Unglued From the Tube
As the screens keep multiplying, content roams free
Dramatic changes in media overthrew the old models, and consumers took control: Nomadic media takes the evolution one giant step farther.
He's broken free. Smart phones. Wireless connections. Thumb drives that hold a small library of information on a keychain. Internet cafés. With the adoption of smarter and smarter tools, consumers have leveraged their own liberation. The modern consumer is ever more mobile, untethered to media schedules, to heavy PCs, to offices, even to traveling itself. They are not physically tied to any one place: not the office, not the classroom, not the television. Consumers take pieces of increasingly fragmenting media and run with them - wherever they feel like it. They can work and play at will, whether they are world travelers or dedicated suburbanites.
To keep up, media itself had to adapt to this untethering, or risk irrelevance. The next step in media's evolution was to free itself from the definition of offline or online, from the limited roles of push and pull, and become something smarter and more flexible. Well-traveled and adaptable.
Media has become nomadic.
Video screens appear everywhere: elevators, cabs, gas station pumps. Brands send messages out along every path in a consumer's day, using creativity and smarter targeting to make connections with consumers. Video games, iTunes, screens at the grocery store, viral videos, street campaigns - even a simple jog in a park can strengthen a consumer's relationship with Nike if he's doing so as a member of a Nike running club, one of the ever-proliferating elements of the Just Do It campaign.
As in any significant evolution, the complications that come from media's change to a nomadic state can both improve marketing and create new challenges for it. If media can be anywhere a consumer can be, increased competition and targeting will drive up the quality of successful messaging, which is good for the consumer and good for marketers. It also creates many more opportunities for consumers to have personal interactions with a brand, and to define that brand on their own terms.
But that ubiquity has a downside: When media can travel into every corner of a consumer's life, it risks becoming invisible, or worse, entirely unwanted. The evolution continues.
God Save the Queen
Andrew Susman is CEO of Studio One Networks, a company that may have seen this shift coming. Since the late '90s, it's been syndicating content - sponsored by heavyweights like Honda, Nestlé and Procter & Gamble - that travels to meet interested consumers wherever they are. He believes that the success of this distribution model lies in the quality of the content.
"Every program that we produce has nationally known authorities attached to it," such as the American Academy of Pediatrics for the program Your Baby Today, Susman says. "The same piece of content is being served and distributed as a fixed position and updated daily, 24/7, across 243 separate distribution partners, including CBS, FOX, NBC and ABC sites."
Your Baby Today is also distributed to Babies R Us, parenting Web sites, "in radio and also in television via closed-circuit in 1,400 pediatric wards, reaching 65 percent of registered births. So it's online, in audio and on video," Susman says. "We have no commitment to any one channel. We're only about the content, and delivering quality content to high-value audiences."
"We've always had this notion, rightly so, that content is king. Yes, you go get distribution, but the stuff you put out there has got to have relevance," says Michael Bloxham, director of insight and research at Ball State University's Center for Media Design. "If content is king, then context is queen. You've actually got to say, what kind of content is best suited for the environment in which it is consumed? How is that content repurposed for this particular screen, which is viewed at a particular distance, at a particular time, in a particular mode?"
The broadcast model of branding - the traditional push - distilled a brand into its simplest form, while reaching the most consumers possible and offending the fewest, says David Weinberger, a fellow at Harvard Law School's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the co-author of the Web marketing book, The Cluetrain Manifesto.
It also required that marketers retain control over their brand, in any media format. A consumer's relationship with the brand was prescribed. The dramatic changes in media in the past few years overthrew that model, and consumers took control of their own interactions with media. Nomadic media takes the evolution one giant step farther.
Nomadic media puts a brand's message out there, traveling many different pathways, and dressed in many different costumes, all specifically tailored to certain groups of interested consumers. Crossing paths with the consumer now actually starts a relationship in which the consumer plays an active part. The consumer is not coming to the brand at the brand's beckoning. The brand is not forcing its company on the consumer (at least, not always, though elevator TVs come to mind). The brand's identity in the eyes of the consumer depends on a consumer's interaction with it.
The evolution of the consumer and of media has led to a nomadic lifestyle for each, and a more dependent relationship on each other. Nomadic media is out of the hands of the marketer, and is shaking hands with the consumer. And the result of these interactions has been, in the best cases, far more vibrant relationships with brands, and consumers who are true ambassadors for them.
An interesting place to watch this trend develop is the 2008 presidential campaign. A campaigning presidential candidate is by definition nomadic: traveling the country, available at all hours, making personal connections, delivering a message crafted for the audience of the moment - all while staying on brand.
But it wasn't until recently that candidates began making good use of the fact that media can behave the same way. It started in the 2004 race, says Harvard's David Weinberger, who was also a technology adviser to the Howard Dean campaign and for John Edwards during his recent bid.
"The Dean campaign figured out that they would benefit if they could enable supporters to connect with each other and talk about what supporters wanted," subverting the highly simplified broadcast model, Weinberger says. "The Obama campaign has been spectacular at doing that. ... It's far more interesting, and I think more liberating, to see videos springing up from all sorts of people, and not using the Web simply as a way to maintain control over their message."
In fact, they can't use the Web as a way to control their message, because consumers use the Web to undo brand messages - and to discuss them among friends.
Fred Stutzman is a Ph.D. student and a teaching and research fellow at the School of Information and Library Science at UNC-Chapel Hill, and the co-founder and developer of claimid.com, a tool to manage online identities. He studies social networks and has been following the candidates' campaigns there.
"What I've seen is lots and lots of people picking up their brand, their message, and sort of marketing it to one another," for example, by sending an invite to a rally or by joining a group, Stutzman says. It's a conversation that in 2008 extends far beyond an sms.
"The Web is no longer this abstract place where you interact with anonymous people and there aren't real-world ties," Stutzman says. "When one person is signaling or marketing something to their friends, they're effectively marketing it to their real-world friends, and that's something that you couldn't do on the Web five years ago because people didn't have online identities."
That small change in media unanchored social networks from the Web and linked them to real-world relationships, creating communities of influencers who are everywhere.
There are drawbacks to media's new nomadic lifestyle.
"I have rarely been in a cab with a video screen where I or my fellow passenger didn't switch it off as soon as we got in; moving video in a moving taxi makes just about everyone carsick," says Drew Neisser, CEO of Renegade, an interactive marketing agency in New York City that operates under the philosophy, "Marketing as service."
Indeed, with nomadic media free to roam throughout a consumer's day, it can occasionally seem intrusive, like a chatty stranger of dubious value as a travel partner. The importance of content and context becomes even more obvious when one of them is off.
"LocaModa's digital billboard for CNN in Times Square, on the other hand, actually provides people with entertainment that engages them," Neisser says. "A scramble of letters, each with a point value, is posted on the billboard, along with a countdown clock. People in Times Square or on the Web site are invited to SMS words made up of the letters. The service? Entertainment, engagement, and two seconds
Montreal-based Pixman Nomadic Media - whose vice president of sales and marketing, Reneault Poliquin, did not object to Media's redefining of the term - likes to think of its wearable screens as performing a kind of service too. The screen creates something interesting for consumers to interact with, and it collects information from them to create what Poliquin calls "a consenting database" for marketers.
"You are trying to, of course, seduce the consumer, and the consumer has a choice of coming to us or not," Poliquin says.
The success of nomadic media lies in continued experimentation and adventuring. Web properties are reaching offline, establishing themselves as part of this shift. The tech blog Boing Boing, originally a print publication that's long since defunct, now sends a nomadic version of itself out to consumers in the form of Boing Boing TV, which can be found online, of course, but is also available as part of Virgin America's in-flight entertainment (right next to The Simpsons, points out Boing Boing TV contributor and tech journalist Xeni Jardin). Sponsors include BMW, IBM and Verizon.
"Individual brands, individual advertisers, are starting to think of campaigns as something that really are driven by that desire to permeate every possible zone of experience that somebody might have in the course of a day," Jardin says. "Online video is increasingly seen as a valid part of that spread."
Jardin and her Boing Boing TV cohorts recently began producing a show called "S.P.A.M. Theater," video dramatizations of real spam e-mails, word for word. While those pieces of media were almost certainly not meant to roam beyond an inbox, "S.P.A.M. Theater" is an extreme example of consumers creating their own definition of a brand message simply by interacting with it.
End of the Road
These nomads should not roam aimlessly. Each piece of media needs a mission. Otherwise, it's lost.
"If you looked at this issue any time over about the last 20 years, people would be referring to the notion of the saturation point, and they would probably be saying that, well, saturation can't be far away," Bloxham says. "But it seems that media itself is relentless in the pursuit of opportunities for more and greater exposures, and that we have almost an inexhaustible capacity to manage exposure.
"We may continue to be exposed to media on a ever greater scale, but that doesn't actually mean we absorb it."That will remain the challenge for creators of nomadic media: to make the interaction worthwhile, and to invite real relationships with consumers, while exploring even more ways to be noticed when paths cross.