IPG Media Lab
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IPG Media Lab

On the Budding Convergence of Digital Media Platforms

Netflix is getting video games, Instagram wants to become TikTok, and TikTok is selling its algorithms — would audience attention stay fragmented for long?

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

After writing about the diverging paths that the major social platforms are taking to secure their futures, I started to think about the broader shifts happening in the attention economy today that are disrupting the way brands capture eyeballs and engage with consumers. There are a number of factors at play that are changing audience behavior — technological, social, cultural, etc. Taking a deeper look at the status quo, however, a counter-trend of convergence and bundling is emerging as well, as digital platform owners endlessly copy each other’s best features in fear of being left behind. What does this mean for the future of audience attention? And how should brand marketers respond?From Fragmentation to Convergence

The consensus among media professionals on the fragmentation of the media landscape over the past decade or so has been well documented. The era of mass media has given way to a vibrant digital media landscape, and audience attention is now fractured across a mix of legacy and emerging media channels. On one hand, this diversification of media channels has created many new channels for brands to explore. On the other hand, different audience segments tend to have their own cocktail of preferred media channels, which further complicates media planning for brands.

In recent years, however, it is clear to see that the different media channels across the legacy and digital divide are starting to converge. While legacy channels like TV, print, and radio have been making an earnest transition to digital and becoming more interactive, on-demand, and algorithmic, digital channels are also on a similar path towards convergence.

Intensifying competition between digital platforms has led them to endlessly copy each other if a certain format or feature gains traction. From the propagation of the Story format and AR filters, to this year’s mad dash to develop a Clubhouse competitor, no one wants to miss out on the next big thing. (The format copying is also a result of catering to creators, which we’ll get into in the following section.) Of course, not every attempt of this nature would be successful — Instagram successfully integrated Stories on its platform while Twitter announced it is sunsetting its story-format product called Fleets — but they all contribute to the increasing homogeneity in the user experience among digital platforms. While that theoretically should make it easier for brands to create cross-platform creatives, the reality is that different platforms still have their own idiosyncratic take on these formats and features that brands will need to account for.

Intensifying competition between digital platforms has led them to endlessly copy each other if a certain format or feature gains traction.

Interestingly, some recent developments in media are taking the idea of channel convergence to the next level as platform owners attempt to bundle previously distinct media channels into one platform. Netflix’s recent announcement that it is moving into gaming is a prime example. The streaming giant reportedly plans to offer video games on its service within the next year, and has hired a former Electronic Arts executive to lead its game development. Netflix has long considered video games to be serious competition for audience attention, and they are right to think so.

According to Deloitte’s 2021 Digital Media Trends survey, among Gen Z consumers in the U.S. (those currently aged 14–24), video games are their №1 entertainment activity — and watching TV or movies at home comes in fifth. About 26% of Gen Z said video games are their top entertainment activity, and 87% of those in the age bracket said they play video games daily or weekly. Only 10% of Gen Z respondents said watching TV or movies was their favorite entertainment pastime, the Deloitte study found. Therefore, it makes perfect sense that Netflix would want to include video games, a huge attention driver for the younger generations, onto its platform and transform it into a multi-media channel.

In addition, branching out into gaming may also help Netflix extend the value of its original IP — the company previously released a video game based on its hit series Stranger Things in 2019. Given that it has also recently started doing live offline events, starting with a Bridgerton-themed immersive ball in London, Netflix is taking a page out of the Disney playbook and steadily building out its product offering to engage viewers beyond content.

Another sign of convergence among digital platforms is the adoption of algorithmic feeds across the board, which promises to create individually unique content feeds for everyone, but sometimes ends up creating an echo chamber and boxing us in our worst impulses. Still, it is a cost-effective way to abstract culture and sort the audience into different interest cohorts. And if TikTok’s decision to start selling its much-extolled algorithms is any indication, we may start to see even more digital content platforms that take advantage of the algorithmic consumption — the algorithmic trap be damned.

For brands, it is important to understand the roles that each media channel plays for different audience segments while keeping this emerging trend of convergence in mind. Traditional media owners are quick to co-opt digital-native talents like YouTuber star Lilly Singh and Instagram viral sensation Ziwe by offering them their own shows, but to integrate new mediums into their channel would set forth a whole other set of challenges. In this regard, digital platforms may have an advantage, although there are valid concerns about the risks of becoming a turducken of overstuffed platforms that confuses and alienate users.

The Creator-Led Format Evolution

Another reason beyond this digital media convergence is that the media formats are cross-pollinating across platforms, thanks to the rise of creator content that increasingly siphons consumer attention away from professionally produced content. The creator economy has been steadily growing in recent years as new platforms dramatically lower the barrier for creating and distributing content. Today, platforms like Substack and Instagram supercharge the scale of UGC distribution while leveling the playing field for creators. Last year’s unique circumstances pushed the creator economy to new heights, as an increasing number of people turned to platforms like TikTok, Twitch, and OnlyFans to monetize the content they create and earn supplemental income. Overall, over 50 million people worldwide now consider themselves to be a “creator.”

On a macro level, audience attention is shifting from professional productions to user-generated content. The short-lived Quibi is a good example of a bad product-market fit in today’s attention economy — the high production cost that traditional media platforms must cough up upfront puts them at a competitive disadvantage to the digital platforms that monetize the abundance of user-generated content, which they get for free. Instead of guessing what the audiences may like, digital platforms simply let algorithms do the job of finding the best content for each audience cohort. Most traditional media platforms have established IP to attract audiences, and Quibi thought it could do the same thing with celebrities. But in the end, its fleeting existence proves that, without a sound business model, star power alone

he high production cost that traditional media platforms must cough up upfront puts them at a competitive disadvantage to the digital platforms that monetize the abundance of user-generated content that they get for free.

When it comes to copying popular formats, Facebook is arguably both the worst offender and the master. From copying the Story format from Snapchat to launching its own take on Clubhouse, Facebook is always on the lookout for the next big thing from up-and-comers. Its latest target has been TikTok’s algorithmic short video, and Instagram is ready to go all-in. The head of Instagram Adam Mosseri shared in a tweet that the service plans to start showing users full-screen, recommended videos in their feeds, so as to better compete against TikTok. “We’re no longer a photo-sharing app,” Mosseri declared. It will be interesting to see whether they can pull off this type of format pivot again without disrupting the user experience to the point of alienating users and advertisers.

This creator-led shift in popular formats has had a significant impact on brand marketing. For one, creator content carries its own unique aesthetics, which further separates it from the media content found on traditional channels. Barring some rare exceptions, most creator content capitalizes on its amateur or low production value to move closer to the audiences, conveying a sense of intimacy and authenticity that professionally produced content often lacks.

That being said, some legacy media players and brands are also getting better at adapting to the digital aesthetics of creator content, as evidenced by the warm responses to TikTok accounts of The Washington Post and Ryanair. Plus, this aesthetic shift also opens up new types of content to become viable marketing material, such as live Q&A on Instagram Live and Factory TikTok made right off the assembly lines.

Besides the creative implications from an aesthetic perspective, another crucial implication of this shift in format centers around the idea of co-creation and participatory consumption. Every platform from Netflix to TikTok is seeing attention being abstracted as data is plugged directly into the feedback loop to inform the next piece of content served up. On algorithmic platforms like TikTok, creators care more about keeping up with the latest memes and putting a clever spin on it, rather than how many people viewed their single piece of content.

For brands, this means perhaps an opportunity to reconsider the kind of KPIs that we use to measure campaign performance. Instead of obsessing over impressions and bounce rates, we should be looking at how many viewers took to the idea your brands presented, replicated it, and allowed it to travel. Choose to collaborate with creators who can help you bring the brand storytelling to life and inspire others to iterate, rather than simply paying for influencers to hawk your wares.

Want to Learn More?

To further explore how audience attention is shifting in today’s dynamic media landscape, we are developing a new series of Attention Disruption reports where we intend to break down the latest cultural phenomena that are disrupting the attention economy, and what it takes for brands to stay in the cultural zeitgeist. If you’d like to join us next month when we present this report, or simply to learn about how to adapt to the changing media ecosystem, please start a conversation by reaching out to Josh Mallalieu (josh@ipglab.com).

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Richard Yao

Richard Yao

Manager of Strategy & Content, IPG Media Lab