C O N T E N T ious

an introduction

Another blog about digital media… really?

The ironic thing about advances in creating, distributing and consuming content is that a growing number of us are increasingly attuned to the changes and we can’t stop talking about it. The “democratization of media” has spawned countless citizen journalists, armchair pundits, and town criers with a disproportionate focus on exactly this: the evolving dynamics in digital. It’s the self-reflexive part of the landscape… almost like an M.C. Escher print: it’s hard to tell cause from effect.

M.C. Escher’s “Drawing Hands” (1948)

I’m very aware of this din of disparate opinions, even as I now begin to add to it myself. But much of what I read tends to focus on either a particular area of the content landscape, a specific phenomenon that’s become prevalent, or the next set of disruptive “Davids” ready to slay established “Goliaths”.

Trees, forest, and a wild blue yonder…

And while such specific focus is a good thing, I’m interested in exploring some of the broader questions around why all of this is happening. A little more on the forest than the trees. Not for purposes of “trainspotting”, but because I believe that by getting at the root causes of the behavior of producers, aggregators, advertisers and of course, consumers, we can better prescribe guiding principles for content businesses looking to form — or reform — themselves for future growth.

“Trainspotting” is sometimes used as slang for obsessive behavior around a pointless exercise. It can also refer to IV drug use, but we’ll have none of that here!!!

So what are the big ideas?

I think that there is great potential for both large, incumbent content brands, and smaller, upstart ventures to thrive in this landscape, and for most of the last twenty years, I’ve worked as an interface between the two. But as I’ve done this from within the ranks of the big guys (in music, film and television), it’s logical that, in my view, some of the most interesting strategic questions are those that face established producers as they plot their futures.

The original quotation credited to Stewart Band at the first Hacker’s Conference in 1984.

Honestly, I’m not blindly loyal to “big media”; certainly there is room for constructive criticism on that front. Too often though, the verbal bombs pitched at these “grown up” companies are by individuals with little or no direct experience in that part of the ecosystem, and many who don’t realize that the adage, “information wants to be free” is only half of the famous statement coined nearly 30 years ago. Intellectual property and the brand equity of established producers was inherently valuable then, and remains so today. But technology has lowered the barriers to entry for new producers, and audiences are showing a willingness to try new things. So the worst thing that the majors could do is rest on their laurels.

And while I don’t typically make grand predictions, I have a hunch that 2014 will be the year that content creators move to take more control over the distribution of their wares… not merely offloading raw assets to aggregators and retailers, but crafting dynamic, polished experiences and delivering them directly to consumers…

I expect that a number of interesting topics will emerge that can be covered in CONTENTious (by me, or others), and I’m hopeful that Medium’s comments features will be well-used to drive some debate right here. To get the ball rolling, I will nominate a few themes and observations that I plan to explore more deeply in the weeks to come…

  1. Consumers’ perception of the value of content has declined substantially over the last decade. To reiterate, the IP itself still brings real value, but the explosion of available options at relatively low prices has conditioned an unprecedented sense of entitlement among audiences. Both large and small entities should be very concerned about this, because it’s the content — the ideas themselves — that serves as the fuel to power a healthy information economy. There are many reasons for the apparent devaluation; some might have been avoidable, and others certainly not. But now it is critical for content producers to think creatively about turning the tide; to help both consumers and advertisers rediscover content’s value by inventing more compelling offerings with value propositions that are sustainable to both the supply and demand sides of the marketplace.
  2. Increasingly, consumers are choosing content not for the raw “quality” of the intellectual property, but rather for the dynamics of the platform on which it is delivered. That q-word is in quotation marks for a reason: subjectivity. Quality is in the eye of the beholder, and no one is the absolute arbiter of “good” and “bad”. But individually, we each have preferences that would — all things being equal — cause us to choose content x over content y. My point is that today, when content y is presented inside a more compelling platform experience, then increasingly, consumers now “settle” (consciously or not) for y, rather than their preferred x. This raises questions about the necessary scope and skill set of a content producer in the modern age, and could have serious consequences for those creators that cannot future-proof their offerings.
  3. Purveyors of “information” have very different challenges than those that produce “art”. These are not always black-and-white distinctions, but it boils down to this: reporters of facts (e.g., news, sports, lifestyle content) generally face different competitive dynamics than those that deal in fiction/arts (entertainment, music, literature). Notwithstanding some notable exceptions, fact mongers typically garner brand equity at the “masthead”, whereas artisans tend to enjoy it through the individual properties that they produce. I’m not suggesting that one situation is any easier than the other, but the process by which strategies are formed and industries evolve differs greatly between the two, and will impact certain prognoses for growth.
  4. Large content companies are often characterized as lacking vision or fortitude, and being hampered by their own bureaucracy when new, disruptive forces enter the market. In actuality, most big-business strategies are actually not the result of shortcomings in senior management, but rather are quite intentional, and based on a calculus designed to ensure that emerging profit streams, at whatever pace they might grow, will always more than offset the simultaneous declines in other, adversely affected parts of the business. I’m consistently surprised by proposals that seek to challenge the status quo without a plan to realistically monetize that disruption. Start-ups just don’t have as much to lose as billion-dollar conglomerates, and both sides must appreciate (and seek to narrow) the gap between their respective risk tolerances in order to make something happen. Often, a breakthrough in technology precedes the real market opportunity by two or three years. In those situations, the big company’s polite decline shouldn’t be interpreted as “Hell, no!”, but rather, “Not just yet…”

My hope is that this CONTENTious becomes a haven for not only my thinking, but that of others with well-founded and diverse perspectives on these issues. At the end of the day, it’s all driven by opinions, and you know what they say about those (if you don’t, do a web search on the phrase “everybody’s got one”)… But maybe, just maybe we can advance the collective wisdom a bit.

To start, I am going to propose a kind of diagnostic tool to compare and contrast the myriad content offerings that are currently in play, and (eventually) offer prescriptions for the design of new ones. Read ahead to my next entry, entitled “Eight Layers”…