I've been around the block of traditional media companies long enough that I should not get my hopes up too high. But I must confess I recently had a conversation with one of the largest cable/broadcast/print conglomerates out there that gave me a glimmer of hope.
"People want what they want when and how they want it, and we have the content and experiences they want across every medium," this senior executive said. "Going forward, we will put all our programming and content out there almost agnostic to time of day or schedule. If people want it, they will get it. We will even combine broadband releases with video releases. The users have spoken."
Well, son of a gun. The scales are falling from their eyes, I thought but then he continued.
"Of course, on our on-demand programming we can't let folks skip ahead or skip over our 30-second spots. TiVos and DVRs really don't make economic sense in doing this. So our services won't allow it."
After I lifted my jaw, I asked: "Do you see any irony in saying on the one hand, 'Users are in control' and, on the other hand, if users choose to skip ads because they find them invasive, annoying or irrelevant you say, 'Tough!' "
This response has been out there for a while: Someone has to pay, somewhere, or great content can't get created. No other business model is as large, accepted and as scalable as the 30-second spot.
Nor, I would suggest, is there one as counter to the needs and desires of the ways audiences want to engage with content. While you're at it, how about coming up with a technology that will keep folks from getting up to make a sandwich when your spots come on.
Look, I'm neither expecting nor even recommending that a media company declare war on the 30-second spot overnight. But those interruptive spots are on the wrong side of history. Preventing viewers from fast-forwarding through those ads will be a pyrrhic victory at best.
So, fine, keep selling 30-second spots and Super Bowl ads — there will be billions to be made from them for a while. But, in parallel, it's time to start asking another question internally: What might our users actually want?
People fast-forward through commercials not because advertising writ large is a bad thing, but because most of it is poor quality, irrelevant to the individual viewer, or interrupting an experience they wish to engage in.
But with the powerful targeting capabilities of the Internet and on-demand services, marketers can get the right message in front of the right audiences at the right time without interruption. And the right message to the right person at the right time isn't invasive marketing, but content to richly engaged audiences — useful, embraced information as folks decide how to live their lives. What's more, media companies and marketers can build permission-based data and relationships with their viewers that will allow them to offer more, greater, better advertising experiences going forward.
A host of innovative video player/advertising products are growing rapidly online right now. Among the most interesting are Video Egg (Videoegg.com) and Live Rail (Liverail.com). Instead of interrupting videos with 30-second spots, they seamlessly weave tickers and other subtle advertising messages around the content, with increased permission targeting capabilities, which allow users to interact with the marketing messages on their terms. Click-throughs to these experiences are dwarfing other interactive advertising and encourage a direct engagement with brands marketers can only covet on television.
These are very early days and these products need fine-tuning — but they are provocative models and easily replicable for any on-demand/interactive distribution or offering.
Media companies need to spend as much time focused on what users can really find useful, now that they are completely in control, as they do on jerry-rigging the old model on the new. Starting with the user — not merely defending the existing business model — and thinking of advertising as content that's relevant to deeply engaged audiences. Once media companies rethink their view of ads, they'll be able to cement relationships with viewers and grab the core opportunity going forward.
Chris Schroeder is CEO of The HealthCentral Network. (firstname.lastname@example.org)