New Partnership Paradigms: The Wave Of The Digital Future

The story of how the Pac-12 (boy, that's still hard for me, a long time Pac-10 fan, to say) negotiated their recent television media rights deal provides good insight into how traditional partnership models can melt away in changing times.

As the story goes, Comcast was on the verge of locking up the TV rights to Pac-12 events -- primarily football and men's basketball -- until long-time competitors Fox and ESPN joined forces on a bid to share the deal which ultimately snatched it back from the jaws of defeat.

Hey, if the TV guys who are used to "winner takes all" negotiations can figure out a way to partner up on deals -- imagine what the digital world could look like rolling forward as content producers, distributors and sponsors figure out changing roles and business models on the fly. Consider what kinds of working relationships we might see given the shifting landscapes.

Content Producers and Distributors

This is the relationship you'd expect to be the most secure. You know, distributor pays content producer for content, and then monetizes it by bringing in sponsors and/or charging fans directly.

But what happens in a world with rapidly shifting and expanding distribution outlets? Think of Google/YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Hulu and the tens of millions of smartphones and tablets consumers carry around all as content consumption devices -- or distribution. Combine this plethora of digital distribution with the ever declining cost of content creation -- a camera and a talking head, a blog post, and even a "professionally produced" show all cost a fraction of what they cost to produce yesterday let alone a year ago.

So the content producer and distributor dynamic is changing. Content creators can go direct to consumer (and hope someone can find them on the Web or via the App Store) or, more likely, they can wade into this expanding sea of distribution that awaits their creations and let their content creations flow through as many distribution outlets as make sense.

And in a lot of cases, content producers will attempt to also become distributors -- the University of Texas can make video content available directly to fans through their own website -- and likewise, distributors will become content producers -- Netflix and Hulu moving in to "originals" production are but two examples here.

Distributors and Sponsors

Here is another traditional working relationship that is under re-construction. Digital distribution doesn't mean a walled garden network that owns audience in the way three television networks used to dominate the airwaves.

Distribution still matters for sponsors; it will just be defined differently and more fluidly. Channels like Search powered by Google's ongoing improvements in delivering high quality content to users, and Social powered by Facebook's and Twitter's respective focus on turning their audiences more efficiently towards content will be increasingly relevant to sponsors. And Mobile will no doubt be the consumption platform that dominates the future -- the combination of Search and Social on Mobile opens up a whole new distribution playing field for sponsors.

Savvy advertisers will embrace these changes in the context of their traditional distributor partnerships. It won't be sufficient to park a sponsorship exclusively on a single distribution outlet to reach a desired audience. Pepsi, for example, will need to reach NFL fans where those fans can be aggregated and engaged across several distribution outlets. Sponsors who can efficiently map their brand messages across a diverse set of distribution opportunities will find that their ROIs respond accordingly.

Content Producers and Sponsors

Of the three unique relationships in the content-distribution-sponsorship chain, the dynamic between content producers and sponsors may be the one that we see transition the most as digital media continues to evolve. New and meaningful distribution outlets give content producers and sponsors more options to partner directly to create powerful experiences.

Some might call this the next wave of "advertorial" or "branded content." Whatever term gets coined, the opportunities will continue to expand for brands to define the audiences they want to connect with and then partner with content producers to create experiences that don't feel forced and fake.

A key aspect here will be sponsors and content producers having a smart perspective on distribution on distribution. For example, Chevy could come up with the greatest creative concept in concert with a content producer, but running the content solely on and/or a single media website will significantly limit the potential for Chevy to engage all the potential fans who might be impacted by the campaign.

Ultimately, great content concepts, smart distribution and innovative sponsorship groups will all be part of the mix going forward. Just expect that the ways they have historically worked together will evolve almost as fast and the digital media landscape is moving.

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