Eight Layers

a strategic checklist for the modern content business


For upwards of fifteen years now, we’ve seen a pretty constant flow of predictions, proposals and general pontification about the way content experiences should evolve in a digital realm… and the buzzwords abound: convergence, multi-platform, second-screen, transmedia, to name a few… But the truth is, while the state of the art has taken great leaps in many respects (remember streaming video pre-2005?), much of this promise has yet to be realized. There is still much work to be done in development, production, packaging and distribution if content creators are to harness the full potential that technology already creates.

And for all the talk, I haven’t yet seen a comprehensive, “diagnostic tool” to assess the strengths and weaknesses of existing models or to propose improvements. So here, I am nominating a general paradigm to compare and contrast the wide array of available digital content offerings, troubleshoot where necessary, and create wholly new ones. Looking across eight key dimensions that span creation, distribution, and monetization will shed some light on the mix of traits that allows certain models to succeed and causes others to struggle.

But before we can apply the model, we need to level-set a bit on what each of its dimensions represents…


Each consumer’s content habit is its own, unique TV dinner…

1. GENRE

If we think about the consumption of information as a kind of content “diet”, this dimension represents the food groups. Each consumer’s content habit is its own, unique TV dinner, where some mix of news, sports, lifestyle, educational and entertainment content (scripted or not) comes together to “nourish” and satisfy. Genre is unique within these eight layers because it’s the only dimension where some expansion across isn’t necessarily advisable to future-proof the offering. Purveyors of sports should stick to sports. Likewise for music, scripted fiction, etc.

It’s imperative for any/all content creators to take a decidedly “multi-modal” approach to rendering their work.

2. MODE

Today’s myriad use cases and content-driven experiences include reading, listening, watching, and sometimes interacting with the content we consume. The particular items within this dimension (text, still images, audio, video, graphics) are somewhat obvious and certainly self-explanatory. But if content creators are to thrive in a competitive ecosystem with so many consumer touch-points, they must take a decidedly “multi-modal” approach to rendering their work. This means that newspapers and magazines are no longer exclusively print products (or even digitized versions of the printed page), a television producer must create more than linear video, and the world has long acknowledged that musicians and record companies cannot expect to live by selling recordings alone. To be sure, these transitions may be risky and expensive, but the alternative is far more costly. The landscape is now too competitive for creators to cede a particular day-part or access point to another, similar content brand. Should Sports Illustrated be poised to tangle directly with ESPN? Even in the living room? I think so… not to mention Yahoo! Sports, Bleacher Report, and the various broadcast networks.

It’s not about simply cramming traditional product into smaller spaces…

3. FORM

Traditional content offerings are based on long-established “templates”, but newer delivery mechanisms have created a demand for content forms that break old molds. We expect movies to run ±2 hours, typical television episodes are 22 minutes or 44 minutes long, and magazine articles may be bench-marked at 1,500 words or 3k, 10k, etc. But web portals, YouTube and Twitter have become purveyors of the 1-minute read, the five-minute “webisode”, or even the thesis statement in 140 characters. Most important, new outlets don’t simply demand that creators work on a smaller canvas. In many cases, they seek content that is strategically “atomized” or excerpted from a larger whole, so that it may be combined with the work of others to create a unique, collage experience for the audience. Some of the best examples of atomized content come from the music industry: in the album-driven decades of the 1970s and 1980s, singles served to promote artists and drive sales; in the modern era, the sample (a riff, loop or split-second vocal) has become a significant (if controversial) way to separate a content fragment from a larger body of work. Even if such machinations do not produce direct financial windfalls, they are essential tools in the brand battles that are already well underway.

Striking the balance between a proprietary and participatory experience is one of the newest challenges to the content business.

4. VOICE

Historically, audiences almost always consumed in a lean-back fashion: television was watched, music was heard, news(paper) was read, and with possible exception of the op-ed page (or advice columns), these experiences were one-way in nature. The audience didn’t actually talk back. But social media have empowered individuals — even those not “classically trained” in creating content — to have a voice, and it is increasingly standard for consumers to give as well as receive. What remains an open question is where on the spectrum to strike the balance between a proprietary approach (talking at the viewer) and a participatory one, but it is clear that today’s audiences won’t be entirely passive. I don’t believe that every creator must completely “open the mic” to its patrons, but all should take a careful look at this issue as they modernize their product.

New transmission means must be utilized, despite the impact on near-term costs and existing business relationships.

5. MEDIUM

“Media” generally refers to this whole business of creating and disseminating content, but here I’m using it most literally: that is, as the means by which the information actually travels to its audience. Improvements in consumer-grade bandwidth and rich media compression have made the open Internet more viable for delivery of high-quality experiences (notwithstanding the conflict over Net neutrality). Traditional content “gatekeepers” such as multichannel operators (cable, satellite, telco) or major brick-and-mortar retailers are challenged by over-the-top (OTT) services that aim to deliver more compelling experiences at lower cost. And even industries that lack demonstrable gatekeepers between (print publications, for one) appear somewhat reluctant to abandon traditional media (ink & paper) likely because the immediate challenges (radical change to product design, the need for a digital-centric ad sales force) seem more daunting today than the long-term threat of contraction. Hence, these “offline media” continue to represent a significant (though gradually declining) share of overall consumption.

What to watch? A look at “program guides” over the past four decades.
Effective franchise management requires frequent updates to the most engaged consumers…

6. CADENCE

Traditional offerings usually stick to a particular timetable… The “news at 11p”, the “July edition of Popular Mechanics”, or even the “new Star Wars movie, out on x date”… In some ways, this constant rhythm is good to condition a loyal following (especially the daily doses). But output on only a rigid schedule in today’s environment is as outmoded as trading stocks using ticker tape and a rotary phone. Today’s audience is up for grabs in every waking moment, and content owners must nurture their brands (titles, mastheads, channels) constantly. Effective franchise management requires frequent updates to the most engaged consumers, combined with a permanent archive (easily navigable) to allow even the most casual audience to play catch-up.

Content offerings must be nimble enough to command attention in any day part, and across a variety of use cases.

7. ACCESS

When ink & paper represented the most efficient way to reach a mass audience, our definition of ubiquity was quaint by modern standards. Just as strong franchise management calls for a near-constant output cadence, so too does it require a presence on as many different platforms as possible. But because these platforms differ in their characteristics, capabilities and use cases, addressing them properly has design implications throughout. An experience designed for television does not necessarily play well on a mobile device. A layout intended for print is not necessarily optimal for distribution to tablets. As we’ve said before, there are incremental expenses and workflow consequences to addressing so many different screens, but flexible content management systems and adaptive/responsive design technology will ease this. In the long run, it is far more costly to limit the surfaces on which a content brand can live.

* Note that the mechanics of “subscriptions” varies across digital and physical media. In traditional, physical subscriptions, current content or “issues” are delivered on a periodic basis as long as the subscription fee is paid, but content issued prior to commencement of the subscription is inaccessible. Once the subscription relationship ends, all delivered print issues may be retained. By contrast, digital subscriptions generally offer all content (past and current) on demand. But all content becomes inaccessible once the subscription has lapsed.
Consumers have shown a willingness to pay for quality of experience, but all do not share the same appetite.

8. RETAIL MODEL

Perhaps the most dangerous side effect of all of this rapid change is that consumers’ perception of the value of content has declined significantly in the past 10-15 years. Web-based services that offer 15-20 minutes of premium content in exchange for one 30-second video ad; subscription services that offer an entire household unlimited, instant viewing of hundreds-of-thousands of films and television episodes for less than $10 per month (that’s 30 cents per day!); or independent OTT channels, so desperate for audience that they are willing to disseminate their content for absolutely nothing… each of these has played a role in creating this condition. That said, all hope is not lost… The growing sense of entitlement aside, audiences have shown a willingness to pay for quality of overall experience… And as creators begin to take the reins on not only raw content production, but also the holistic experience, they must utilize some mix of revenue models that segments the audience as much as possible: realizing higher revenue from the most ardent fans, and progressively less from others, drawing ad dollars into the mix once more potent, consumer-dollar models are exhausted.


So, now what?

With the eight-layer model in our pocket, we can look at a bunch of different challenges: some that involve any one of these dimensions individually, and others that force balance between them. Of course, there is no absolute prescription for growth, and there are many other ways to analyze these challenges. But it’s probably a pretty good bet that the more of these boxes that content creators can tick, the better positioned they will be to thrive in the modern landscape.

As always, your comments are most welcome, so please have at it. And stay tuned…