If brand-conscious Martians landed on planet earth and wanted to market themselves, and we offered them the following two choices, which do you think they would choose?
- Option #1: A large heterogeneous audience that may or may not be paying attention, measured with analog tools that take some time to report.
- Option #2: A large homogeneous audience that is demonstrably paying attention, measured with precision, in real time.
The obvious answer for most would be #2. And eventually, traditional media companies won’t survive if they assume that advertisers will continue to prefer #1.
But it’s not playing out that way in the market right now. And unfortunately, instead of talking about how and why #2 isn’t being chosen by more advertisers, our industry is talking more about how to create higher-performing digital content. List after list about content strategy, form factor, device utility, content length, key word search and a host of others. The content needs to be more snackable, more buzzworthy, etc.
However, content isn’t the variable here. The same kinds of stories and ideas still make you laugh, cry, or switch to another program (or video). Length, discovery and form-factor have always been variables, because content doesn’t often conform to rules, it conforms to consumption behaviors. Twenty-minute pieces of sheet music to two-minute doo-wop to back to eleven-minute Phish jams. The real variables here are technology and data. Instead of focusing on “new” rules of content that are useless or wrong (a recent Wired piece comes to mind), we need to look at the way that technology and data inform the creation process, delivery, and consumption of content.
Technology & Story Structure
Technology is creating new and easier ways for stories to be consumed. Netflix’s resurrection of “Arrested Development” will be one storyline told from various points of view. While rare, this idea isn’t new. But the non-linear capabilities of Netflix mean that any individual’s experience of the content will be affected by the order in which the story is consumed. The content itself is not changing, but the combination of consumer behaviors (binging, participation) and new streaming technology and UX are what created this opportunity.
Other examples of how technology gives content creators new ways of telling stories abound. Arcade Fire’s music video for “We Used to Wait” dynamically incorporates the viewer’s personal images via Google Street Maps. The Johnny Cash Project lets artists re-interpret frames of videos. We partnered with Taco Bell to produce a crowd-sourced documentary at SXSW.
Mark Suster refers to participatory production (as opposed to mass consumption) as Torso TV. It’s the middle ground between long-tail and traditional – where, in my opinion, the innovation comes, driven by technology and data, and not by “rules.”
The same Wired article I criticized earlier contained an interesting insight in data. Producers have always collected information about what people like, but CBS’ David Poltrack points out that now they can better understand people’s turn-offs, which is just as important. The current tracking of this is based on new technology and prior psychology work around the human feelings of disgust. How producers may put this to work is anyone’s guess – but if dislike is equal to like in importance, we have an entirely new field to mine for years to come.
Digital channels now provide numbers on what was once traditionally immeasurable content. Sharing, conversation, comments, and consumption in digital channels both reflect and drive consumer interest and behavior. Amazon has chosen to invest in pilots similarly to our traditional studio system, but they are able to use data and habits to more accurately predict the outcome – after which they will invest in a series. Netflix has used data to inform the ingredients of content creation. If you think about it, “from the producers of” or “the latest album from” are analogue versions of today’s Netflix data. So the data is informative around the content, but it’s not driving “rules” for content.
The previous forms of TV-based measurement, as much as our current advertising system is built on them, would simply be unacceptable if offered from scratch today. But as we try to figure out how to help the digital market grow, let’s stop trying to change or conform content. Instead, let’s focus on the technology and data that will make it a reality.