The digitalization of the information world has changed the way advertisers advertise, the way marketers market and the way publishers publish. Digital itself is a product of technology, but the real impetus for changes for communicators came from the audience. As technology revamped accessibility and mobility it also offered choices. It created an empowered audience. If you are in the news or marketing or advertising business that means you have to change from talking at an entrapped audience to trying to appeal to a self-selecting audience.
This is not solely an issue for the publishing and communications industries. One of the best examples of the impact of a digitally empowered audience occurred in the recording industry. Almost since the time when Edison invented the phonograph, the recording industry looked for ways to sell us more than we wanted at a higher price. (Remember B-sides?) So while you may have wanted a song or two, you typically had to buy a package of 10 or 12 or more songs that were embedded in an album or tape. To make things even cushier for the music labels, every few years they would render your entire music collection obsolete by phasing out vinyl or 8-tracks or cassettes or CDs. But that was before Napstar, before iTunes and before you know it, you have an empowered audience, one that can buy and pay for only the precise amount of music it wants.
The next industry to take the hit is going to be cable. We subscribe to systems that deliver hundreds or stations. I get stuff like truTV and We TV. Haven’t got a clue what they are. Even the most avid TV viewer probably only ever watches a couple dozen stations. But we all pay the price for having many, many stations, some that we wouldn’t watch in a hundred years. Netflix and Hulu have chipped into this a little bit and you hear more and more about people, and especially young people, unplugging. The recent news that HBO and ESPN would be making their family of stations available without us having to buy the high-cost Comcast or Time Warner bundles may well be just the beginning of creating an empowered audience of TV viewers. As these options proliferate do you think that audience will opt for packages that have 100’s of stations that they have no interest in? I’m not buying We TV. That’s for sure.
It’s easy to see how the same thing happened in the news business. Historically we were forced to buy a package of news, i.e. the newspaper. You might have read 10% or 20% or 50% but you had to buy the whole thing. There was a time in my life (before I got smarter) when I looked at little beyond the sports scores. Because of the physical nature of distribution, you were further restricted to reading what could be delivered locally. By the time the print monopoly was about to disintegrate, most readers in the U.S. had little choice other than the local paper, perhaps a regional paper and USA Today, the infographic of the pre-digital world.
Even before the Web, news started to be available digitally through subscription services like AOL or Prodigy. So the first barrier to go was the logistics. It would soon become just as easy for me to read the South China Morning Post as it was to read the Newark Star-Ledger. When they first went digital, newspapers tried to replicate some part of the print product online. That meant you were still looking for news by brand name or masthead and still being delivered a package of information based upon what somebody else thought you would or should be interested in. But the home page presentation is now becoming irrelevant and for many, accessing the information they want is done directly through search or social and it may well be seen as brand agnostic.
The disruption is no less dramatic for advertisers. Traditional advertising is based on making you look at something that you never chose to look at but which was thrust in front you. That can be a print ad on a newspaper or magazine page, a commercial that interrupts the television program you are watching, it can even be painted on a wall in the outfield when you’re at a ball game and looking to see whether or not a long fly ball is going to be a home run. The cost and value of advertising was based on a potential audience. It would cost more to advertise on page 2 of the newspaper than on page 36, just as it would cost more to run a commercial on a national network than on a small market independent station. Nevermind that as a reader I may have had no interest whatsoever in the news that appears on page 2 and as a TV viewer I may opt to take the garbage out when the commercial comes on. I was still part of a potential audience.
But once the audience becomes empowered you can see right through that type of potential or assumed audience. Just as news organizations at first tried to migrate their print content into digital content, advertisers tried to move their traditional type of content online. But guess what? In a digital world each audience member picks and chooses what to see by clicking on it and once there were sufficient tracking mechanisms in place it because painfully obvious to the advertising industry that nobody but nobody clicked on banner ads.
Still stuck in the mindset that they could thrust stuff before our eyes without ever having to take the step of building an audience that chose to see their content, advertisers then resorted to more creative ways to be intrusive. So we got things like pop ups when pages loaded or pre-roll before videos or online games. Nobody clicks on that stuff either. Because from an audience perspective, classic advertising and marketing content is crap, stuff that a company or organization feels we should see or hear, not anything that we would choose to consume.
At this point the only answer, given the new freedom of choice that consumers of information enjoy, is to produce content that some audience will find to be either entertaining or instructive. All the technology in the world, whether it’s mobile or responsive or interactive, means nothing if you don’t have what people want to see or read. That is the challenge for publishers, for advertisers and for businesses. Whether you’re producing national news and looking for a broad diverse audience or whether you are selling bicycles and trying to find a find a local community of cyclists, the requirement is still the same. You’re dealing with an empowered audience and you’ve got to attract them rather than entrap them.
Producing the content that does that is the first step. The second is to make sure they see it. In contemporary vernacular that means audience development, something that I will elaborate on in my next post.