Content for the digerate age

Looking at the way online content has been handled in the last 15 years is an inspiring exercise in observing media and one of its major building blocks. Initially, online content was lifted from print. The idea was that the few people with Internet access would not be able to affect the hold print and broadcast media (notably TV) have on marketing budgets. Online media was like having Eric Clapton with his electric guitar among the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra – a masterful outsider.

Next, digital media owners went all out to argue their case for getting a larger piece of the marketing spend pie on the strength of their ever-growing traffic and their (claimed) ability to auto-sort visitors demographically and behaviourally. Here, content was supposed to work as a honey trap, a draw card used to pull traffic on to the website. It was during the “honey trap” period that the term “sticky content” was created to describe the type of content people would habitually and regularly wish to access (generally speaking, the National Lottery’s winning numbers are ‘sticky’ twice each week, the weather is ‘sticky’ daily, the Olympic Games are ‘sticky’ every four years, while the Academy Awards (‘Oscar’) celebration is ‘sticky’ once a year.)

The next major shift in content positioning belongs to Google, the search engine that created the feeling that all possible content is equidistant from the person who’s doing the search. Google drove other media players to distraction because it simply did not use a “normal” business model. The tools used for data mining and analysis were (and still are) largely secret. Advertising money was suddenly available to innovative systems like AdWords (an automatic platform that allows advertisers to choose and use keywords that are relevant to their products, and then use the keywords or pull them off at will, and even bid for placement of their adverts in prime-spots on the Google results page.

Google’s even-handedness in treating content, as well as the fact that it cost much more money to generate premium content than one could ever hope to recoup profitably, heralded the major shift, actually, migration, from traditional content media (radio, TV and print) to online content suppliers. At the same time, online content lost its appeal as honey trap, because people demonstrated none of the legendary loyalty they were supposed to have for print and broadcast. Migration to digeracy hurt print media badly, why buy a heavily time-delayed newspaper when I can read any content I want – live – online? Irrespective of protesting voices from print-media providers, digital media has been decimating print for years now.

Digital Content Media then turned its attention to television, and got involved heavily in new generation content, especially so-called ‘Reality’ shows. By and large, reality shows like Big Brother, Idols and Survivor use their web and mobile facilities to generate paid traffic (through commenting and voting.) Looking at the situation three odd years ago, it was natural to assume that, while digital media was creaming its print media ancestors, it remained far behind the cash rich fields of untouchable TV advertising.

This is when social networks hit the scene.

One needs to appreciate how TV networks underestimated, even completely missed – the threat posed by social networks. I’m certain that they felt – and many still feel – that they can win the content war by providing an ever-increasing amount of reality and pseudo reality. Surely, they thought, advertisers would see how much attention a well timed Big Brother controversy gets!! The tragedy of TV chieftains is that, while their stats and figures were probably not wrong, they were simply irrelevant.

… because viewers did not move over to social networks to look for yet another type of content, they simply looked for (and found) something TV is not able to deliver: connection and communication. TV’s view is literary – it believes that exciting, unusual narratives (such as the exquisite Grey’s Anatomy and the tragically down-sloping 24) will keep customers coming – but it simply did not work. Literate viewers of the last 30 years were replaced by digerate viewers – connectivity and communication won against narratives, to put it simplistically – it was story 0, conversation 1.

If you are at the San Francisco Bay Area on Tuesday, March 18th, consider attending the MIT/Stanford Venture Lab event called “Future of Content Consumption – New Frontiers of Digital Revenue Generation“, covering, among other issues, the demise of TV-based content. Judging by the introductory note, this would be an interesting event: “Household consumption of television content remained unchanged for 50 years: programming delivered in sequential order on a limited number of channels to one device. Tivo shook the industry by introducing “time shifting,” an effortless way to watch the content you want when you want. Sling Media continued this trend with “place shifting,” allowing consumers to take content outside the living room. Now, higher broadband speeds, capable of turning the internet into a viable HD content medium, coupled with universal access by both producers and consumers, have given rise to a revolution in content consumption habits world-wide, threatening many of the existing business models that TV has enjoyed for so long. How changing content consumption habits are creating new business opportunities for entrepreneurs in the household content market. Topics to be discussed include time-scheduled vs. VOD, pay-for vs. advertising supported, long form vs. short form, and TV vs. PC vs. mobile as the dominant screen.”

If I were there on the 18th, I would have offered the following analysis:

Print media (notably newspapers) are fast moving to a situation where they will be offered to the public for free – a physical manifestation of their online entity, recouping investments through targeted (often local) advertising. We already see a huge migration of content viewers from TV to DVD (series sold in bulk, for example), soon, this will force TV to offer content for free (or very nominally priced) and recoup investments from off-screen DVD sales – especially the download of content on a per unit, bulk, periodical, seasonal or subscription base.

The digerate generation expects access to premium content at reasonable cost (the music industry paid dearly for messing up here.) Content is to be accessible from anywhere, anytime while content turnover will be much faster than it is now: see how movies are ported to DVD almost immediately, comparing with the very lengthy run movies had in theatres 5, 10, 20 years ago.

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