I recently went to a conference that included a panel discussion of real live, honest-to-goodness Millennials. These things are always hit or miss. The organizers roll out a few 18-to-34-year-old whippersnappers and hope like hell that they tell tales of enlightenment to us open-eared media folks.
At this particular conference, the gambit worked. If you believe, as I do, that this generation will change the world, then these kids are definitely among the agents of that change. They’re the kind of young people that inspire and terrify you in equal measure.
Two things in particular struck me in listening to these cool, confident kids casually converse about social, mobile, creativity and content. One: A bigger screen does not equate to a better viewing experience to these guys. The amount of full-episode viewing on phones they described, even by their own rough estimations, was enough to give any 50-inch flat-screen fan a migraine.
They obliterated the notion that short-form, bite-sized content -- vignettes, comedy shorts, music videos -- is the only thing that will play on a small screen. And there was little to no distinction made about what is premium content and, well, not so premium. Emmys and Lions be damned -- these consumers put their own stamp on what’s good, and it’s about the experience as much as it is pure creative. A lot of times, accessibility trumps “quality.”
The second thing. A college professor raised his hand to ask a seemingly simple question: “What is a network?” After a minute of silence, the panelists proceeded to give every answer but the one I’d have given. One young lady said it’s her circle of friends. Another guy said that it’s his friends, his family, and anyone else who is inclined to listen to him. And one millennial said that his network is whatever content he decides to consume and share among friends and family.
Bingo. I have a hunch that a lot of Millennials look at themselves this way -- as programmers of their own virtual networks of content they consume and share on whatever platform is at their fingertips at that moment. We are in the age of the playlist, and this is how people manage their lives across multiple media.
For a consumer brand to succeed, doesn’t it have to think of itself in the same way?
I think so. More and more, the clients I work with do, too. In not so many words, they’re asking us to take this virtual network approach to building marketing campaigns.
When the networks I work with create content, they program to the platform -- not just distribute to it. It’s dogma here at Viacom that a good content experience lives across different screens, in distinct ways on each of those screens.
If that’s the way we approach editorial, why not advertorial, too? Consumer brands are always hunting the white whale of valuation: Paid media + earned media = success. They buy that shiny marketing campaign and hope the creative instincts behind it were on point and it goes viral. Voilà, all of a sudden a brand has earned two or three times the media value that it has bought, the fans helped it along and are now more engaged, and everyone goes home happy.
It’s a result that used to be a happy coincidence. Now, clients are asking their publisher partners to help program that luck into measurable results. We need to use all the tools in our belt to engineer these results, beyond what good creative spurs organically.
That’s where the virtual network comes in. It goes beyond the placement of custom creative and branded entertainment projects, into the worlds of programming, editorial and distribution. Content creators work with brands to develop creative -- an integration, interstitial, or short-form series, for example – that starts at home base, typically television or the Web. Think Stephen Colbert cracking open a box of Wheat Thins. The next part is programming and scheduling a strategic distribution plan to try and engineer outcomes across the completely unpredictable world of social and online media.
It’s more art than science right now, but experience and stronger data will help us get better at it. I see the industry getting better at it every day.
Let’s be honest. We’re not going to manufacture the magic of a massive viral hit every time. I don’t even think that consumers want brands to be the sole proprietors of that space. But if marketers think boldly -- like the Millennials -- and build their own virtual networks, then they’ll truly and powerfully connect with this always connected audience. And maybe then the Millennials will inspire even more creativity in us, and just a bit less terror.