The importance of content…

My former employer made an announcement last year to all of its employees that we were in the age of “attention” where someone’s time is their primary currency. Most of the recent thought leaders in the world of Marketing and Advertising have said that the world of Advertising has changed completely and that we will no longer be able to “interrupt what people are talking about” but rather BE what people are talking about.

Design, creativity and relevance have become critical components of communication moreso than ever before, and the playing field is being leveled as the average person (with a computer and Internet access) has the ability to broadcast their message to the entire world. Emails, Websites and now even video and audio are as easy to distribute across the globe as they are to create (and they are becoming so easy to create that the major media companies are freaking out).

You can now view/listen to advertisements on your TV, on your computer, on your cell phone, in line at the Supermarket, on the bus/train, in the airport, on the plane as well as on a wide range of new devices that have become part of the “toolkit” for survival in this modern world.

There are more and more ways to reach people and yet, the advertising industry seems to be shrinking. The net effect of all of these new communication channels has actually been more control for the recipient. In addition to providing new ways to reach people, the technology has provided new ways for people to ignore your ads. We don’t have to rely on the “mute” button during commercials anymore, we can simply skip them. If we don’t want to receive calls from telemarketers, we simply add our name to a “do-not-call” list. We can easily (in theory) unsubscribe ourselves from emails that we don’t want to receive, and we can also block ads from making their way into our Web browsers. All to an extent, of course as there always seems to be a way to break through the limitations if an advertiser really wants to (look at porn).

So what is the real effect of all of this on the advertising and communications world?
Tim Hespos, who writes articles on MediaPost’s “Online Spin”, published an article on February 7th called “The End of Watered Down Content.” According to Tim, the marketplace has chanced because people now have the “ability to unshackle content from time, place and manner restrictions.”

To Tim, “[people] now value content according to how entertaining and/or information-rich it is, on a granular level. This leads to our picking and choosing the elements of the experience we wish to preserve, and what we wish to remove.”
Media companies no longer control content, that’s in the hands of all of the millions of people with computers, Web sites and podcasts…. ideas. So the whole idea of a “publisher of content” being able to, as Tim put it, “give you something you want” in exchange for giving you something you don’t want while they have your attention, is supposedly over… as now people simply forego the something they don’t want and (usually illegally) download only what they want.

On some level this may be true, but this relies on the average person being able to produce and deliver content that someone wants without any money. Let’s not forget that the reason big media companies have been able to command the world of content delivery for so long is because they have had the money. Sure, some of them have made money purely on the value of their content alone, so there will always be space for someone with a really great idea, or story, to tell it. And the audience for this has just become truly global. But the production of that story had better be relatively cheap. Podcasts are a great example of this. If you’ve got a few hundred dollars, you can purchase a computer, a microphone and download some free audio recording/editing software that will allow you to create your own audio content that you can then publish via iTunes. But what if your story requires visuals? Well, now you’ve got to make a bigger investment…

Distributing your own short film may be free, thanks to the Web (not including the costs of your ISP) but making it will require more resources. Say a Digital Video Camera, video editing software, more hard drive space and more RAM for your computer. Does your story require set production? Actors/actresses? Better sound quality? Now you need more money? Who do you think pays for that? Big media companies have the budget for this kind of thing because their content is valuable… who is the content valuable to?

Advertisers… ultimately somewhere, someone knows that they will recoup the costs of producing the content through various advertising and/or marketing channels. Media companies resell the rights to their content to other people that want to distribute it, the “distributors” recoup their costs by collecting money from advertisers that believe that the people watching this content are also people likely to purchase their products. The specific model that exists currently may be changing… the places where content is viewed may be changing, time is no longer an issue, I can download “Lost” and watch it anytime I want to.
I can review the Football Championship Game (not sure if I can refer to the Bowl game that happened last Sunday or not) or just the commercials that aired during the game at my leisure… but it’s still not “free.” An article in the New York Times mentioned that something like 23 million AOL customers downloaded the aforementioned commercials on the Monday after “The Big Game” … for “free” but all 23 million of them had to watch an ad while the download was occurring. All 23 million of them obviously felt that this was a worthwhile exchange and the advertiser, who paid money to have their ad running during the download would likely agree. But if you’re looking at the world of advertising and saying it’s changed vastly… I might argue that not much has changed.

Instead of sitting in front of your TV on a Friday night watching “Dallas” on for “free” CBS and voluntarily subscribing to some :30 second spots in exchange for the content you want, you now download the content from the Web and voluntarily subscribe to some form of Web advertising (if not immediately, you gave them some information about yourself that will most likely be used to advertise to you later) while your download occurs. In some cases, you may be subjected to MORE advertising than you did before.

Tim Hespos said “the media business no longer controls the packaging” and on one level, I understand his point. The days where you’d go to the record store and buy “Vanilla Ice’s greatest hits” for that one song you liked back in the day are over. Now you just go to iTunes, pay $.99 and get the one song you want. But on the other hand, if you look at the successful internet models, I’d argue that big media are still in control of the packaging. AOL is in the media businesss and they controlled the packaging for 23 million people that wanted to see the TV commercials, all 23 million of them saw an ad for a Time Warner produced TV show.

Can you legally download good content without watching an ad? Sure, you go to iTunes or Google Video and pay a nominal fee to get the “non-ad” version. But you’re probably still seeing an ad for something… it might be a small text ad on the sideof the page, or it might be an ad for another tune to download… but it’s still an ad… and it wasn’t even free.

So the old adage of “we’ll give you something you want, in exchange for giving you something you don’t want while we have your attention” will still live… the place to be is still on the team that’s creating the content in the first place, and if you have the ideas that appeal to the whole world, chances are somebody with something to advertise will want to give you money for your content.

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