The Race to Become the New EPG for Media

This article was published as a guest post in AdAge, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers. 

I wrote not too long ago about Facebook’s potential to become the new Electronic Programming Guide for our digital world.  People check Facebook an average of 14 times per day to see “what’s on” in their lives, and they spend one in and spend one in four minutes of their small-screen time looking for things to like, click, or comment on.  For hundreds of millions of people, Facebook has become the destination of first resort when they have time to go nowhere in particular.

But when it comes to supplanting the good ol’ TV Guide-style program grid in directing our media diets, there are increasing signs that Twitter could get there first.

While Facebook has been building a content strategy in fits and starts, Twitter has been remarkably determined and consistent in their moves toward becoming a hub for all of our entertainment needs.  Did you know that the 5th season of Modern Family premiers next week?  Have you heard the new Britney single?  Are you up on the latest Silicon Valley deal?  If you logged on to Twitter at all today, the answer is most likely yes.

You might counter that the same could be said for Facebook – but the chatter only goes so far.  Facebook contacts may throw out just as many hot tips; but because of Facebook’s decision not to prioritize third-party content partnerships, those hot tips send users away with a link instead of encouraging media consumption within the Facebook platform itself.  That’s where Twitter pulls ahead:  they are actively making deals with key content providers to build out the media experience for users on the Twitter platform.

Partnerships with iTunes, Rdio, and Spotify are a key component of Twitter #Music, an app launched this spring that plays entire tracks (that you discover via your social graph) instantly on demand.  As for news, Twitter has long maintained a good relationship with journalists; and now that they’re hiring a Head of News and Journalism, we can expect an even bigger build-out of the Twitter news experience in the near future.

But it’s in television that Twitter has made the greatest strides – and sees the greatest potential.  Partnerships with ESPN, NCAA, NBA, NASCAR, and MLB (to name just a few) brought video clips from live sports into your Twitter stream, and a recent deal with Viacom allows certain networks to tweet show highlight clips along with video ads to their followers.  And this is most certainly only the beginning:  this year’s acquisition of Bluefin Labs and the high-profile hiring of Google’s Jennifer Prince signal that Twitter is gearing up to become a much, much stronger force in television going forward.

In fact, we don’t even need to read between the lines:  CEO Dick Costolo has been very vocal about his second-screen ambitions.  He sees Twitter as a natural complement to real-time viewing – and that’s where it gets interesting.

Most new technologies in the last decade (TiVo, Netflix, Hulu) have encouraged the trend toward “off-lining”: watch what you want, when you want it.  But Twitter reverses the flow:  activity on Twitter actually drives real-time television viewer tune-in.  It makes sense; if all of your Twitter friends are quipping about the new episode of Real Housewives as it airs, you’re much more likely to turn on the TV so you can join in the conversation.

The tune-in effect has often been a talking point for Twitter execs in attempts to woo television advertisers, but a recent independent study from Nielsen actually confirms the phenomenon:  an increase in Twitter commentary about a show can cause a statistically significant increase in ratings for that show.

This is a big deal for television in a time of declining ratings, and it’s a very big deal for Twitter.  Twitter is the only one who’s come close to making social TV a reality, and recasting the Internet as friend rather than foe to the television industry.  And that is powerful.

Unlike Facebook, Twitter is building a long-term, symbiotic (the data says!) relationship with the major networks.  And the more Twitter can entwine itself with television, the better for their bottom line:  the biggest advertising spend today still belongs to TV, and no new digital media company has been able to siphon a sizable share.  Twitter just might be the one to bridge that gap.

With hundreds of channels on the cable dial, thousands of news outlets, tens of thousands of films available for streaming, and an almost infinite number of other entertainment options online today, media companies are having a hell of a tough time competing for audience attention – and consumers are similarly challenged with an overabundance of choices.  The more Twitter can direct users to “what’s on” based on their interest graph, the more valuable the platform will be to all parties involved.

The next link in the evolutionary chain of mass media will be a technology that helps us navigate the whole digital media landscape – one that combines the best of TV, books, radio, movies, and news with data about your personal interests and preferences.  Twitter certainly has a ways to go yet, but if they continue to work side-by-side with the most important content providers, they have a strong shot at becoming the new EPG:  our go-to destination for all of our media-hungry moments.

Brands Should Stop Trying to Be Publishers

This article was published as a guest post in AdAge, and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

If buzz implies truth, then there is absolutely no doubt about it:  Every brand must be a publisher.  It’s the clear mantra for advertising in this social age.

If you believe that, then every brand should have a newsroom watching for flashes of cultural Zeitgeist and coming up with witty retorts.  Oreo is heralded for telling people to dunk in the dark when the Super Bowl’s lights went out, and I won’t deny that they earned a lot of impressions and a bunch of new Twitter followers from that clever and timely tweet.

But one-in-a-million viral success stories like this one obscure the real truth:  Being a publisher is not for the faint of heart.  It requires a huge investment in content, most of which will yield negative returns; its performance is inconsistent, unpredictable, and often immeasurable; and even your greatest ‘wins’ will inevitably draw jeers from the nay-sayers.  99% of the brands I know wouldn’t even consider taking that kind of a risk.


Good Publishing Alienates

Successful publishers have a strong point of view.  TMZ and Perez Hilton can snarkily tear down celebrities at every turn on the red carpet, but could Chanel and Pantene ever call out even the tiniest flaw in Heidi Klum’s outfit when it’s their turn to comment on the Oscars?  Not a chance.

An authentic point of view draws a line.  It has both praise and punishment to meter out.  Without an edge, it would have nothing to stand for, nothing to relate to.  The social world is one of conversational marketing – but how boring is the conversation where all one party says is, “I’m really great!”?  Get me out of that ego-fest – fast!

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule that brands can’t have a point of view:  companies like Virgin and Red Bull actually built their brand identity on standing out from the crowd.  These are some of the most delightful and engaging brands, but they are few indeed – most brand managers I know would be fired for pulling those sorts of stunts in their own hallowed halls.


Hopelessly Devoted to Me

One of the premises driving the current “brands must be publishers” mania is sound:  Brands do need to earn a spot in consumers’ media plans to stay on the radar.  And to earn that spot, they need content that has a point of view, and is relevant to their audience.  But most importantly, they need to move beyond talking only about themselves.

Try reading Oreo’s current Twitter feed – you’d have to really love Oreo shtick to want to subscribe.  Since the Super Bowl, Oreo’s been tweeting little mini-ads about twice a day, cute and benign and edgeless…and so hopelessly devoted to itself.

But just what else does Oreo have to talk about?

A lot, actually.  They could write about the joy of being a kid, sharing moments with friends, or finding sweetness in life.  What if they could move the cookie out of the spotlight and focus instead on delivering meaningful, exceptional content to their customers’ newsfeeds?  Their audience size, conversational relevance, and impact would improve by tenfold.

Crazy?  Not really.  American Express has devoted tens of millions to supporting small businesses with content, events, tools, and resources.  L’Oreal would be well served by offering consistent beauty help to its audience.  And for a delicious chocolate cookie that begs to be twisted, opened, and licked, it’s not crazy to delight people with lots of other examples of those sweet moments in life.


Content Can Never Be an Afterthought

But to write about sweet moments twice a day with anything of substance would require a whole publishing operation.  And oy, the approval cycles from the marketing department!

It quickly sounds expensive, not to mention hard to pull off reliably.  Most TV show pilots flop.  Over 80% of Hollywood movies earn back less than they cost to make.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg that the public actually sees – the greatest hidden cost of creation lies on the cutting room floor.

Few marketing departments have even long odds of being able to handle the pace, volume, and risk profile of publishing.  Successful publishers on the web post dozens of times a day, while a single piece of marketing creative can take weeks to be approved in most organizations.


Where Do Publishers and Brands Meet?

Creating all that content in-house is messy and risky – so why not leave the sausage-making to the experts?  But there’s another way to bring great content to your customers:  Be a curator.  Being a curator allows you to:

  • Let other people take the blame.  Brands don’t have to fully “own” the POV of curated content.  As Jason Hirschhorn loves to say in his curated daily news for media execs, he’s “just” the curator.  That means he assembles a collection of great stimulus for his readers every day.  But it doesn’t mean he is agreeing with them all.  Rather, he is just declaring them relevant and thought provoking.
  • Let other people do the work (and pay the bills)!  Creating truly standout content isn’t easy – that’s why ad agencies obsess for months to get each campaign’s worth of creative just right.  And it doesn’t happen every day.  After all, have you seen any other notable Oreo tweets since the Super Bowl?  Creating great content is hard and expensive.  Selecting it, on the other hand, is a skill that can be exercised with daily perfection.
  • Let customers know the real you.  Consumers know that marketers are marketing to them – and for Oreo to say that their purpose in life is to publish moments of sweetness with a journalistic credo would be dubious at best.  But a sponsorship role is accepted – and, frankly, appreciated.  Oreo can say that these sweet moments are brought to you by Oreo, because hey, that’s just what we cookie guys and gals are like.  It’s believable and real.

Don’t buy the hype that every brand must be a publisher.  Remember that your brand is a brand.  You don’t need your customers to know what you think about the latest political scandal – you need them to know why your product is awesome.  You don’t measure success based on engagement the way publishers do – you measure success based on sales.

Connect with your customers on a personal level by becoming the honored convener and even patron of great content.  Relate to your audience via the dreams that you stand for, beyond just your product attributes and flavors.  What do your customers want to hear about, and what have you earned the right to discuss?  Find third-party publishers who have something to say of meaning that you can really put your brand behind…and I mean behind!  Lead with the content, not the cookie.

Be a brand, and use a chorus to back up your own voice.  Let others who are experts spend money filling the cutting room floor.


The Scarcity Index: A Predictor of the Most (and Least) Valuable Content in Media

This article was published in Ben Elowitz’s Media Success newsletter and is republished here for Digital Quarters readers.

As digital modes have transformed media, whole sectors have lost something fundamental and valuable:  scarcity.  With an explosion in new content creation and effortless replication of so much of what is produced, we have gone from scarcity to surplus.

And we all know the economic implications of that.


The Problem With Abundance

With every byte duplicated in nanoseconds and every outstanding original article summarized into so many blog posts, this duplication and substitution has commoditized the media industry’s greatest asset – its content.  And as a result, monetization of digital content is lower and revenue has suffered, without proportional relief on production cost.

Is there no last refuge of scarcity in media anymore?  I’ve been thinking about the elements that can still command a premium in the digital era, by virtue of their ability to make us pay attention with something that can’t be replicated:  live sports, concerts, transformative experiences.  If of no other value to media, Snapchat is proof at least that we still value the ephemeral “right now.”


Finding Scarcity

For a media company, the key to surviving in this age of abundance is finding and capitalizing on those once-in-a-lifetime experiences and not-so-everyday moments in a way that commands audience attention.

With that in mind, here’s a look at various content categories arranged from extreme scarcity (and thus highest value) all the way to extreme abundance (aka the Swamp of Sadness and Devalued Content), via the ever ownable and attention-getting format of the infographic:



Are you sitting pretty at the top, or drowning at the bottom?  How have you been able to capitalize on scarcity in media?