Media’s evolving spheres of discovery

Here’s another in an occasional series of posts to that try to examine, explain, and illustrate the new structure of media. This one looks at how we discover content now.

Back in the day, a decade (to 50 decades) ago, we discovered media — news, information, or service — through brands: We went and bought the newspaper or magazine or turned on a channel on its schedule. That behavior and expectation was brought to the internet: Brands built sites and expected us to come to them.

Now there are other spheres of discovery — new spheres that are shifting in importance, effectiveness, and share. I believe they will overlap more and more to provide better — that is, more relevant, timely, and authoritative — means of discovery. These evolving spheres also change the relationships of creators and customers and the fundamental economics of media.

Start with brands. They decide what we want or should want and they succeed or fail based on that judgment. (They also succeeded because they controlled distribution and access.) They create the content and bear the risk. They depend on critical mass and economies of scale. One-way, one-size-fits-all, fleeting — these are the characteristics of branded media. Brands are disrupted by the spheres that follow, which disaggregate and disintermediate them, challenge their authority, compete on much lower cost bases (thanks to automation and collaboration), and provide better targeting and relevance (thanks to new means of gathering and analyzing data).

Next came search. Fundamental to search’s impact is that it shifted media from supply side to demand side: We, the people formerly known as the audience, initiate the sequence of a media transaction. In branded media, creators, editors, and producers decided what they’d give us and then we bought or didn’t. In search, we begin with our needs and curiosities. That theme of a reversed sequence carries through to other spheres. Search also provided the means to intuit intent and improve relevance, which is what feeds its higher value. Once a large universe of content became available to us all, value shifted from creator to curator. Content wasn’t scarce; organization was. The definition of scale was also upended: small could now succeed — highly specialized media can find its highly targeted public — but big became bigger than ever (see: Google). Search also commodified brands; it didn’t matter so much where we found an answer so long as we could search for it.

AlgorithmsGoogle News or Daylife (where I’m a partner) — also meet the organizational challenge of abundant content and they tackle the challenge of timeliness. For search to infer content’s relevance, it must gather data from our use — that was Google’s key insight — but that won’t work for news, whose value is perishable. So algorithmic aggregators use other signals — source, content analysis, timing, location, association — to cluster and present coverage in a nest of relevance. These algorithms enable content to coalesce into stories and topics that search will find because it gains depth and attracts links and clicks. Algorithmic aggregators exposed a key conflict in old v. new media worldviews: The old-media view is that aggregators extract value from content by displaying it; the new-media view is that they add value by creating audiences and causing links — this is the essence of the misunderstanding of the link economy.

Thanks to new tools — Twitter, Facebook, Buzz — human linksare exploding as a means of discovery, which gives lie to the old-media complaints of Rupert Murdoch et al that aggregators are stealing their content. When your own readers recommend and link to your content, is that stealing? Do you want to turn those people away and call them worthless? Facebook, according to Hitwise, is the fourth largest referrer of audience to media. alone causes two billion clicks a month, double Google News’ impact. Soon Buzz will be causing many links (teaching Google what’s hot and relevant, which is a key reason to start the service). And, of course, bloggers have shown the way as curators. Thanks to our newer, easier tools that enable links, humans are becoming a huge force in content discovery, reducing search’s and algorithms’ share and dominance.

Now we need to better understand the quality of those links and linkers. Clay Shirky craves algorithmic authority. Azeem Azhar is one of many entrepreneurs trying to systematize the annointing of more authoritative tweeters (read: linkers) at Viewsflow. On the latest This Week in Google, Google’s Matt Cutts talked about efforts to find more signals of quality so it can send us not to the crops of lowest-cost content farms but instead to original work. (The good news is that quality will out.) In the link economy, sending traffic to original work becomes an ethical imperative as links are the means to support that work. But it’s an old-media mistake — a leftover of the brand era — to think that authority can or should be one-for-all or that it’s the creator who establishes authority. Authority will vary by context and need as well as opinion (one man’s New York Times is another’s Fox News). Branded media was one-size-fits-all as was search and algorithmic aggregation. Now discovery will become personalized based on context (who you are, where you are, what you’re doing, what you’ve done, what you like…) as well as timing, taste, and quality.

That personalization will disarm the dark art of search-engine optimization — because it will be hard to game everyone’s search results and will already disrupt even the farms and make critical mass harder to reach (and not soon enough for some tastes). But I remind people not to miss a key insight that underpins the most prominent factory farm, Demand Media: predictive creation. That is, Demand listens to us — via search queries — and to the market — via ad demand — and enables the public to assign its writers (assuring its success, reducing its risk). Return to the point above about the reversed sequence of the media transaction: now creation does not start with the creator but with the consumer (pardon my use of the term; it fits in this context). Isn’t that the way it should be (and not just in content but for most any product or service)?

There’s another dimension I didn’t include in my silly little diagram: being distributed instead of merely discoverable (serving the fabled young woman who said, “if the news is that important, it will find me“). We can no longer expect our consumers/readers/users to come to us and wait for us; we must anticipate their needs by listening to their signals and go to them.

That reversal of the distribution pipe will force content creators to break out of the silos I’ve described above and mix the best of all these methods. Brand can still matter; it will be a signal of authority (or the lack of it) once content is discovered. Search will still matter but it will be sensitive to many signals and demands, from each of us and from the market. Algorithms will also use these signals to target and add relevance to content, helping us to prioritize our hyperpersonal news streams. We will discover more and more content through people we trust. We will wish that someone would create content to answer a question or cover an event and if content creators are listening and if enough of us want it, they will seize the opportunity (this is how the Demand model can come to news). They will even anticipate our needs — that’s why the airline gives me the weather in Florida on my boarding pass when I fly there.

Note in that example that media doesn’t come just from media anymore. Retailers, airlines, government, doctors, teachers, communities — any and all of us — will all be media, understanding the needs of a public and using all these tools to answer them without having to go through the old media brands to create content or reach an audience. That’s the lesson of blogs. And that may be the most profound change of all: the complete and utter disaggregation and disintermediation of media, turning everything about it upside-down: content starts with the consumer instead of the creator; authority is established by the public instead of the brand; the audience is the distributor.

So imagine a content ecosystem where users — who already do most of the information sharing themselves — decide where and how value can be added, explicitly or through our usage data. Imagine that these creations come to us through recommendations from peers we trust, prioritized by formulae (human-aided algorithms and algorithmically aided humans), or through search. Imagine that the creation isn’t a static piece of content but instead that nest of relevance with updates powered by collaboration and links. News and media start to look very different.

What does this mean for the economics of media? We don’t know yet; that’s why we must create new models and enterprises to figure it out. I tell my students that the marginal cost of the sharing of information and the creation of content is now zero; the internet makes it possible for that to happen on its own. So there is no value in doing what others have already done (even the value of one more page about fixing a toilet — no matter how clever its SEO — is diminishing); commodification is death. They should take advantage of the great efficiency the internet enables through platforms, specialization, and collaboration. They should then ask where they add unique value as journalists — finding or even anticipating needs and answering them by reporting, correcting, explaining, curating, organizing, training. That will be true for anyone in media.

And how is money made? We don’t know that yet, either, of course. At Friday’s PaidContent event on [cough] paid content, Forrester’s James McQuivey argued that we’ve never paid for content. He said we do pay for access, but I think it’s hard to make money in access long-term because somebody can provide it cheaper, faster, better. Can we still deliver audiences to advertisers? I hope so, but Bob Garfield warns that as merchants and manufacturers build their own direct relationships with customers — as they become media — there’ll be less to spend on media. I think the value is in the relationships, which is the question I asked of the well-media-trained New York Times executives at Friday’s event: In how many ways can you find value in a deep relationship with your public (selling goods and services, acting as a platform, selling education, selling events….); the implication of my question is that putting up a toll booth turns away those relationships and can reduce that value. But then, that’s just my theory. Everything is.

The one thing I know with some confidence is that we have to build to a new reality and this is a simple way to begin to express some of that change.

  • Matthew

    I think we try to hard to justify this stuff. Let’s face it, scarcity in media is dying. It’s dead in print, dead in music, only video survives due to cost of production. But it’ll die there too. Why is it so hard to just admit that scarcity is gone, and maybe you just can’t make money creating media any more? I know people WANT journalists to be paid well, fine, but don’t divorce your brain from reality. It’s not profitable any more, get over it!

  • Jeff, what I miss in your graph is the (modeled by Digg) “crowdsourcing authority” bubble. Doesn’t it have its place in the ecosystem?

    • Good point. I’d include that in the human links.

  • In Genieo, our goal was to provide a personalized newspage based on this evolution of media consumption.
    Our approach looks at two dimensions – the trusted news source and the topics of interest. We downplay the traditional distinction between hard-news, hot news in your social circle and your more esoteric interests. Trusted sources include both the “Brands” circle (but only news sources you frequent), the “Human Links” in your social network, and the “crowdsourcing authorities”.
    The topics of interest dimension does not try to compete with “Search”, but learn your topics of interest over time and highlight news that interest you from sources you trust.
    We quickly learned that today the media consumer is also the curator, so we added “share”.
    As our product recently became public, we started getting more feedback on how other people want to consume their media, and we continuously learn this new landscape.

  • A very thought-provoking post. But I disagree with one of the premises.

    It’s not that brands have lost relevance. It’s just that traditional _content_ brands have. Twitter, Facebook and Google News are as much brands as the NY Times or ABC. They aim to become the go-to thing when you have certain needs and moods – to start the day up-to-date as you have breakfast, to gossip at work, to alleviate a boring commute.

    People and their needs haven’t changed that much. It’s just that content people always thought their brands were all about their content, when really they were about things like breakfast and commuting.

  • Mikichan

    I semi agree with your view point everything that is out now “old Media” there are a few who are trying to hang on that “cliff” of Corp-Political Media. Media that is supported and funded by Government to be the Censored. Who are trying to Block progress of the Free and unbiased Content that is openly on the net. In history of News the Open and Free media will alway surface and surpass Government Controlled Media regardless of if being Film/Print/Audio I support open minded Thinkers like you jeff who wants to Change how “old Media” is working but to make money for profit of News is taking us back to the Corp-Political Media. I feel News on the Net should be totally Free without Profit making in mind. But also Freedom has a Price and I hope that the Forerunners of this “new Media” will allow some sacrificing to be done in order to achive the balance of Free and open Media market. Cheers!

    • Aussiewebmaster

      Free media is a misnomer – all these places are just alternatives looking to monetize their own properties. If we become a global network of information sharers the scope of that information diminishes – access to deep knowledge disappears to the masses and potential critics.

      Political and other interests will impact how information is delivered – news perspectives will be only read by the faithful when sometimes it is needed to be presented to those who may not want to hear it.

      Would Watergate have surfaced? Will the Fifth Estate be replaced by the PR messages of views we like?

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  • I still think media has it’s place..

    except following your theory…

    it’s to drive people to…. “branded content” – i.e. the brand, the company, the product… which could be multiples or either companies or products, grouped by association.

    good article.

  • or = of.. sorry typo

  • Jeff, this is excellent theory. What do you make of the following scenario? In searching Google the other day for medical information, the #1 result was for an comment page. It was utterly useless, containing only comments that had once been attached to an article related to my query, and plenty of ads.

    We used to see the Mayo Clinic, WebMD, WrondDiagnosis, and other authoritative medical sites in our medical searches, and there was nothing like that on the entire first page of Google results.

    Something’s definitely got to change, and quickly. The Internet is far out of balance with ads driving content (not to be confused with information), which doesn’t bode well for society as a whole.

    Would be interested in hearing your take on this.

    • I think google knows this and – noting what Matt Cutts said on TWiG — they are trying to better recognize and reward original content, not pale copies.

  • Eric Gauvin

    I think it should have one giant circle for google — and google is a brand</strong?. That's a huge reason for it's dominance. Our culture is hugely brand/corporate-centric.

  • Eric Gauvin

    (try again..)
    I think it should have one giant circle for google — and google is a brand. That’s a huge reason for it’s dominance. Our culture is hugely brand/corporate-centric.

    • cm

      Google is indeed the most valuable brand in the world at present, but you’d be wrong to say that Google is big because of it’s brand. It is the other way around: the Google brand is strong because of what it provides.

      Most strong brands (Coke etc) are built through traditional marketing channels such as advertising etc. There is nothing about Coke as a product that really puts it ahead of the crowd – only how it has been marketed. Coke et al have to spend huge amounts of money to keep their brand alive. Extremely little money goes into actual product development.

      Google is exactly the opposite. The Google brand strength has **emerged** from their products and services. Google spend almost nothing on marketing and advertising, but a whole lot on R&D.

  • Jeff,

    Thanks for this great information. It might fly over some heads but the core message is spot on!

  • Jeff-an amazing tour de force again.

    There is an unexplored tension between consumer and professional content. In the sphere of professional content, where you might trying to help someone make a substantial economic decision, I have yet to figure out whether the Demand Model will make sense.

    Demand’s model is perhaps more akin to expert networks–just the level expertise and the economic value is lower.

    Thanks also for the mention of Viewsflow. We are in an alpha stage, meaning when we break stuff, we break it for everyone. But your readers are very welcome to come and try it out.

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  • Aussiewebmaster

    The spheres of influence are a little simplified – brands are associated with the humans who know them. If a search is done and they are found it is from the algorithm authority already passed to them by those who recognize the brand.

    I see the impact of behavioral targeting influencing search as seen in iGoogle etc. I see the sharing of large amounts of our information based on trust between our groups/tribes or whatever we are calling them.

    But the traditional media needs to adapt to how delivery is being done now and how they can monetize this moving forward. They should be resurrecting banner ads and learning the secrets of affiliate and CPA deals.

    We need an independent press and that is not some blogger – maybe the Huffington Post model will offer some clues.

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  • I agree with your idea in that post except this one: “now creation does not start with the creator but with the consumer ”

    I really like to be surprised, reading or watching informations I did not even think of. If-as a consumer- I had to be the origin of creation, I would have missed the most interesting piece of informations I read.

  • cm

    Media brand is just the same as any brand value and can work both for and against a product or information.

    If I’m buying a new gadget I might opt for a Motorola branded product rather than a SunnyDragon even though the Motorola is actually just a rebranded SunnyDragon because I want the warm fuzzy feeling of thinking that the Motorola is supported by an organisation I trust.

    Same deal with information. I’m not going to take an “OMG!!!! There’s a tsunami cumming!!” tweet seriously but would take a report on the radio/TV a lot more seriously.

    Brand value does erode with time and is not a sufficient long term example. 20 years ago no American consumer would have bought Korean products, but now Samsung etc are very strong and Motorola etc no longer have a brand advantage.

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  • What you describe as a “profound” change is really no change at all. Content has always started with the “consumer”. Media has always been created with an audience/consumer in mind. It has always been a response to what the creator believes the consumer wants. “Old media” organisations live and fall by the market. You could never be commercially viable if you provided what people don’t want. What has changed is that consumers have more ways now of expressing their wants, and acting on them in thei rmedia choices. But the demand does not create the media. Media is still created in response to demand.

  • Mike Berkopec

    But what about discovery? You don’t know, what you don’t know. How do I prevent myself from being a victim of my self?

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