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.

The Coming Video War Between Apple and Google

This follows my recent post about how a new TV interface from Apple could decimate the television landscape.

Even though Steve Jobs never talked about changing the face of search with Siri, its natural language interface.

But doing so would certainly be a riveting Hollywood screenplay in which Jobs, the uber-innovative, uber-inventive CEO, ultimately gets revenge on a corporate rival he views as a “copy cat.”

In this fictional script, that rival would be Eric Schmidt, one of the top executives at search giant Google. It’s Google, after all, that’s breathing down Apple’s neck with its rapidly expanding Android phone platform – a platform that, according to Jobs and his lawyers, mimics Apple’s breakthrough iPhone technology.

Putting this Oscar dream aside, there’s intensifying competition heating up between Apple and Google, even though Jobs is –sadly – no longer on the scene.

Indeed, even though Google has had voice-enabled search for some time on iOS and Android devices, Schmidt has said it’s possible that Siri could be a real and radical game-changer.

Schmidt may be right.  And if he is, then Google will be facing a serious threat as Apple reinvents Google’s home turf of search.

With a “personality” that displays a unique understanding of humanity, Siri’s digital chromosomes enrich the user’s experience. This sets it apart from Google’s more mechanical offerings, and shows why Apple’s consumer-obsessed culture is so different from Google’s corporate DNA, which is as robotic and algorithmic as the “Android” name suggests.

There is rich irony here, as Apple disintermediates the greatest disintermediator of all time.  When Google’s superior search service started, it practically single-handedly reduced the brand-driven experience that consumers had thereto relied on with directories and a fully editorialized Web.  Google replaced those channels and home pages with 10 blue links.  And in the process, became users’ destination of first resort 13 times per day.

And Apple has always been a curator extraordinaire – developing collections and exercising famous (and occasionally notorious) judgment to determine who deserves to be in its directories of songs and apps.

But now, Siri stands ready to flatten the world of entertainment.

In all fairness, Page and his team are now trying hard to enrich the user experience by aligning their YouTube brand with media companies like Disney, and doling out big dollars for proprietary programming. The hope here is that YouTube can create dozens of lucrative user-friendly / user-favorite Web channels featuring comedians, sports stars, musicians and other entertainers.  The company is building stocks of its ‘own’ media weapons in preparation for the coming war.

But, as always, it will be hard for Google to win the hearts of consumers when it comes to content; and it will be especially daunting because Apple is already so completely connected to users.

Meanwhile, with its enviable consumer connection, Apple will undoubtedly extract a toll from media companies, who still want to bathe in the warm digital light that emanates from the inviting and engaging brand Jobs built.  And, as it has in every other media category, Apple stands to capture an outsize share of profits for delivering content into a magical consumer experience.

Jealous much, Google?

With Siri TV, Apple Will Dismantle the TV Networks

This article was published as a guest post at All Things D, and is republished here for DigitalQuarters readers.

Steve Jobs died without fully transforming television, but the day after he passed away, Apple unveiled Siri, its natural language interface. Though it’s currently only embedded in the new iPhone 4S, Siri could eventually change the face of the TV industry.

Notice I said “TV industry.”

But from my perspective, Siri’s greatest impact won’t ultimately be on users, or on device manufacturers (though they certainly risk losing market share to Apple). It will be on the TV industry’s content creators and packagers. Why? Because a voice-controlled television interface will fundamentally disrupt the six-decade-old legacy structure of networks, channels and programs. And that’s a legacy that — until now, at least — has been carried forward from analog to digital.Most observers and analysts believe that Siri’s voice commands could eliminate the need for those clunky TV remote controls. With the blurring and exponential proliferation of television and Web content, telling your TV what you’d like to watch, instead of scrolling through a nearly infinite number of program possibilities, makes a lot more sense.

There’s an important underlying precedent here.

If the Internet can be generalized to have one effect across every industry that moves online, that effect would be disaggregation. Choices go from finite to infinite. Navigation goes from sequential to random access. And audiences choose content by the item far more than by the collection. We’ve gone from the packaged and channelized to the unbound and itemized. Autonomous albums are fragmented into songs; series into clips; and magazines and newspapers into articles and individual photos.

As much as we may think that has already happened with video, it is nothing compared to the great leveling that will occur in the voice-controlled living room. Voice-controlled TV means direct navigation to individual episodes, programs and clips. And it will almost certainly lead to a discernible deconstruction of the network and channel structure — not to mention the decomposition of even the aggregated marketplaces like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube.

Here’s the simple reason: No one is going to sit on their couch and say, “Siri, show me NBC’s ‘Community.’” In a voice-activated world, monikers like “NBC” become useless. They don’t stand for anything meaningful to the consumer. They’re just remnants of a decrepit channel structure that’s unraveling. And, in the end, they’ll simply connote the fast-fading allure of mid-20th century mass appeal.

To be sure, the TV majors will lose much of their ability to realize network effects. Already, you’re hearing less about “lead in” and “lead out.” What you are hearing more about, however, is disconnected videos. A program on YouTube, for instance, will sit on a level voice-controlled playing field with an NBC show, and that field will soon become even more level, because Siri will eliminate the menus that structure the artificial hierarchies of content collections.

So how will we be able to get network effects back in video? Let’s look at four possible ways:

  • Branded Content — Players can build a strong brand that stands for something with their audiences. Break.com, Discovery and Oprah are all meaningful and build long-term customer loyalty. (“Siri, show me new TED Talks.”)
  • Curation — Brand the collection with a curation strategy so that the curator’s name and stamp of approval means something to the audience. (“Siri, show me Jason Hirschhorn’s latest movie suggestions.”)
  • Social — In the fully social world that we expect to see, focusing on the virality of content means you tap the human distribution network and social operating system. (“Siri, show me what videos my friends are watching.”)
  • Personal — We’ve already seen the extraordinary value of well-tuned personalized recommendations, with Netflix’s notable prize and other famed stories of the benefits of great recommendations. Increasingly, our own patterns of individual videos and the brands we affiliate with, along with recommendations from friends, will be combined into personalized recommendations we won’t even have to ask for. I have no doubt that Siri will be as good a “Genius” as iTunes is at recommending what else to watch. Ultimately, in the age of data, whoever knows the most about us will be able to give us the best experience.

Beyond disaggregation, personalization is ultimately the most powerful consumer value of digital media. My mother’s TV experience was to walk over to her TV set and turn a dial to select among three channels to satisfy her individuality. But in the next generation, no two people will receive the same recommendations from the millions of content choices available.

Before he died, Jobs now famously told Walter Isaacson, his biographer, that he had finally cracked the TV code. It’s unclear what Jobs meant, what this entailed or what he thought it would lead to in the years to come. So, barring further posthumous disclosure, Jobs’s own predictions of his ripple effects will be a media mystery for now.

One thing that’s clear, though, is that Jobs’s Siri will start the dismantling — or creative destruction — of the TV industry as we’ve known it for the last 60 years.

SOS – The Social Operating System

Facebook F8 has made clear that the digital world is now powered by social operating systems.  It’s all changed.  The below post was previously published at paidContent, and is republished here for DigitalQuarters readers.

SOS – The Social Operating System

How the Social Web Has Rewired the Digital World From the Ground Up

In the wake of Facebook’s F8 mega-event, with its parade of product, feature, and platform announcements, I’m struck by the recent major inflection that has social networking penetrating more and more completely into our digital lives.

Indeed, social networking has moved from something that’s a destination activity, to something that is ever-present throughout every digital experience.  And, no doubt, Facebook will continue this rapid progression.

My awareness that social networks have seriously and profoundly journeyed into our lives began with the startling statistics that I published in June:  the searchable Web is shrinking (by 9% in consumers’ monthly time spent over a recent one year period); while the social Web is growing (with a matching 69% increase in time spent on Facebook specifically).

But the change has since intensified, as Facebook’s share of consumer attention has increased even further, and as Web sites the world over race to recruit Facebook “fans” and “likes.”

In addition, the trendline has also become increasingly clear and sharply etched in recent months with the LinkedIn IPO; and with the Google+ Project, as even mighty Google vies for relevance as a social fabric that helps weave our world together.

Putting it all together, I’m seeing a restructuring of the stack: a new layering of how media is created, distributed, and experienced, different from the first generation of the Internet.

It’s the rise of what I’ve come to view as the “social operating system (Social OS).”  And I think it changes everything for media and other companies online.

The New Way News Travels

Unlike the analog world, where content and distribution companies have largely fixed channels (licensed spectrum; contracted cable distribution; stable subscription bases; theater outlets; and other distribution power), digital content isn’t channelized.  It’s itemized.

That means digital content has to earn an audience – item by item.  The first generation of digital media publishers turned to search engine optimization to solve that, with an endless and constantly escalating set of editorial and technical tricks to bait search algorithms to rank them highly.  This became de rigeur for every digital publisher; even as it spawned an arms race to find an audience.

But now that social is ubiquitous, the nature of distribution changes for media companies.  And now, instead of having to reinvent the distribution wheel every day for every page, publishers can rely on a system far more powerful than the search engine to sort, select, and rank content.  That system is part human, and part technology – but it is 100% social.

The Social OS sits at the boundary between content and the people who consume it.  It provides a layer of functionality that lets Web companies focus on their unique content and the experiences that they offer – while earning distribution, not via channels, but via people.  And, in the process, they earn, not a mechanistic relationship with an algorithm, but a real relationship with their audience.

None of this was possible until very recently.

The Internet was too immature: both in terms of technology, and audience. Indeed, it’s only since this decade started that we’ve had the social network and mobile technology in combination with literally billions of users online; this mix lets people connect to each other, and allows content to flow effortlessly from one consumer to the next.

And it’s this combination of technology (networks like Facebook and Twitter); content (with providers like Apple, NetFlix, and YouTube, not to mention the hundreds of blogs and media companies); and, most significantly, real people online to spread all that goodness, which makes the Social OS work.

The New Common Medium For Transmission

That’s why each Social OS is defined, first and foremost, by who’s on it, and what the connections mean.  But beyond that, each social operating system can make identity, personal information and interests, relationships, and other data and actions available to applications.  And third, and most importantly, is the role of the Social OS as distributor.  Because Social OS’s have transformed the primary navigational coordinates of the Web from document-to-document links to person-to-person, the Social OS becomes the medium for propagation.

As recently as a few years ago, large media companies saw some parts of this wave coming, and they thought the answer was for each of them to build their own proprietary social network.  But relationships between people aren’t proprietary to media; rather, they are the conduits through which all media travels.

And that puts in perspective what Mark Zuckerberg recently said, about how media is the next big application for his Facebook Social OS:

“Some of the earliest examples we’ve seen are with games.  It just leads to massive disruption.  And I think, over the next 2, 3 years, we’re going to start to see that in more and more industries, and the next ones I would expect are going to be media-type industries.”

Or, as we say at my company, Wetpaint, we are becoming the Zynga of publishing, leveraging social operating systems like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to build a powerful media business on top of them.

Reinventing the Media Industry For a Social World

The rise of the social operating system has two implications for old (and even some new) media companies, who are mostly still trying to figure out what to do with all this.  If the idea isn’t to be a social network, then how do they use Social OS’s to make their business more successful?

Social maven Jonah Peretti, co-founder of Huffington Post and CEO of BuzzFeed, points out that different social networks specialize in different content:  Facebook users share “what you want your friends to think you like … content you can wear as a badge of honor,” while Twitter is a platform for topic curators and wholesalers in the information trade, and LinkedIn has a strictly professional domain.

For its part, YouTube has its own character: with most consumption anonymous, it’s largely an open public repository, and much of the networking that forwards YouTube videos from person to person happens via email, Facebook, and other networks.

And, as Google gets into the fray with its Google+ Project, presumably it is meant to specialize in closed groups, when full public exposure isn’t in order. If it works, it will likely find its best traction in topics like health & wellness, parenting, or certain hobbies.

For media companies, the key is knowing which Social OS’s to bet on; and then tuning content, packaging and distribution for them.

For celebrity entertainment and gossip at Wetpaint, we know Facebook is a natural match for mass consumer promotion.  On the other hand, for industry analysis, like my blog posts, I’m not surprised that Facebook is relatively unimportant:  for most of my readers, my posts wouldn’t fit in among family photos and Farmville accomplishments.  Twitter and LinkedIn do far better for heady topics like the future of media.

High Stakes:  The Future of an Industry

The last decade of audience fragmentation and content de-bundling on the Internet has ravaged media, particularly in a world characterized by fierce competition for the love of Google’s robots.

When Mark Zuckerberg recently spoke at a Facebook event in Seattle, he said:

“The last 5 years have been about connecting all these people. The next 5 years are going to be about all the crazy things you can do now that these people are connected, and I think it’s going to be cool.”

In a world powered by social operating systems, the prize is that, when we execute well, we get to be hooked into people’s lives.  Media companies can earn constant places in consumers’ newsfeeds, along with a button asking them to consider sharing their experience every time they see us. I think that’s going to be cool.

 

 

 

Online Experience for Publishers: Innovate or Die

We need an experience revolution.Revolution Fist

Each week, we hear of major publications and traditional broadcasters who are struggling to stay afloat in a digital age with new economics and new expectations.  Despite the promise of interactivity made with the internet revolution over the last 15 years, most publishers have done little more than replicate dead trees online, with zero innovation beyond the hyperlink, the slideshow, and an embedded video now and then.

And yet we can see from the rising successes of the last decade like Facebook, Google, Zynga, YouTube, and others that what catches audience attention is interactivity.

To earn loyal audiences today, publishers need to go beyond content creation:  they need to produce compelling experiences that distinguish them and get the consumer coming back for more.  The Pew Internet & American Life Project concluded that “when asked whether they have a favorite online news source, the majority of online news users (65%) say they do not.”  In an era where the consumer’s cost to switch is the flick of a click, publishers must offer compelling, differentiated experiences to earn loyalty.  Choices abound consumers:  there are scads of publishers online in every category; content suggestions offered constantly via social networks; and blue links proffered by search engines dozens of times per day per reader.  In an environment of choice, as brand experts have known for years, nothing builds loyalty like a great experience.

And now is the perfect time to create those breakthrough experiences.  The enabling technologies for the digital customer experience have improved considerably in recent years: we now have ubiquitous broadband, flash and other streaming video, plus HTML5 and maturing mobile application platforms.   Add to that personalization, targeting and social graph access, and there are some amazing opportunities to innovate.

It’s not just consumers that are thirsty for upgraded experiences.  Advertisers are showing that they will pay more for immersive interaction over basic display ads next to text.   Video ads during full TV episodes on ABC.com, Hulu, and others, or mid-day live sporting broadcasts command many times the CPM of typical display ads. Indeed, according to Michael Learmonth at AdAge, The Wall Street Journal’s online video content is bringing in envy-inspiring CPMs at $75 – $100.

But video is not the only way to create an immersive customer experience online.  Online sites of traditional publishers like Better Homes and Gardens are experience train wrecks (to be fair, they’re not alone in that regard).   Contrast that with the much more successful (certainly from an ad rate perspective) MarthaStewart.com which has many of the same elements – a top stories slideshow, cross-promotions for the print magazine, etc., and it’s a substantially better experience due to the focus on design and usability that is expected of the Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO) brand.

Even still, much more can be done with today’s technology to put the consumer’s needs and interests first.  The latest example I’ve seen of true creativity in user experience design is Microsoft’s (MSFT) Glo.    There are additional signs of greatness in the tablet demo that Time Warner (TWX) built for its Sports Illustrated brand.   And The New York Times (NYT) continues to excel in their applications and interactive graphics which enjoy significant pass around (bit.ly shows over 5,000 social media clicks to a recent budget infographic and today’s “A Moment in Time” project has already generated over 100 tweets in the first 15 hours).  But too few companies are making similar efforts to distinguish themselves.  The opportunities are there, and we need to step up.

Consumers will decide which brands deserve their loyalty and content alone won’t cut it.  We are on the brink of a total revolution of experience.  For publishers, it’s reinvent or fail.

Do you know additional examples of publishers innovating?

The New Rules For Judging ‘Quality’ In Published Content

This article by Ben Elowitz originally appeared as a guest post on paidContentEngaging Readers Online

Last week, I explained why the traditional ways of judging “quality” in published content are useless in the digital age. Judging by readers response to that piece, those dated values (which I labeled credential, correctness, objectivity and craftsmanship) are still sacred to many people. But here’s the problem: They simply aren’t enough to win audiences, drive financial success, or, for that matter, ensure viability. The demise of institutions like Newsweek proves that—and shows that publishers that don’t move beyond these anachronistic measures of success will perish.

So this week, I’m offering part two of my take on the changing definition of quality in published content. Here are the four new rules of quality that publishers must obey to flourish. The biggest difference between the old and new definitions of quality are who’s doing the judging. In the era of Publishing 1.0, when production costs were high, alternatives low and time ample, the editor deemed something quality or not. But today, content isn’t scarce at all—in fact, it is in oversupply. And it is the audience that judges quality directly, dozens of times per day.

So, according to the audience, what is quality?  It comes down to these four characteristics:

Relevance. Continue reading