That the Internet has truly become the fabric of our lives means we are sooner or later in for a very jarring turn of history’s wheel.
— Tim Wu, The Master Switch, The Rise and Fall of Information Empires
Wu’s foreshadowing is very much of the moment, thanks to the rise of platforms playing media gatekeeper roles coupled with eroding business models among publishers. Facebook, Google, WeChat, Twitter, and the like, continue to upend all media conventions, not just social.
For those of us working in the agency world, this flashpoint requires us to look at content — including advertising — in a fundamentally different light.
In Wu’s parlance, the growing urgency is influenced by who controls the Master Switch, meaning those who ultimately define what we see and experience on our devices.
Those with control own the distribution, interface, customer relationships, and hugely important today, the data. They shape our perceptions of reality and enable new means, and actors, to influence it (Donald Trump, anyone?).
The viability of legacy-based editorial and advertising practices hangs in the balance.
On one side, you have the publishers, who continue to jerry-rig Gutenberg’s press model into a friction-free cloud of information, entertainment and conversation. On the other you have the platforms who own the new distribution pipes, modern interface and innovation-edge that mobile is built on. And in the middle: The user, who while racking up massive amounts of attention on mobile devices, has shown little interest in digital display advertising that publishers — and advertisers — count on.
The urgency in sorting it out is starting to sink in. The scaffolding that the media business is built on — the packaging, delivery and discovery of content — is being rethought and optimized piece by piece for mobile.
Maybe publishing is not in fact dead, but like the proverbial Monty Python parrot, lying on the floor of its cage, eyes screwed tightly shut.
—Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism
Ironically, publishing is flourishing. Just not for the incumbents built to deliver and distribute premium content, including the news.
According to Reuters’ 2015 Digital News Report, Facebook became increasingly dominant in delivering the headlines, with forty one percent of respondents cited using it to find, read, watch, share, or comment on the news each week.
Platform might reroute access, but we still get our news from a combination of TV, radio, print, and online. Traditional news brands continue to dominate online in almost all countries around the world, even if tech determines how we hear from those brands.
The fact that we get much of our news through brands we trust via platforms like Facebook isn’t new. The overnight rise of ad blocking around editorial content and unprecedented rise of media consumption via mobile apps most definitely are.
Overwhelming evidence confirms we don’t want mobile ads in current form interrupting our info-grazing experiences. And very clearly, Facebook’s Instant Articles and Google’s AMP show the platforms won’t stand for anything that slows delivery of content.
Demand for that content is at an all-time high. According to comScore, over the past two years, total digital media usage has grown 49 percent with mobile apps having grown 90 percent. What’s more, Facebook and Google own eight of the top nine mobile apps in the United States (The Weather Channel is the only “traditional” media company that cracks the top 25).
If you hold the purse on media spend to build brands or company reputation, the platform-publisher convergence presents an almost paralyzing landscape to navigate.
Paralysis is not an option. There’s a race happening in the subtext— a requirement to drive brand innovation harder and faster than ever before to stay in sync with the platform-publisher conversion.
On one hand, you could take the simple advice of a growing group of analysts looking at digital publishing: Buy plenty of Facebook, Google, or don’t bother.
But here’s another, albeit complementary strategy:
Don’t think about this as an advertising dilemma to solve.
Figure out how you earn attention and engagement by doing things that create real value. This isn’t a marketing cliché or platitude.
The opening seems clear: Deliver distinctive utility or content. Try to socialize it across many points of presence.
In emphasizing engagement over advertising in our work, we’ve found getting concepts to spread through complex media gateways becomes clearer once you get the user insight, platform dynamics, value proposition and pitch right.
The output could be…
The list could go on. None of these represent ads, but do the work to get people engaged in a brand story. These stories and experiences are part of the new media ecosystem that all parties involved need to bolster their mobile positions. From a brand-builder’s standpoint it’s not necessarily dependent on who ultimately holds the keys.
Earning favor through ideas people identify with or benefit by is the only way forward — given who is best positioned to own the Switch (the platforms) and the power (people opting out of ads).