Twitter.  And, as a result, I expect Google will be losing ground to Facebook.

It’s was a lively and fun dialogue.

Read the highlights and play-by-play here, courtesy of @curtwoodward.

My Tricoastal Media Map

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.

 

 

Let’s Get Real – Blogging Is About Fame, Not Fortune

I have a question for Jonathan Tasini, who is leading a $105 million lawsuit on behalf of thousands of uncompensated bloggers against The Huffington Post.

If you and your litigious colleagues are so good, so valuable, and so organized, why don’t you launch your own online media venture to out-compete HuffPo?

I’m sure you have your reasons – and, of course, initiating a lawsuit is so much easier than starting a digital publishing site from scratch.

But, let’s get real.

Blogging isn’t free-lancing, and it’s hard to imagine that any of the contributors who sent their material to HuffPo ever thought it was. As I wrote several weeks ago, every contributor knew the basis of the transaction: write what you have to say in exchange for being publicized. As always, the prime currency of blogging was fame – not fortune.

So who’s trying to cash in now?

On a broader, more global note: I feel sad for the desperate bloggers who are trying to shake down HuffPo; and I’m deeply sensitive to the fact that  the media world is under pressure and steadily shrinking. But Tasini and his fellow litigants look like starving dogs scrapping for a shred of meat. It’s unseemly and unproductive.

What’s next?

Will Tasini respresent a class action suit against Endemol on behalf of all American Idol contestants, who were totally exploited as they sought super-stardom?

Or will he represent the tens of millions of users in a suit against Facebook, for advertising against their status and Farmville activities?

Both legal moves would make for entertaining blog posts, and I look forward to the juicy reading!

Going Long on the Web

One of the supreme ironies in digital publishing today is that there’s infinite online space, and a desire to read rich and substantive content on mobile devices such as the iPhone or iPad; and yet, there’s still limited long-form multimedia journalism available on the Web.

That’s the subject of a fascinating feature in The New York Times by David Carr.

Always incisive, David focuses on The Atavist, which he describes as “a tiny curio of a business that looks for new ways to present long-form content for the digital age. All the richness of the Web — links to more information, videos, casts of characters — is right there in an app displaying an article, but with a swipe of the finger, the presentation reverts to clean text that can be scrolled by merely tilting the device.”

Since January, The Atavist has had over 40,000 downloads of its app; and it’s also begun conversations with publishers about the possibility of adding nonfiction books to the eclectic mix of stories it now presents.

This nascent success reinforces what I’ve been saying for a long time – give people an enhanced digital content experience, something that’s very special, and they’ll be willing to pay for it.

Good luck to The Atavist, which has the right business model, and the best of reading to all of us.

Media Sites – Facebook’s Beachhead in the War Against Google

Peter Kafka’s very interesting column in All Things Digital reveals that a number of media sites are seeing their referrals from Google decline while those from Facebook increase. Indeed, as a nice chart in Peter’s piece indicates, Google’s influence has diminished among 80 percent of the top media sites in the last year.

This isn’t surprising, and it makes perfect sense to me.

Using martial metaphors (how apt and appropriate these days!), media is the beachhead for Facebook’s entry into all Web browsing and all matching between visitors and what’s visited – and Facebook is quickly taking over that territory from Google.

Think about it.

Media is where it all starts, but certainly not where it ends.

Media sites are the most reactive to serendipity on the Web. And they’re  the most “frictionless” of any product we consume online or off:  The only cost is the click of a finger and a few seconds of load time. It doesn’t cost money to read a link; you don’t have to enter any shipping or billing information; you don’t have wait time while a freight company delivers it; and you don’t need a sharp implement to open it – or a place to put it.

The most viral media consumption is emotionally driven, too. And it  generally offers high entertainment value, and is associated with some urgency because people want to be “in the know” in order to earn social currency. And, finally, like many products, it’s taste-based.

All of this helps explain why Facebook is gaining influence among media sites. And why, whenever Facebook offers a link to a media site that is worthy of consumption, there’s a very high probability that it will, in fact, be consumed.

Commerce sites are the next frontier for Facebook. As I mentioned above, commerce is harder, because there’s more friction, and there are more impediments that get in the way of buying / consuming.

But these are just degrees of friction.

As Facebook gets better at knowing me, who I share taste with, what products I need, and what people like – both people in general and people I’m likely to share taste with – it will be able to overcome that friction.

And, one can easily imagine Facebook doing everything it can to grease the commerce skids by facilitating frictionless login (Facebook Open Graph and Instant Personalization), payment (Facebook Credits), and more to reduce the underlying friction, so that commerce sites will follow closely behind media sites and start leaving the Google orbit.

Google is still driving traffic to many Web sites. But that is clearly changing. And Facebook’s assault is starting to succeed.