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The Future of Content, Part II: The Intention Gap & New Content Formats

Mind the behavioral gap between Intentional Media and Interstitial Media, and get ready for living, interactive, and story formats.

Editor’s Note: this is part 2 of our series on “the Future of Content”. Following the scope set by part 1, our analysis will be primairly limited to the U.S. market and video content, although the general principles discussed here could be more broadly applied.

Last week, we laid out the three groups of major players in the video content space in our assessment of the evolving U.S. media landscape following the AT&T’s acquisition of Time Warner. This week, we turn our attention to the changing viewer behavior defined by a growing gap in intention in media consumption, and the way it interplays with emerging content consumption models enabled by digital content channels, as well as new content formats born out of those digital channels, such as living content, interactive content, and stories.

Each of the three groups of media players — mega media conglomerates like Disney, telecom giants like AT&T, and tech platform owners like Amazon — will each have their own advantages and disadvantages in responding to these emerging trends in media consumption and adopting new content formats. It is crucial for brand marketers to keep up with how this interaction is playing out in order to adjust their media buys accordingly and find their audience effectively.

Intentional Media vs. Interstitial Media

As the stage is set for the post-Peak TV world where these three groups of companies battle for audience attention and control over media distribution, old media metrics are quickly becoming antiquated and ill-equipped for measuring the emerging content initiatives and how they contribute to the bottom line of each player.

As Daniel Pink points out in his illuminating piece for The Atlantic on the shifting pattern of content consumption, in the age of content overload, viewers tend to consume content on a sliding scale of intentionality. In the case of TV content, the shows that you care deeply about, the ones that you’d want to watch on a big TV screen are your “couch shows,” as opposed to the kind of “phone shows” that you enjoy and usually catch up via streaming with on your mobile devices. He terms this contrast “Intentional Media” vs. “Interstitial Media.”

As Pink puts it, “Intentional Media are the handful of offerings that we plan in advance to experience and then carve out particular chunks of time to enjoy,” whereas “Interstitial Media… is programming we use to fill the spaces in our lives — 10 minutes in a grocery store line… or 35 minutes on a train or bus.” You pay the same amount of attention to both types of content, but the intensity of your attention varies due to the differing consumption modes.

This divide is not an attribute of the content itself nor an objective judgement on quality, but rather a fluid label based on individual interests and preferred consumption mode — one person’s couch show is someone else’s phone show, and vice versa, even for people living under the same roof. And it is also worth noting that, beyond video content, Interstitial Media also covers social media content, online articles, podcasts, and other mobile-friendly media formats.

Pink calls out the need for easily accessible short-form content to fulfill the growing demand for Interstitial Media, and he is right on. Short-form mobile video is already gaining strong traction with young people, particularly in Asian markets. There is a whole generation of global audience that is more likely to recognize a D-list YouTube influencer over A-list Hollywood stars. For the mega media conglomerates and telecom giants, the upcoming consolidation phase, where they are poised to absorb some smaller media companies and digital publishers who jumped on the video bandwagon, should help them incorporate more short-form video content into the fold and diversify their offerings.

For the technology firms looking to dominate the content space, however, it is the other way around. They usually already have a handle on the short-form content and interstitial media thanks to being a platform owner, and it is the kind of cultural touchstone, zeitgeist-y intentional media that they must chase to differentiate their offering and acquire new subscribers. This is why Facebook and YouTube, having already conquered their fair share in Interstitial Media consumption, is now investing heavily to find a big hit in the Intentional Media category.

Implications for Brands and Advertisers

The attention you pay to both categories is about the same as far as advertisers are concerned, but it is no longer the only metric. For the rising trio of direct-to-consumer content distributors, intention, not attention, is now the most valued currency in the post-Peak TV world. This is a world where highlight and recap culture continuously dilutes the value of long-form premium content for media owners, as they cut Intention Media like sports matches and prestige dramas down to size to become easily digestible Interstitial Media. Consequently, it is also how the new media companies can get subscribers to follow more content without risking overwhelming them, and therefore increasing the overall perceived value of their respective content services for further lock-in.

Besides, brands will also need to contend with the platform implications assigned to this dichotomy. Due to its high commitment in attention, consumption of Intentional Media typically warrants an undisrupted, ad-free viewing experience, whereas for Interstitial Media, viewers would be far more casual and therefore open to ad-supported channels. The fact that people are usually consuming Interstitial Media on the go also opens up new media opportunities for brands to explore via location-based, contextual advertising.

Given that ads are increasingly not welcomed in Intentional Media, brand marketers have been trying to break into this domain by working with top creators to produce long-form, cinematic, highly-differentiated content. For example, Tumi’s latest campaign features a sleekly produced, Alexander Skarsgård-starring, James Bond-style globetrotting thriller that blurs the line between ads and short film. Similarly, H&M worked with famed director Baz Luhrmann to create a lush, short film last year that has racked up nearly 8 million views on YouTube. But at the end of the day, it doesn’t change the fact that this brilliantly made branded content is very unlikely to become Intentional Media for most viewers by the very nature of being a one-off that does not warrant habitual couch viewing. In other words, they are stuck being casually consumed Interstitial Media.

In contrast, Pepsi may have stumbled into a way of upgrading branded content from Interstitial Media into Intentional Media. Uncle Drew, a new comedy series recently debuted on Netflix, is actually spun from a series of viral ads for Pepsi. Pepsi had the foresight to cultivate the short-form videos into a meme, and then struck a deal to develop the concept into a legit comedy series, shows a cool way for brands to command more intention for their content.

Living Content Warrants Repeat Viewing

With the connectivity of over-the-top content delivery and subsequently the growth of Interstitial Media, content consumption is no longer bound to a linear programming schedule or a designated physical space. This emancipation from the rigidity of time and space grants content creators a new freedom to keep updating and re-editing their creative output after the initial release. As the consumption model becomes more fluid and malleable thanks to the new digital distribution channels, so does the format and the content itself.

For example, the creators behind Arrested Development re-edited season 4 of beloved comedy series to make it easier to follow chronologically before the new season comes out on Netflix, thus giving viewers a choice as to how they’d like to experience that season. In music, such post-release updates are even more common, with Kanye West famously making a number of changes to his last two albums after their initial releases and calling his last album The Life of Pablo a “living breathing changing creative expression.” In the 21st Century, it’s not just software that gets update patches as content comes alive and becoming an evolving organism that can be patched to fix post-production mistakes or accentuate key elements based on feedback. And this is not a new thing either: all those Director’s Cuts of movies that studios put on DVD can be seen as early experimentations of this format.

As content consumption continues to move towards digital channels where time-shifted delivery means that everything can be re-edited in a custom manner to suit different audiences, there is naturally less of an emphasis placed on having a final cut. Resultingly, the rewatch value for certain media products will grow exponentially when they come alive. This is particularly true for long-running franchises like Star Wars or the Marvel Universe movies where complex storylines spanning a large time span can certainly be remixed into new variations for refreshed viewings, which points to a huge advantage that legacy media conglomerates will have over the other two groups, should they choose to embrace this trend. Be it a chronological recut of all movies in a franchise or a playlist of scenes following a single character’s journey throughout multiple movies, the possibilities are endless.

Living content is a form that demands time and intention from viewers, but depending on the actual length and format of the content, it could very well be consumed interstitially. When living content becomes a common practice among content creators, viewers will likely become further invested in their favorite pieces of content and less open to new content. The intention of following a piece of living content through its evolution will become a key metric for content creators and media owners. Allowing fans to contribute to the remixes and curations of living content will further promote engagement while also adding a sense of interactivity into the mix.

Most importantly, the high re-engagement rate that living content warrants is a rare thing for the content industry where media products are usually sold as a one-off transaction. This means that, for living content to take off, the subscription model needs to be the norm of media consumption. A subscription-based on-demand service that grants consistent access to the latest versions would be far more suitable for living content than the traditional pay-per-view or pay-for-a-copy model. And that is exactly where the industry is already heading,led by companies like Netflix and MoviePass. Living content will be a key driving force in changing the fundamental business model of the entertainment industry from an one-off product-oriented business to a long-term service-oriented one.

Interactive Content Drives Intent

As intriguing as the potential of living content is the possibility of finally bringing interactivity into non-video game content to make the stories fully come alive beyond passive consumption. For years, content creators have talked about creating interactive content to boost audience engagement and providing a more invested, gamified viewing experience, but all previous attempts failed to achieve mainstream success due to limitations of reach and awareness, as well as a lack of crossover talents in narrative content creators and gaming content creators.

Now with viewers embracing digital channels en masse, however, a renewed interest in creating interactive non-gaming narrative content is emerging. Netflix recently announced it is working with Telltale Games to bring an interactive Minecraft: Story Mode to its service this fall. Previously, it has dabbled with three interactive animation titles for kids. Last year, HBO worked with director Steven Soderbergh to create Mosaic, a murder mystery mini-series that also doubles as an interactive movie available via an app. While the user cannot affect the plot, they can choose from which perspective the same plot is viewed. They can also play detective on their own time background documents, emails, and other props in a “Discoveries” option.

Then there is Late Shift. Billed as “the world’s first cinematic interactive movie,” this heist thriller features interactive dialogues that actually do affect how the story unfolds based on the audience’s choice. It uses an app powered by CtrlMovie to guide viewers through the experience when it was released in the Vue theaters in the U.K. in May. Options to pursue a specific conversation or action pop up throughout, prompting viewers to pick up their phones and vote. The movie runs about 90 minutes, depending on the decisions viewers make, but the total amount of footage, including all seven different endings and alternative scenes, is about four hours. Needless to say, rewatch value is high for interactive content, because the FOMO of the plot not taken is a built-in feature here, not a bug. Late Shift won’t be a one-off either, as 20th Century Fox has struck a licensing pact with CtrlMovie to develop more interactive cinematic content.

Late Shift screenshots courtesy of Wales Interactive

As content becomes interactive, the shift in mode of consumption from passive viewing to active engagement points to new opportunities for brand marketers. Interactive ads will become table stakes, not to mention how interactive content can solve the age-old question of the distracted audience and ensure the validity of impressions. Furthermore, by allowing viewers to pause and explore props in the scenes at their own leisure as Mosaic does, the ecommerce potential via product integration alone is tantalizing. Once interactive content is integrated with a visual search engine, suddenly every scene could double as an online store organically embedded into the content. See a character wearing or using something you like? Just pause the scene and click on the item to add it to your shopping cart! Data collection will also be amplified, as every decision you make when viewing interactive content reveals a little piece of information about who you are and what you prefer. Of course, how this data could be used ethically to power ad targeting is a whole other issue that will need to be addressed.

It also needs to be acknowledged that the rise of interactive content does not necessarily mean the end of non-interactive content. There will always be scenarios where viewers simply want to kick back and enjoy a good story without having to make narrative choices every five minutes. This is particularly true for new content, where the audience has yet to forge any emotional connection with the characters or familiarize themselves with the setting of the story.

That being said, new technologies also present new ways to make content feel interactive without needing active input from the viewers. Advances in biometric measurements can now track a myriad of physiological signs that indicate level of excitement, stress, and other emotions with a simple wearable device. Today, Dolby Labs is already using EEGs, biosensors, lie detectors, and thermal cameras to track audience reactions and emotional responses so as to inform creative development. Once we can feed those live data into an AI-powered system that is capable programmatically edit the content to fit your subconscious reactions, and you have the future of fluid, constantly morphing, personalized content.

The Rise of Stories

Stories, a vertical media format pioneered by Snapchat and popularized by Instagram, is the first true mobile-native format. Before that, all media formats on mobile were essentially transplants from existing media platforms tweaked into fitting the mobile screen. In contrast, stories are unapologetically mobile, with its insistence on vertical videos, finger doodles, AR filters, and, above all else, a sense of of-the-moment authenticity. Born out of the growing prominence of camera as an input device on mobile, it is completely visual-driven with optional text/geotag overlays for context, flipping the table on the traditional format for mobile web and social media posts where images are usually meant to be complementary to texts. Its short and ephemeral nature, as most stories disappear after 24 hours of posting, corresponds to the fast-moving pace of mobile and the shortening attention spans while adding a sense of urgency to content consumption that none of the other Interstitial Media formats processes.

Naturally, as more and more media consumption moves towards mobile, it is starting to take over our collective attention, Facebook Stories has announced a 150 million daily active user base while Instagram Stories has over 300 million daily users as of November 2017. Facebook revealed at its F8 conference in May that stories across its properties will soon garner more impressions than News Feed posts as they grew 15 times faster than feeds from Q2 2016 to Q3 2017.

And it is no longer just social media platforms that are embracing stories. Google’s new AMP Stories for news aims to bring the visual format to journalism and search results. Other noteworthy platforms that have jumped on the stories bandwagon include Netflix’s stories for mobile movie previews, Airbnb’s stories feature for documenting travels, and YouTube’s new Stories feature for vertical video content. If mobile is the future of media, then stories is the format of the future.

Needless to say, the growing popularity of stories gave the tech companies an edge over the legacy media owners in the upcoming content war, as most media companies are not familiar with content creation in the story format as they struggle to create mobile-native content. After all, formats stems from platforms, which engenders different user behaviors. This means a content format at its most effective when it is born native out of the platform and naturally fits with the user behavior on that said platform. In a sense, failure to embrace the story format is a fatal failure to adapt to the ever-so-important mobile platform.

Interestingly though, despite stories falling firmly into the Interstitial Media categories, platform owners like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat have all been eagerly trying to break into Intentional Media with long-form content. But because consumers still largely see social media as Interstitial Media platforms, their efforts so far, including Facebook’s expensive investments on original series and the launch of Facebook Watch, have yet to yield significant viewerships. And despite the lack of stories, YouTube is no exception here. Even though the vast majority of the content on its site would fall into Interstitial Media for most viewers, the Google-owned video platform is still hellbent on becoming a Intentional Media platform with confusing subscription offers and a skinny TV bundle that is not particularly competitive in a saturated market. The fact that all these platforms are still chasing long-form content is a testimony to the perceived high value of Intentional Media consumers.

This is why IGTV — the latest attempt from Facebook to break into Intentional Media — is so interesting. It is a mobile-native video service, born out of Instagram’s stories format, but packaged as a passive TV-like experience for mobile, completed with vertical video content up to one hour long, surfable channels sourced based on who you follow and what your interested in, and a super streamlined, turn-on-and-watch user experience. It is extended stories aiming to replace TV for the mobile generation, and it will be fascinating to see if it can work out a monetization system a la YouTube that supports its content creators and build up a self-sustainable content ecosystem. Then perhaps, there is a way to bridge the behavioral gap between Intentional Media and Interstitial Media after all.

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