As Web 2.0 begins to bite (aren’t we ready for Web 2.1 yet? At least on beta release? I thought technology development was supposed to be getting faster…) many media companies are once more trying to ‘monetise’ their websites. In the years in between the internet bubble of 2000/02, most of us have pulled back from investing millions in new media, and opted for slower growth, lower risk activity. By doing this, most of us have produced reasonably busy, information led, issue or community focussed sites.
There are several trends out there at the moment, and while it’s interesting to speculate on what will be the ultimate winner, it’s more practical to think what the implications are of each, and take some sensible steps to accommodate all.
In the old days (2001), we used to say ‘content, community, commerce’ were the main planks of a successful web presence. What’s happened to that now?
Content is still king
Original content is still viewed as a key element of websites produced by media companies – and a key differentiator between sites produced by ‘us’ and those produced by new entrants (facebook), network operators (Vodafone), or (increasingly) brand owners (Nike). We also find ourselves competing with our own readers, many of whom are now using simple and cheap tools like Typepad to produce rich, if subjective, perspectives from their own experience in the form of blogs.
Blogs are particularly difficult to compete with. Many join the Google content network, and make money through Google’s Adsense service, serving what are pay per click (PPC) search ads in some editorial context. This offers a new element to advertising customers’ media mix, and another competitor for the increasingly challenged run of paper display, and (in particular) on paper recruitment.
But this surge in content has another dimension – it’s all free. Now this is fine for the controlled circulation crowd, in fact, it’s an opportunity to reduce the cost of printing and distributing magazines. But for paid-for publishers, this is a real challenge. For many years our ability to sniff out the story has made us money, and given us a platform to sell advertising against – what are we going to do now?
The best bet seems to be to give your content away – or at least that element which has been commoditised – the news. Recent research by Mckinsey shows that
internet users use as many as sixteen different news brands each week. That research also, worryingly for us, showed that whether they trust the source or not is less important than how easy it is to get the information from it. A hundred years of reputation could become valueless if your page loads too slowly, or your registration process is annoying – food for thought.
This kind of landscape is a great place to be an aggregator – so it’s no surprise to see Reuters launching consumer facing services now. It’s also worth looking at services such as Netvibes – a smart RSS tool that many technorati are making their default webpage. Essentially it gives the user a dashboard of frequently used services – so if you’re not on it, chances are you won’t be visited by that user very often.
So News is a commodity. But analysis, and thoughtful comment seem to still command a premium – sometimes in the context of reports (as in the difference between The Economist newspaper, and the Economist Intelligence Unit) – so we can still make charges either on-demand, or on subscription, for such material. But clearly if the web is the platform of the future in advertising terms, then restricting access to content freely available elsewhere isn’t going to be a winning strategy.
Community is everything
If one of the differential skills of a media owner is producing content, then another is (or should be) crystallising community. For years our brands have helped people coalesce around interests, issues or industries. Now our web presences should be doing the same thing. If you surmise that against a background of rapidly changing technological advance, change in working and living habits, economic advance and so on, the one thing that never changes is people – they’re just the same as they’ve always been – then you can predict that as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, item 3, after basic security and food, they’ll instinctively want to associate with others to develop a sense of belonging.
If belonging equals community, then it’s going to carry on mattering that we can bring people who don’t know each other together – with a magazine, or on the web. How we do it will change of course – watch out for ‘facebook business’ which gossip says is on the way, and services like Small World Labs, which allow controlled (but unmoderated) interaction between members of an online community.
Indeed, InCirculation itself has an active community website, it has 111 members to Facebook’s 30 million, but give it time….
So we can do ‘community’? Well yes, to a point. But where many online communities fall down is the tumbleweed effect. We set them up, open them to everyone, people join, then nothing happens. This is because joining an online network is rather like turning up at a party with a blindfold on. You can’t see if there’s anyone else there, much less identify people who might be your friends. Unless someone starts shouting something that sounds interesting, that you can gravitate towards, then you just stand there in the corner, and wait for something to happen. Eventually you get bored and go away, and make a mental note not to go back to that party again.
Parties need hosts. That’s what we need to be now. Our communities need active hosting – telling stories to attract groups, introducing people we think will get along. James on InCirculation does this by encouraging people he knows to respond to posts made on his forum – this is vital. Without it the posts might well go unanswered until the community develops momentum and critical mass.
An opportunity exists here also to build on the online networking with face-to-face gatherings. In operating a Facebook interest group in the construction sector, I’ve found it has produced a number of gatherings of its members – technological advance does not remove people’s need to see each other (anyone who’s read “The Machine” by Asimov will have seen this predicted in about 1930). So media companies who have before found gathering their community together difficult, may discover that providing an online interaction lets them sort it out themselves. This, of course, if you can get some measure of control over the activity, still offers significant opportunity to generate (in particular) sponsorship revenue around highly focussed events.
And Commerce, isn’t that where we fell down before?
The idea of building huge revenues from commissions on transactions seemed so simple and good. Somehow though we couldn’t make it work the way Visa and Mastercard have managed to. Commerce, or ‘monetisation’ to give it a rather ugly modern face, is mainly now about selling advertising against traffic. But it’s not as simple as just selling some banners – oh no. These ads need to be ‘rich’, and interactive, and in context, and we have to prove the ROI or go home, so we’re told.
What’s really important about advertising is that it helps people who are trying to sell stuff get in front of people they want to try to sell it to. What seems important then is that we help people do that, which should result in us getting paid.
It’s instructive to look at some of the national newspapers’ approach – in particular, The Sun. Advertisers can now buy ‘contacts’ in a manner roughly similar to the rating points mechanisms in TV ad buying. They identify their market (18-24 year old males say), and provide ad executions suitable for paper, online and mobile deployment, and then The Sun delivers ‘sessions’ according to the contract through all three platforms.
This approach is called ‘Convergence’, and could become much more common in media circles – so even those with smaller niches than the ‘young bloke’ one above will need to take account. There are big issues here – not least that of supply chain. Are our suppliers, say in fulfilment or audit, ready to begin delivering services that help us to identify consumption by individuals across different platforms?
This also speaks to the idea mooted above – that all this interaction gives us the opportunity to pull people together more often. And here’s another stream converging – can we add in the live event platform to The Sun model and provide our advertisers with even better marketing solutions? Of course we could, but again, our supply chain will need to be ready. Can
and Exposystems talk to Tower and Quadrant? Er….
Hopefully, supply chain readiness will arrive when we want it – history says if incumbents don’t offer the services required, new entrants will – and there seem to be enough of these emerging to give us confidence – if Exposystems can’t talk to Tower, then maybe Small Message Labs or ASP will jump in.
The real thing is for us to be ready – generating content is what we’ve always done, as is serving advertisers and communities. But encouraging interaction is a new skill – some of us circulation people are not natural party hosts, and many of our journalists are deeply socially inept – we’d better get some practice in.
Typepad – blogging tool. www.typepad.com
Adsense – a network of content sites who serve Google ads in context. www.google.co.uk/adsense
Facebook – come on, you know what this is, get on it, find me, and make friends, I’ve got nearly 70 and I need another 30 to lead my mini-league – http://www.facebook.com
Small World Labs – tool to allow community interaction – www.smallworldlabs.com/
InCirculation Forum – if you’re not already, join in, it’s lovely – incirculation.co.uk/cs/forums
Netvibes – ‘really cool’ RSS aggregator service. Growing very fast in popularity. http://www.netvibes.com
Mckinsey research – What consumers want from online news, Andre Dua and Liz Hilton Segal, August 2007, www.mckinseyquarterly.com.