The future of content. A rambling proposal

I think it’s time to note down in words an idea that began a few years ago (so probably around 2010-2011), spoken about in lunches and meetings where a few souls, sitting on the edge of the precipice of publishing as the decline started to really take hold. A few of us were there – usually those who’d been in the industry a while, and mostly on the production and technology side of things – behind the scenes.

We could see a fundamental shift in the way we were doing business, and see that shift accelerating. It wasn’t just in terms of the broad changes in advertising and audience shifting from regular monthly magazines to multiple daily updates on a website to the immediacy of social and online.

It was about the way we saw content, and the invisible lines that drew content, and readers, together. And how we could map them, control them and exploit them to make content…’king’…again. At the time the industry was going through a resurgence of the phrase ‘content is king’. I find it a silly phrase, used as a last ditch plea for relevance. There are so many ‘c’ words fighting for that priority – content, client, convenience, customer, conversion, currency…all mean something important. That’s a divergence though.

I’ve talked about this idea with many over the years – inside various industries both technology and content. The idea requires a leap of faith from an industry that isn’t yet ready to make that leap. Or possibly a publishing industry that refuses to acknowledge the knife edge because it has too much invested in a belief. By which I mean that publishers consider themselves ‘lifestyle’ brands – a concept that is so broad now it’s lost all relevance. Look at the ‘lifestyle’ category on any App Store – it’s a mix of food, kids apps, dating apps, shopping, business, mindfulness, content and anything else that doesn’t fit somewhere else. Like the audience method, it’s a shallow water dilution of the strength.

It’s quite odd. Publishers are obsessed with an audience we know so little about. Much is made of the shift that publishers are doing to digital to know and deliver more to their audience. We are obsessed with reaching as many eyeballs as possible. Incredible reach that culturally battles with the idea that the brand is all about relevance and appealing to the passion of a reader. Publishers believe in incredible content engagement, but lean to delivering the same short-lived bait that competes in the same shallow waters as the nouveau content rich. Look at aggregation platforms, such as Facebook etc. These are essential for reach, just by value of pure numbers and as platforms designed for output. So publishers write to the algorithms that the platforms prefer, and hence get lost when everyone is writing variations on the same story about Celebrity X’s dress at Event X, using the same set of red carpet photos.

Back to the idea.

The idea got dragged out again when Tom Goodwin made this post. That’s the idea in a nutshell. Creating a way for users to discover and explore the content they want in a depth they never thought possible, and then suggest new content to explore through the network.

It’s an idea that shifts from breadth of content to much more deeply engaging content, that surfaces complexity, discussion and knowledge. It also shifts the emphasis away from volume of audience to deeper engagement, probably with a smaller number of readers. Or would it? The idea has always had business model problems – in that it was too scary for a business. It relied too much on the rest of the networks trusting each other. It also implied that publishers would dilute their overall brands into specialties that weren’t guaranteed money spinners.

The real power of this story relies on the core influence of a publisher – the wonderful networks built over years. Those networks extend from writers, video, photographers, researchers, historians, libraries and so much more. Often they are global, and oftentimes built through the trained curiosity of a good writer, supported by the enthusiasm of an editor and the business acceptance that value isn’t driven completely by the immediate dollar connection of a story and its reader. Networks are an investment in the future.

A story itself extends across platforms, channels, time and the world. Tom Goodwin mentioned offhandedly Chicken Tikka Masala. In the right hands a Tikka Masala is an entry point into an entire journey of video, recipes, history, alternatives, shopping lists, restaurant reviews, even events, social media, and more. From Tikka Masala to cultural, or geography. How deep does the rabbit hole go?

The best live example I’ve seen is the short lived experiment to develop a WWE Universe. This evolved into existence sometime around 2011/2012 as connection between the fans and the stars. The concept was that the wrestling feuds, challenges would bounce between TV, social media, enabling fans to connect, cheer on and vote for potential storylines – this evolving story would then feed back into the actual brand to evolve their own wrestlers. The fans could follow the story through as deeply or as lightly as possible, taking live TV to another level, and be involved in a much more deep level than ever before. It’s an idea that works exceptionally well for a niche audience like WWE, and the thinking was that broader publishers could use this concept by leveraging the strengths of their established networks of creators.

Unfortunately, the WWE Universe didn’t last, getting pulled back to a more channel specific presence around 2012, when WWE was relaunching and struggling to gain a strong foothold with subscribers.

And hence the problem with the idea – how could publishers actually make this happen, especially given the failure of the WWE Universe as well as other concepts like Project Elysium, the exploratory concept that was rejected against the concept that became The Daily, the failed News Corp foray into iPad/app publishing.

Publishers are convinced that they are giving the audience what they want, based on social media trending, google searches and other ideas of what’s popular. Popularity is transience, based on events, celebrity and zeitgeist. It’s a fine line that goes to the heart of brand and publishing – does a publisher create what the reader wants to read, or what they SHOULD consume. Treading this line is how the great brands have stayed relevant and powerful – producing what they want to read, structured and produced in the way that they should be consumed keeps the brand ahead of the curve, and challenges the reader expectations.

That publishing is an industry planned and executed so long in advance (sometimes months in the case of some magazines, years for some stories) is often met with frustration. It’s not how we see content lifecycles these social media obsessed days.

That’s not right. Content lifecycles can live forever in the right context. And it is something we should be celebrating, and exploiting. Publishers know that they are the gatekeepers of quality content. They also believe that people will pay for quality, exclusive content. Quite rightly too – developing an incredible network of content builds an exclusivity that goes beyond what the story is about, into the entire infrastructure of a piece. There’s growing evidence that the B2B publishing sector is undergoing transformation more speedily than the B2C sector, and is growing in strength by using content marketing techniques to explore ways to expand their audiences.

Scaling this to a broad consumer level sounds like a tantalising opportunity.

Can publishers make money?

Here’s the quirk – what publishers need to develop is an AVPA – an average value per asset. Essentially a minutiae rate card that puts a value against each part of the network. A featured piece would have a value based on the addition of the pieces connected, with a multiplier for the complexity and the connectivity between that story and converting/extending that to other parts of the network.

In the end, every story could potentially have a different value. That’s fine – as the majority of sales are driven through a subscription, and single article sales tend to predicate on smaller numbers of users who spend higher amounts pursuing topics – this falls directly into the value offering of the idea.

This business model can co-exist with traditional publishing subscriptions and sales models. A subscriber to the Tikka Masala category can still be a subscriber to the whole cooking magazine.

To boot, one of the fun topics in a publishing house is to try and understand just how many unused assets sit on DVDs, hard drives, film rolls and so on. These so-called ‘gray’ assets are worth a lot. Not just in terms of hard value as shot images, but as new material to deliver depth to a piece of content, and also to establish the value of a network. Creators emotionally value the amount that a publisher used their content – it’s an emotional handshake to confirm a close relationship, and affirms the absolute value that a publisher has in being able to commission and highlight great creators.

The concept of ARPU

The idea has been explored here and there in live projects, adapted in ways that focus primarily on quick money, which tends to abandon the depth and longer term value of the content. Publishers haven’t yet been slow to embrace the Customer Experience approach, to see their customers in terms of lifecycles, average revenue per user (ARPU) and long term brand engagements. A lot of this is because publishers, for all the capability to touch a reader’s passions, know so much less about their readers than even public services companies.

The idea has one core dependency that shakes publishers – it relies so heavily on an agreed network of trust – that the library providing the images, and the creator making the video, have the same goals and ambitions as the publisher for customer experience and engagement. Simply put, this trust doesn’t exist to the extent it needs to – the governed trust required to exist is too focussed on ownership (a relatively black & white situation), rather than bartered need. In other words – it’s a simple grab of “I own this, therefore you can’t have it” rather than “I own it, and you can use it on the proviso that you scratch my back and down the track I’ll also get something back”.

The business model of focussing on this distributed network is a terrifying leap of faith, and then also because the building of the structure is terrifying (no media company has, to my knowledge in 2017, the infrastructure in place to track, manage, share and exploit its entire content asset base to the depth of metadata, governance and sentiment needed to make the idea not just sufficient, but amazing).

It puts the power in the hands of the creators (as the distributed owners of the network and metadata), something which, oddly enough, many publishers are scared of. Creators have become the support mechanism for making revenue, not the main focus of revenue. It becomes a terrifying concept to build a revenue future off a concept that seems to hurt the business model that has evolved over the decades. One could easily try to placate this idea by arguing that the investment in the future is actually more secure because this builds a governance and ownership layer on top of the network owned and built by the creators.

As a quick aside, I’ve been seeing a bit of work into blockchain as an anchor technology to enable this. Interesting.

One could also argue that the aggregation platforms like Facebook, Apple etc are actually very keen and willing to support in depth network driven content like this. And they are – content like this builds a legitimacy and authenticity that they are very able to support, and is something they have wanted to years, but know is something so far out of their reach.

Can it make money? Ah hell, I don’t ACTUALLY know. I do have some firm beliefs in the business opportunity for this. Publishers are ready for this, the systems are ready for it. The content is ready for this (that is, if publishers can slow down the culling of their in-house creators).

However it’s still a scary model as it overwhelmingly seems to sacrifice audience reach for smaller numbers.

And so it floats…

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