2 Feb 2009

Content is the future

Imagine your favourite magazine.

Imagine it had no advertising in it.

Imagine the advertising pages were all replaced with more articles and editorial.

Would you still subscribe to it?

Now imagine that this magazine has 50,000 pages and stretches right across the room.

Would you still subscribe to it?

Probably not, might be bit difficult getting it through your letterbox.

But suppose we could find a way of condensing down all 50,000 pages into a handy size, making all the articles you really wanted to read available in an instant and for the same price or less than the original magazine.

And suppose we could do that for all your favourite magazines.

And newspapers.

And TV shows.

And radio programmes.

Sounds impossible.

But in the near future that’s exactly what we’re going to be able to do.

In fact we’re already a good part of the way there, entertaining and informing ourselves with an explosion of digital platforms.

In the last decade alone there have been 4 major waves of digital innovations; internet, digital television, digital radio and broadband each offering consumers new ways to watch, read and listen. The fifth and most recent, mobile media, is taking off at a similarly frenetic pace.

The inefficiency of overpriced plastic disks, or advertising-heavy print media light on content and free of links are being blown away by the speed and flexibility of direct digital content delivery.

Every existing media channel is fragmenting at pace and hundreds more being added.

But within another decade even this will look pedestrian.

The future expansion of bandwidth means pervasive high-speed access will open up further access to content, such as IPTV, HD video on demand anywhere, anytime.

With an almost limitless supply of platforms consuming multiple media simultaneously will become everyday.

Average total media consumption will actually then exceed waking hours.

But how on earth will we manage the contents of this media Pandora’s Box?

In the future, the cost of data storage will drop significantly. This will give rise to a virtual storage hub, the ‘Personal Cloud’, that will store all of an individual’s data and content.

Software and processing power will also be virtually available, further enabling us to interact with content rich data anywhere, anytime.

Our ‘Personal Cloud’ will be accessible through any device, at home and on the move.

And not only by us but also to anyone with whom we would wish to share content, whether that’s content generated from commercial media companies or the blogs, videos, photos and music that we’ve created ourselves.

In short it’ll be a Sky+ for everything.

Only better.

And it will mark the end of advertising as we know it.

Interruption advertising, conceived in an era when breakfast TV meant staring at a Test Card and ‘post peak’ consisted of a small whining dot in the middle of your screen, won’t be fit for purpose when we have the ability to easily filter, sort, prioritise, discard, self schedule and create exactly what we want, when we want it.

Or when we have the ability to easily rip the ads from the magazine and replace them with content and add links to much more of the same.

As The Times noted on 6th Nov this year:

‘Cloud computing will define the next 20 years of the IT industry.’

Fortunately for marketers, however, this isn’t going to happen overnight. Not everyone is in a headlong rush to the new media world.

Today and in the medium term there will be a bimodal consumer base where the majority will continue to operate pretty much as they have always done – passively consuming media.

A minority, however, will be more active and participative, will personalise and control their media experiences.

So what we have are two tribes, Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.

The indigenous population of this newly discovered media world, Digital Natives, will need no alien monolith to guide them to wisdom.

They have never known a world without ubiquitous broadband internet access. They don’t just consume media, they also produce it. Their relationship is already active rather than passive.

They demand content when they want it, how they want it and as they want it.

They interact with and control their media choices. They are comfortable consuming multiple streams simultaneously, meshing media and sharing it. Their personal clouds are already being formed.

Digital Immigrants on the other hand are newcomers to this half familiar land. They represent the current majority of consumers of media, brought up in an age where a few media owners set the agenda.

Just now they have a mainly passive relationship with media. Television will likely remain as the centrepiece of their entertainment for the near term but, as we know, cheaply networked digital technologies will be producing vast amounts of new kinds of media.

Both Immigrants and Natives will eventually navigate this by picking and choosing what matters most to them and storing it in their Personal Cloud.

And what will matter to them?

Obviously information that meets their immediate basic needs will be welcome; weather and traffic reports, emergency plumbers, best deals on car insurance or local petrol prices.

The difference from today is that these will be supplied by sources that have been cross checked and referenced by others that they trust; friends, forums, blogs, websites that constantly compare, contrast and update us.

Beyond immediate needs our new digital hunter gatherers will have the same vast range of interests that we do today; social, cultural, financial, leisure, sports, learning. Every conceivable interest, from the broad (e.g. safety conscious drivers) to the niche (e.g. Munro baggers) is already catered for today and this will only increase.

And it’s to these communities of interest, not current socio-demographic templates, that the marketer will need to turn to have any hope of earning our tribes’ attention and a coveted place within the Personal Cloud.

Across consumer markets attention is becoming the scarcest, and so most strategically vital, resource in the value chain and marketers will have to adopt a new mantra:

It’s the content they want, not the packaging.

Neither tribe is likely to be heard asking of their Personal Cloud technology;

“Just serve me ads or commercial messages.”

However this is not to say that our tribes will not be consumers or that brands will be rejected per se.

Brands will still feature heavily in the tribes’ repertoire but deficient products or brands that don’t do what they claim will be found out and dismissed a lot quicker.

Brand loyalty will still be earned over time through consistent, positive experiences and engagements. But in future, whilst those stories will still need to be rooted in an authentic base and dialogue they will have to play out in a non-traditional, non-linear way.

In short, they will need to become part of the content.

But how do they do this?

As identified in 'I believe the children are our future', four key characteristics will define the form of ideas and brands. In future there may be more but these four characteristics or techniques, used singly, combined or best of all simultaneously should, we believe be the pillars of all brand communication in the future.

The first of these techniques is Convergent.

This is all about delivering complex brand stories in lots of mediums. Consumers (or their pre-programmed Personal Cloud technology) will search for and pick out the most relevant (to their community of interest) aspects of a brand’s story.

But delivering these relevant aspects through content, using the best platform, will require a radical shift in the way communications are designed.

Virtually anything where consumers access relevant content will have to be considered a possible medium. In some instances the technology will have to be created to best serve the needs of the brand story. E.g. ‘Virtual mirrors’ that let you see what you look like in different clothes / make-up / hairstyles before you purchase.

This in turn will require new skills and creative specialists to be included in communications marketing; creative technologists, concert producers, software designers, architects and, of course, consumers themselves.

And it’s this last, ceding of control to consumers, that forms the basis of the second technique, Recombinant.

By this we simply mean allowing the consumer to take your content and re-mix it for themselves. For the less control a brand exercises over its content creation and distribution, the more credibility and trust it will engender.

We’ve already seen early attempts by some brands to infiltrate blogs, or control content, backfiring badly.

Lucasfilm forced the ‘Ain’t it Cool News’ movie site to withdraw a scathing review of its animated film ‘Star Wars: The Clone Wars.’ But the review had already been ‘re-published’ on other sites and shared amongst the target ‘community of interest’, namely Star Wars Fans. Both Lucasfilm and ‘Ain’t it Cool News’ were damaged as a result.

Contrast this with Eon Productions’ (makers of the Bond movies) lack of interference with fans attempts (via YouTube) to come up with a theme tune for the latest 007 film that actually included the words ‘Quantum of Solace.’ Much mirth and free publicity for the movie followed.

The producers realised that this participative aspect actually strengthens the relationship consumers (or fans) have with your brand.

The third suggested technique, then, is Participative.

Essentially this involves designing your content specifically so, that at the very least, audiences can re-combine it, download it, store it in their personal cloud and re-use it.

One current high profile example of this might be the ‘Cadbury’s Dairy Milk Gorilla ad.’ This piece of simian simulation has been downloaded and re-made at least 40 different ways by fans, posted on YouTube and shared with others.

Going a stride further and telling your brand story with participation already built in is, we think, even better. Some companies have already taken a few tentative steps towards this.

In the US, for example, Audi created ‘The Art of the Heist,’ an alternative reality game, to launch the A3. The game offered three layers of interaction including on-line character development, file and password cracking and live events.

And finally the fourth technique, if we can call it that, is the one that harnesses and leverages the power of the other three. It is the one that brands will have to master to tell stories that stick.

But it is also the one that we are most likely to resist because it truly marks the end of the old order; distributing content by making it Networked.

We know that for the consumer the most trusted source of brand recommendation is from family and friends. On top of this, in future, each Community of Interest will have almost unlimited ways of sharing their views with their peers. Forums, votes, recommendations, tips, reviews, criticisms will spread as fast and as deeply as consumers want them to go.

Peer-to-peer networks are already starting to transform the distribution paradigm as well as the traditional creative landscape, which is currently dominated by large commercial corporations.

Joost is a prime example. Founded by the creators of ‘Skype’ it’s a groundbreaking peer to peer TV service that combines content with social tools;

“People have always relied on their friends’ recommendations to figure out which movies they want to watch, or talked about their favorite TV shows and moments with friends and colleagues – and now Joost has combined those real-life experiences in one online destination,” said Mike Volpi, CEO, Joost. “Our integrated social tools make it easier than ever for people to find the shows, film and music they want to watch, and to form communities around that content, which ultimately enriches their overall experience.”

The new website features a number of ways that people can interact with video and with other people on Joost: they can voice their opinions about video through comments, “shouts” or tags; they can find out what their friends are watching by adding friends through most major online webmail services via the Friends section; or they may interact with others in the Joost community through groups around their favorite shows, characters or artists.

So, as William Gibson famously said, “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”

The question is, has it already been distributed to your clients’ target audiences? And just how ready are we, how ready are you to distribute it more evenly?