…and that’s the title of my latest OnlineSpin column in MediaPost…
Social media may be riding a wave of hype right now, but nobody can deny that it is forcing traditional media companies and marketers to rethink what the media business is all about. In fact, the proliferation of social media is causing otherwise traditional media providers to grasp the notion that their product is anything but linear, one-way and, most importantly, completed once published (and I’m not talking regurgitation of digital archives). Rather, traditional media companies–especially news companies–are facing the staunch reality that the content they produce is becoming more of a commodity and represents only the beginning of something far more important: an engaging conversation that lives on (ideally) or dies (quickly) if it doesn’t engage audiences. Publishers are approaching an age where content is more about spawning and nurturing ongoing excitement and interaction around a common interest or idea. Content at its best becomes a catalyst of a social event that begins with the content producer and has the potential to grow into a more meaningful, shared experience, manifesting in discussion.
Blogger Jeff Jarvis of Buzzmachine.com, one of the more intelligent media pundits and one who has been highly influential and inspirational to me, recently wrote, “Some companies are trying to own as much content as they can… but that’s silly in a post-scarcity world, where content will be ever-more plentiful (and ever-better as a result).” He then adds: “Content is not king. Distribution is not king. Conversation is the kingdom.” Amen.
One area where this experimentation is obvious, if sometimes misguided, is among online publishers, who are experimenting with comment and discussion functionality. Businessweek.com and Forbes.com are experimenting by enabling comments on a number of sections and stories, as well as incorporating standalone blogs. The New York Times, which acquired About.com, is experimenting with author blogs and comments on its Web site.
Consider this very MediaPost OnlinSpin channel, with its Web site, e-mail newsletter and, most importantly, corresponding blog and comment section. Is my value here the ability to write something you’ll want to read? That’s certainly part of it, but a higher calling would be to write something that strikes a nerve and compels you to raise your hand and talk back to me and others. The collective reader comments associated with OnlineSpin often are far more engaging and valuable than the very columns that triggered them!
To prove my point, I’ll highlight my own recent column about death in the age of social media. I spent a little time framing the issue for debate, but once it was published, some truly heart-throbbing stories emerged–personal accounts far more interesting and credible than I could ever dish up. It’s important to note that several people joined the conversation hosted within the walls of the OnlineSpin Blog comment section, but others also carried it on outside across the Web. The true value of the content lies in its ability to start a meaningful conversation, and then, as Craig Newmark of Craigslist.org often says, “get out of the way.”
For a media company, this scenario is a triumph. (And I’m not declaring my own example a success… rather, situations like it. Success is for you to decide.) It represents not only more and better content, but a tighter relationship with the very community and individuals media companies strive to serve. While this translates to greater page views and consequent ad dollars, it also raises the bar and makes painfully obvious the fact that eyeball reach and frequency alone are limiting. Conversation around content is perhaps a more revealing measure of audience impact. In fact, the ad industry’s engagement discussion is really starting to make sense here. Conversation is the ultimate form of engagement!
So as media companies continue experimenting with the notion of conversation and living content, marketers also will need to figure how they fit in. If there is any merit to this model, then the success of marketers will be determined not by the so-called optimal mix of reach and frequency, but by the consumer traction they generate and the intensity of conversation in relation to their brands. I’m betting this will lead to a closer and more cooperative relationship among media, marketers and consumers.
What do you think?