Thursday, February 21, 2008

Widgets are to web 'sites' as blogs are to broadcast

The Power of the Network means not one but two serious disruptions for media companies to come to terms with.

We've had a while to get used to the idea that we are no longer the owners of the means of production (of content, be it 'editorial, 'advertising' or 'marketing'). We understand that the lowering of technical barriers enabled by blogs and other social networking tools mean that everyone is a publisher now. Not broadcasters, but conversation starters.

The bit that seems harder for us to get our heads round is that this also means we are no longer the owners of the means of distribution.

In a print, tv, radio, (even web1.0) broadcast world we did the distribution. We not only produced the content, we packaged it as we saw fit and handed it out through our chosen channels. There was only one central hub and we were it. So the only way for content (either editorial or marketing messages) to be distributed was by it being broadcast by the same people who created the content, through our channels.

Part two of the disruption would therefore seem obvious: Now everyone creates content, so everyone distributes it.

We saw our position as lone distributor eroded by 'viral' and 'word of mouth' but we didn't really see it as a radical challenge to the status quo of our position as 'the great mouth'.

This is a hard lesson to learn. We imagine that by 'providing a place' for people to aggregrate their user generated (and other) content we can hang on to our role as distributor, as if this can be achieved without collapsing back into broadcast mindsets.

Our aggregating, community-focused plans tick all the right boxes until someone asks about 'reach', or gets excited by how many millions of eyeballs may be scanning that homepage (hello facebook, youtube etc).

I think aggregation is the right approach because members of communities (us included, btw) need to serve one another - individuals blundering around the web cherry-picking little bits of disaggregated content will soon run out of inspiration, for example.

But I also think there's a reason sites which aggregate ugc and conversation (yes that is what facebook does, too) are currently no better at generating high click-thru rates than the rest of the web. That is, there is a reason we struggle to make the business models work.

The models - no doubt responding to those who haven't understood both elements of the disruption - attempt to squeeze the networked production of content into a broadcast-style of distribution. Just look at the page impressions on that. Slap on those banner ads... surely some have to stick... That combined with attemting to take a share of transactions generated (the middle man is only ever the next good idea away from disruption) is about all we see.

The issue is that niche community generated content doesn't lend itself to being broadcast. It's our old friend relevance over quality all over again. One man's 'rubbish' is another man's quality - and the difference is its relevance to that man. A blurred family video of a treasured moment will get distributed to the people who care about it by the people who care about it - but will not become a youtube hit. If you've ever seen a complilation of 'greatest hits from YouTube on TV you'll realise how inappropriate the broadcasting of niche ugc is. Editors selecting for the lowest common denominator get involved. Relevance disappears up the rear-end of a production meeting.

Of course there are rare occasions when someone's niche community generated content breaks out of that niche to become a hit that others want to share. But these are few and far between. The vast majority is in the long tail of 'relevant to me'.

By all means, if advertisers want to give you money to have their wares on show as users fly past them to reach (or upload) the niche content they are actually interested in, you'd be foolish to say no thanks. But response rates remain horribly low - and those responding horribly familiar.

Those advertisers are bound to want something better sooner or later. And when they do, perhaps we can all start coming up with the models that benefit from the fact that networked content production and networked distribution should work together.

Widgets make this requirement clearer, as each day passes.

Trust me, they are more than a tactic.

Widgets are as disruptive to web 'sites' (the notion of the url as home/hub/destination/centralised point of distribution) and therefore to the vestiges of our role as distributors, as blogs and social media have been to broadcast and our role as centre-out content creators.

Widgets combine the two network effects - of production and distribution. The ones that work best allow you to mash-up, creating a personalised outcome. This of course makes you more interested in a) displaying on your own space b) sharing with your friends. In a) you co-created the content. in b) You are the distributor.

But widgets also offer the greatest new opportunities for the creative minds of the media industry. Every great widget starts as the cool implementation of an idea which serves a need. The best respond to the needs of niche communities. It is built to serve and the builders need a strong understanding of who it is they are serving.

Those in a position to understand those needs and to respond with creative and useful solutions stand to benefit. And those of us in specialist media would certainly like to think we're among that number. Of course, the brightest among us will turn to the communities we know to co-create the launching widget in the first place, I hope that's a given...

Perhaps my 'updated definition of media brands' requires a further update:

  • A media brand is a platform for a community with shared interests.
  • Focused on the interests of this global niche community, we should provide the tools to allow the co-creation and aggregation of content, products and services
  • Services are best delivered at the point they are needed – and that is always, always mobile!
The widget-related update?
  • Focused on the interests of this global niche community, we should provide the tools to allow the co-creation, aggregation AND DISTRIBUTION of content, products and services

Your thoughts, as always, very welcome. Please post below.

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?