The rise of the social Web has given birth to a phenomenon similar
to the indie film revolution of the 1990s, when everybody thought they
had an interesting story to tell, and believed a credit card limit of a
few thousand dollars was all it took to become the next Robert
Rodriguez. (He even wrote a book about it.)
Most bloggers fall into similar territory, minus the upfront financial investment, and, as noted in the New York Times on Friday ("Blogs Falling in an Empty Forest "), the failure rate is roughly the same—astronomical:
According to a 2008 survey by Technorati, which runs a search engine
for blogs, only 7.4 million out of the 133 million blogs the company
tracks had been updated in the past 120 days. That translates to 95
percent of blogs being essentially abandoned, left to lie fallow on the
Web, where they become public remnants of a dream—or at least an
ambition—unfulfilled … Richard Jalichandra, chief executive of
Technorati, said that at any given time there are 7 million to 10
million active blogs on the Internet, but “it’s probably between 50,000
and 100,000 blogs that are generating most of the page views.” He
added, “There’s a joke within the blogging community that most blogs
have an audience of one.”
It’s worth noting that a percentage of those abandoned and lightly
used blogs belong to traditional publishers who didn’t understand what
a blog was but launched them anyway, partly because everyone else was doing it.
Interestingly, many of these publishers have also bought into the
notion that bloggers are legitimate competitors to their established
brands and devalued their own content in response by giving it all away
for free online and, as noted in parts one and two
of this accidental manifesto, are effectively doing so in print, too,
all in the service of delivering as many eyeballs as possible for their
advertisers with no Plan B in place for when the advertising dried up.
You Gotta Have Soul
At last week’s Conversational Marketing Summit
in New York City—a new media strategy session dedicated to helping
brands “join the conversation” that the social Web has pretty successfully
excluded most of them from so far—Federated Media Founder and CEO
John Battelle’s opening remarks spoke just as directly to traditional
publishers, too: “Ad networks have scale and data, but they lack soul.
Customers don’t join ad networks.”
His reference to “soul” struck an especially warm chord with me, as
it’s something many “old media” brands already possess but haven’t
always successfully leveraged online. That slow response left a huge
opening for personal brands to evolve exponentially, gain precious
mindshare and become competitive with the established brands that once
nurtured them as featured columnists and editors-at-large. It also
allowed savvy brand marketers to connect directly with consumers
instead of having to go through traditional intermediaries.
And yet, amidst all of the dire predictions about the death of
print, the one thing I’ve yet to see is a single industry study—or
even an off-the-cuff anecdote from a moderately respected pundit not
employed by a digital ad agency—that says consumers are demanding
What consumers have demanded more of is control over the
overwhelming amount of content that is now available to them online,
and there are a wide variety of applications that facilitate the
consumption, sharing, and yes, production, of content of all kinds and
levels of quality—along with a number of ad-blocking apps thrown in
for good measure.
Content Still King
“Gatekeeper” is a four-letter word on the publishing industry’s
conference circuit these days, a straw boogeyman invoked to elicit
visions of old white men in leather chairs dictating what the masses
should and shouldn’t be reading. Who needs traditional publishers when the almighty (and ever-changing) algorithm and the “wisdom
of the crowds” threaten to extract the soul from all content, leaving
us with LOLCATS, Jon and Kate and Blogola?
There will always be gatekeepers of one form or another, whether
traditional publishers or the crowd-sourced variety. In both cases, the
crowds are usually led by a few vocal minorities, and both have a
history of chasing trends while ignoring new voices and ideas, so
what’s old is basically new again.
The true value of content is more measurable than it’s ever been, so
publishers’ primary focus should be on curating great content that
people are willing to pay for, and to organize and nuture a community
around that content and the authors who create it. That community will
exist in multiple places and spaces, and vary wildly in size; in some
cases, they won’t be the least bit interested in having advertising
invade their space, overtly or covertly.
Contrary to popular belief, print advertising definitely is
not dead. It will need to evolve, and
publishers, agencies and marketers are going to have to hit the reset button on their digital initiatives and refocus on the most important part of the equation: the consumer.
Marketers (and their agencies) and the publishers that need their
support have to start treating each other as partners and not
adversaries, working together to develop initiatives that engage their
respective communities, not just pitch products at them after fighting
over discounts off the illusionary rate card.
‘Technology Forces Reinvention’
At the CM Summit, GCA Savvian Advisors’ Terence Kawaja offered some interesting insights, including a scathing parody called “The Day the Media Died” and the provocative statement: “What if low CPMs are the real ‘value’ of ad inventory? Technology forces reinvention.”
In an ideal world, traditional publishers would take the opportunity
to reinvent their business model and approach 2010 as follows:
- Place a clear value on all content and offer it in a variety of
mediums, as dicated by the community’s needs, not the publisher’s
budget line items.
- Abolish the rate card and don’t accept spreadsheet-based RFPs.
- Most importantly, ensure their content, and the products they’re advertising, are all worth paying for.
There’s only so many ad dollars to go around these days and the
media contraction that’s already underway will continue to weed out the
weakest brands and seasick investors. If a pure-play brand is a
legitimate competitor to your established print brand—whether for
readers, advertisers or both—you don’t have a viable business model
For magazines, this will mean investing more in their content,
ensuring that it’s not just high-quality, but also unlike anything
that’s available elsewhere. Premium content allows Harvard Business Review and Cook’s Illustrated,
among others, to charge premium subscription rates in print alongside a
freemium online model. Hearst was recently noted for the
apparent success of its contrarian strategy,
increasing the physical size of their magazines, raising newsstand
prices and severely limiting the amount of print content that makes it
online, arguably offering their readers a higher quality product and
their advertisers a more desirable platform.
For those magazines whose content is more commodified, it will mean striking a better balance between a more compelling context worth paying something
for—controlled circulation will become the domain of custom
publishing over the next few years—and developing new channels for
both themselves and their advertisers to engage their community with
relevant content and product information.
For those with commodified content and no significant advertising
base—or worse, one that “got” the Internet first—the outlook, to be
frank, is rather bleak. Micro-niche plays like this can usually survive
on their own better with less overhead than within a corporate
structure where resources are more plentiful but prioritized according
to revenue, and are probably better suited as pure-plays anyway.
What do you think?