The world of news and media is being turned on its head thanks to the democratization of technology. It’s shaping a future that will look very different from the past and present.
One of Dale Carnegie’s core principles in How to Win Friends and Influence People is to take a genuine interest in the people you meet. This seems obvious, but the underlying reasoning is this: taking an interest in someone means you have to learn about them, which means they have to tell you about themselves. And if there’s one thing we enjoy talking about, it’s ourselves. The media is no different. Whether in entertainment, newspapers, blogging, or broadcast, we just can’t resist the urge to self-examine out loud. And Max Gladwell is no different.
Advances in technology have a long history of disrupting the dominant media of the time, from the printing press to radio, TV, the Net, and now Web 2.0. Few if any of the mediums have been pushed to extinction, though they’ve certainly had to adapt, and it’s seldom been a smooth or painless process. Calls for the death of newspapers and the 30-second commercial might make for great headlines (the media is also prone to cannibalism), but the reality is much more subtle. The landscape has changed over the past few years, and it will continue. The pace of change is accelerating, and it’s being fueled by factors such as a new economic reality, a new generation, and new attitudes toward media, publishing, and advertising.
One of the driving forces in this change is what’s been termed the “mass amateurization” of publishing. This is also known as user-generated content (UGC), and it now extends beyond the written word to photos, videos, broadcast, and animation. Pretty much any type of media is now open to mass amateurization. The term, however, comes across as a bit condescending, as if to imply that all so-called UGC is produced by rank amateurs. This blog is technically UGC, yet it’s written by professionals who’ve penned counteless articles for national magazines and several books. What constitutes an amateur is not entirely clear, and we’d argue that advancements in technology coupled with the free flow information has lead to mass professionalization, especially among those who are native to this new environment.
By way of example, we were fortunate enough to have bought a laptop computer in 1993. It was an early Mac with a black-and-white screen and a desktop docking station. The availability of this technology lead directly to our career in writing. It was the key to freeing our writing ability, because long-hand was not an option, and desktop computers were too limiting. We needed to write on the couch, in bed, on road trips, and even during class. We needed that freedom to help us realize our natural talents and to hone our craft. Laptop technology enabled us to go from amateur to professional in a couple short years. In the absence of any formal training, save for a degree in philosophy, we read books on journalism and magazine writing. There were no blogs or forums. Access to information was limited. But this combination of technology and information was exactly what we needed to make that transition.
Fast forward to the present. The tools of content creation are so fully democratized that anyone can write an Ebook or online magazine, produce and edit movies, shoot and Photoshop images, or host their own online TV show. Most of us are not native to this environment. We learned how to use iMovie or Final Cut in our adult lives. We’ve adapted to the world of blogging, photo sharing, and digital video. We’ve integrated these tools and technologies into our lives and careers. Today’s generation grew up with them, and the next will learn them at an earlier stage and ultimately take them for granted.
Back in the ’90s, if you had a natural ability to edit and tell stories through moving pictures, it may have never been realized. The hurdles were too high. It would have required film school or some expensive equipment. Today, anyone with a cell phone and laptop can quickly discover if this is something they enjoy and want to pursue. And if there’s even a spark of interest, there are countless sources of information to support and further their ability. The search term “how to edit videos” returns 74 million results. As Thomas Friedman might say, the world of content creation is flat. Mass amateurization is quickly becoming mass professionalization. The talent pool is virtually unlimited, and we’re just referring to the U.S. But there’s more.
Great content is pointless if no one sees it. So while the tools of content creation have been democratized, so have the tools of distribution by way of Google (search) and the social web. This is the true game changer.
In 1993, when we started writing, the Internet was available to us, but there wasn’t an audience. There was no efficient way to get people to our content and vice versa. We had little choice but to hustle and write for print publications if we were going to make a career of it and go from amateur to professional. With the social web, anyone can find an audience. Good content will find an audience, and the audience will find you. And while this is fantastic news for individuals, it’s just as compelling for companies that have a product or brand to market.
As we wrote in The First Rule of Social Media Club is…,
[T]he chief function of social media, in our humble opinion, is to more efficiently and equitably distribute content such that the best rises to the top and the worst never gets seen. And since good content will always be found, it behooves companies and brands to produce good content and to utilize the social web as channels of distribution.
In other words, companies need to start thinking more like publishers. We used the classic example of BMW Films, where the automaker thought more like a movie studio.
This same mode of thinking was recently echoed in the Razorfish FEED Consumer Experience Report, in which Group Vice President Garrick Schmitt says,
For brands to remain relevant in this environment, they will need to adapt to both emerging technologies and shifting consumer behavior without delay. Those who will succeed need to act more like publishers, entertainment companies or even party planners, than advertisers, such as Nike who recently scored a major coup by hosting a global ‘Human Race.’
Many of the skills I learned in publishing are now the skills marketers need. Marketing is oriented towards delivering a message. You agree upon a message, then you deliver it repeatedly in multiple media and eventually you hope it sticks … the difference with content marketing or conversation marketing is that you’re delivering the message, and then you’re saying, ‘What do you think about that?’
I think this is a crucial barrier for many marketers, who have been taught to think of themselves as media influencers. While that role is still important, today marketers can actually become the media if they so choose. But that requires that they think differently about how they present information and target their audiences.
How can companies do this? By utilizing the efficiencies created by the democratization and mass professionalization of content production and distribution. Companies are the publishers of tomorrow. Greater efficiencies will be realized, and the middle men of the media supply chain will have to deal with this.
So while the new media elite is throwing stones at the old media guard, taunting them with how great their blog audiences are and celebrating the imminent downfall of print media, they should stop to consider the glass house they might be living in. The technological disruption of media doesn’t end with Web 2.0, blogs, and new media. The train keeps moving. There’s always something else, and the pace of change is accelerating. It’s going to require adaptation not just from traditional media but from anyone who considers themself a publisher. Anyone who creates content with the hope of selling advertising. Companies, ad agencies, and publishers have to ask themselves some tough questions. Given the new media reality, is this really the most efficient and effective way to go about marketing our products and brands?