Fast Forward: Distributed Content
Recently, I moderated a panel of digital media gurus during a daylong internal briefing of Time Warner's global digital media organization, which represents a cross-section of digital executives from the company's media holdings. The panel I moderated looked at how both buyers and sellers of media incorporate and use digital media metrics to improve operations.
It was an enlightening discussion, much of which I cannot write about because it was an internal briefing, but I feel compelled to spill the beans about something said by Mike Rich, senior vice president of AOL Entertainment. AOL, he said, has embraced a "distributed content" model: It can no longer rely on consumers coming to it as a destination, but now must distribute its content, pushing it to online users wherever they happen to be spending their time. "We know that people don't necessarily start or end their online session on AOL," he said. That was a lightbulb moment, an epiphany that changed the way I thought about media. Imagine that: AOL, which began life as a gateway to online access - quite literally the on-ramp to the information superhighway - and over time morphed into a Web destination, has now become a distributor of content onto other Web destinations. AOL uses a variety of means to do this: Widgets, RSS streams, and new and emerging applications bring AOL to the online masses, in the hopes that they will also click back through to AOL.
AOL, of course, pioneered distributed-content applications. Its Instant Messenger and ICQ services were among the first truly critical mass applications downloaded by users onto the most distributed real estate of all, their very own desktops.
Distributed-content models are as old as the Internet. Older, even. Remember PointCast? It was an "offline" online distribution model that downloaded news and other relevant content to users' desktops overnight. PointCast failed, but it may simply have been ahead of its time. The technology was still clunky back in the early 1990s, and the user base wasn't that big. Today, distributed content via widgets, RSS and other means has become a core strategy for most content companies. In a Web 2.0 environment, the goal isn't necessarily to generate the most traffic to your site. It's to have users interacting with your content wherever they may be.
Call it "nomadic media" (as we do in this issue). And the concept isn't unique to the online world. Television networks, radio broadcasters, and publishers all understand that consumers are in control, and that they are increasingly migratory and expect their media to be as well. We've already broken the barrier of time with video-on-demand, dvrs and an array of time-shifting technologies. Now, we're breaking the barrier of space with platform-shifting technologies ranging from Slingboxes to the mobile Web. In a nomadic media world, the medium is not the message. It's the messenger.
That change has big implications for advertisers and content-owners alike. What happens when technology allows marketers to target consumers based not on the relevance of the content they're consuming, but based on the relevance of their behavior leading up to or surrounding the content they happen to be consuming? Advertising becomes detached from media content, that's what happens. It's already happening online via behavioral targeting and certain advertising networks.
And, if you believe the interactive TV gurus, it's about to happen to the television business, as companies ranging from Invidi to Google and efforts like Project Canoe enable the same kind of behavioral targeting on television. When that happens, will marketers continue to pay the premiums associated with high-demand programming when they can reach the same viewers via cheaper content elsewhere? The context and relevance of big, live TV events like the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, or a season or series finale aren't likely to suffer, but over time, the real, relevant value for marketers will be had in serving their messages based on where the consumer roams.