Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Media as the interface between human and experience of culture

BMW doesn’t make all of its cars. They use a network of subsidiaries and partners for the messy business of putting together bits of glass, rubber and metal.

But BMW also looks after other stuff which can best be described as the interface between driver and the experience of driving.

It focuses on the high-tech development of electronics; the stuff that determines what it feels like to drive – the feedback through the steering wheel, the ergonomics of the switching, the feel of the suspension, the sound of the engine. And of course they hold the web of suppliers, peer producers if you will, together.

It also looks after the customer experience – showrooms, aftersales, marketing. The branding. How you feel about being a BMW owner.

All brand-related areas of competence (design, purchasing, service, etc.) remain the responsibility of the BMW Group.”

Aston Martin has an interesting attitude, now that Ford has sold it.

The chief exec, Ulrich Bez, can see a day when a 'car maker' like Aston only controls the brand and marketing - everything else (design, R&D, manufacturing) can be outsourced to suppliers, according to an interview in Car Magazine in May 2007.

Car manufacturers are not alone in this approach. Hotel chains rarely own bricks and mortar and certainly don’t build it. They act as the interface between guest and experience – they do the branding, they train the staff, they set the standards etc.

This idea has set me thinking about how it could be applied in my industry, media.

What is the production line process of building a car or the bricks and mortar of running a hotel when it comes to media?

Perhaps it is the creation of content? While we are currently geared to making content, what if we were not – what would we do instead? Regular participants in the conversation of this blog will know I have a view on this.

Perhaps this is another way of groping towards some new conclusions?

What does it mean to act as the interface between humans and content? And isn’t this what we have always done? Isn’t a magazine a way of shaping someone’s experience of content?

Perhaps it helps to think about what the selection of that content does to shape our experience of culture.

What is the equivalent of developing ways of nuancing our communities’ experience of culture (in the way BMW nuances the experience of driving)?

BMW has a Point Of View. It knows what experience it wants to generate. It selects technologies, invests in development, chooses materials, positions its brand, to respond to this POV.

The question from a community perspective is how this POV is arrived at in the first place? We have to assume BMW gets meeting the needs of their community substantially right. Failure to do so means no more car sales.

But what we also know about BMW is that the customer can indulge in a reasonable range of co-creation (ie customising) of their vehicle. The value in this for the customer is in creating something they cherish more.

Surprisingly – despite the clear marketing value for BMW in allowing people to shape their vehicles – BMW doesn’t give you a cut of the value you create. Still – while they can get away with it, I guess why not? What am I on about? Ok, bit of a meander here but, if I opt for the better alloys on my beemer my car looks better – I love it more, more people see better-looking BMWs, more demand is created both in a broadcast way (each car out there acting as a rolling billboard) and in a recommended-by-a-friend way (the most powerful selling technique there is). And yet BMW want you to pay extra for this. Neat business model!

Anyway, back to the nuancing of experience.

Let’s say the selection of relevant, quality, materials is equivalent to a media brand curating a range of relevant, quality, materials.

The customising element? We then allow the individual to choose from among these quality materials to customise the experience of the culture to their own tastes.

Our role becomes one of aggregating materials against a brief agreed with /determined by our community of passion. And there are various social tools available to us to allow the community to engage in the co-creation of this brief.

Does this mean we must cease all content production? Not necessarily. Boeing, for example, still makes the tail-piece on its latest airliner while working with a peer-producer network to create the rest. It has chosen to retain control of this because it’s technically tough to do and gives them control of one element which the rest of the peer-producers in the creation of a plane would find hard to replicate. In short they can’t build a plane without Boeing.

Perhaps this indicates the kind of content media companies should concentrate on. It can’t be the stuff that is easily replicated by everyone else. It must be the exclusive and the hard-to-do. It must be the piece that a new media, purely ugc-reliant company could not replicate if it sought to put together its airliner.

So do we have some guidance?

Regarding the role of media as the interface between human and culture leads me to a handful of conclusions:

  1. We should curate content compiled against a set of shared values, shared values which have been co-created with our community of interest. This content to include that produced by all sources. This represents our nuancing of the relevant culture.
  2. We allow individuals (and self-forming groups within the community) to customise their experience – nuancing their experience still further and making that experience one they are more likely to market on our (and their) behalf.
  3. Manage the web of peer producers – create the platform, manage the interaction of those contributing to it.
  4. Contribute hard-to-do content. This is the one piece no one else can easily replicate. It’s our Boeing tail piece and represents a barrier to entry as compared to purely user-generated-content models.

I should emphasise that this is my first wild stab in the dark at this notion of media as cultural interface. And I could really do with your help… definitions of hard-to-do content… ideas for managing the web of peer producers… etc

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The rate of change is so rapid it's difficult for one person to keep up to speed. Let's pool our thoughts, share our reactions and, who knows, even reach some shared conclusions worth arriving at?