Jonathan Knee uses Netflix to argue in The Atlantic that content is not king and that aggregators are better at capturing value. That will be raw meat to those who claim that aggregators are content kleptomanics.
Knee’s analysis is good but there’s a critical element that needs to be underscored: Aggregation itself is not sufficient. Netflix gains its advantage because it has a substantive relationship with its customers, which yields data about their desires that the company uses to superserve them, making highly relevant recommendations and filtering noise (give me the filter bubble!).
This business strategy makes us rethink where the core of value is in media: in the content or in the relationship and data. What is Facebook’s answer? Google’s? I address that in my link economy treatise here:
Rather than concentrating on total audience, we should concentrate on the net future value of each reader. Where does that value reside? That question raises a fundamental strategic—and religious—issue: We in news and media keep saying that our content has value. Well, yes; no one will disagree. But we need to ask whether the greater value resides in the content or in the relationships and data it can spawn. Yes, the content has value, but how best do we extract that value?
Over lunch recently a media executive repeated the accepted wisdom that “our content has value.” That often leads next to the contention that we “should be paid for it,” though I counter that “should” is never the basis of a business model. In news, of course, we have always extracted more value for our work through selling our audiences to advertisers than selling our content to audiences. Why would that change today?
This executive also complained that digital companies, such as Google and Facebook, don’t value our content. But look at this new media ecosystem from the perspective of Facebook, a company that by some reckoning could be valued at as much as $100 billion by the time it goes public within a year. What does Facebook itself value? Relationships. Data. Relevance.
As for content, Facebook doesn’t so much refuse to value it, as my media friend implied, but instead finds value in a much more expansive view of content. It finds worth in all that apparently useless blathering we do in what Facebook calls, to journalists’ derision, its members’ “News Feeds.” That’s not news, the news people say; news is what we make. That may have been the case in a scarcity-based content economy, when there was room for only so much news in the world’s publications and airwaves. Now content—like advertising—is abundant. The incumbent content companies are having trouble taking advantage of that growth because their definition of content remains limited and their models based on controlling scarcity. Facebook, like Google, sees content everywhere, made by everyone, and each in its own way is better than legacy content companies at finding value in it. Each uses content to gain more signals about users and to use that data to target content, services, and advertising.
My lunch companion said that media companies’ content is the “steel” that makes Google’s “cars.” That metaphor still assumes that content is a scarce, consumable, and perishable commodity. Digital companies’ ability to make money on the back any content—Facebook enables the creation of it; Google organizes it—irks the content makers. This is why Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. lieutenants (in a list curated by Arianna Huffington) accuse Google and its ilk of being “parasites,” “content kleptomaniacs,” “vampires,” and “tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internets” who “steal all our copyright.”
There are two problems with the Murdoch worldview: First, according to my thesis of the link economy, Google, Huffington Post, curators, aggregators, bloggers, and readers linking via Facebook and Twitter do not steal value but instead add value when they direct readers to content. In response to News Corp.’s accusations and epithets, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt said in Murdoch’s own Wall Street Journal in December 2009 that Google causes 4 billion clicks a month to news publishers, a quarter of that from aggregator Google News.
In an apples-to-pineapples comparison, only a few months later, Bit.ly, the leading URL-shortener used in Twitter, passed that 4 billion mark and a year later it doubled that (though not all that goes to news sites). There we see the rising power of the peer’s recommendation, the human link. In early 2011, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism confirmed that social services were driving higher proportions of traffic to news sites, with Facebook coming in second or third in the list of referrers to five of the top 25 news sites.
The second issue with the Murdoch view of links is that it fails to take account of the new ways that digital companies mine value in content, links, and relationships. For them, content is not a product to sell but is more a device to generate information about users to increase their value. Content is a signal generator that reveals interests, needs, sometimes location, and more. Facebook can find out that you are a fan of Green Day if you read articles about it but also if you write about it or your friends are fans or you listen to or recommend its music. Then Facebook wants to sell you a ticket to the next Green Day concert near you (and Facebook knows where you are). In this example, content takes many forms—an article, a conversation, a song—and monetization comes not from advertising but from commerce. Does Facebook need a publisher’s article to make these economics work? Is it the steel without which there can be no car? Hardly.
A more extreme example: In 2010, researchers used a set of keywords to track aggregate moods in Twitter messages and found they could predict daily ups and downs in the Dow Jones Industrial Average with up to 87.6 percent accuracy. A hedge fund now uses the formula in partnership with one of the scientists. The content—very broadly defined—created by millions of Twitter users produces value, if you know how to look for it.
In our research, we will need to catalogue such additional sources of worth and revenue. For part of the lesson to content creators and link recipients should be that there are more ways to recognize value than the traditional way of selling audiences to advertisers. At the e-G8 conference in Paris in May 2011, Zuckerberg bragged that Zynga, built atop Facebook’s open platform, had just past game champion Electronic Arts in market capitalization. He said Zynga succeeded because it understood not only games but also people and relationships. He suggested that the next winners in music, for example, would similarly understand both (see: Lady Gaga). How will the similarly savvy news company succeed?
I’m not suggesting that editors call the people formerly known as the audience little monsters and don bodacious bustier to earn a buck. But I do believe we must challenge our every assumption about the role of content and its creators in a new media economy. Media’s role was to make and distribute content because it controlled the means of both. Now they do not. The former audience can make content and media’s role may be to support them in that with tools, platforms, aggregation, curation, promotion, training. The former audience has also taken over the role of distributor when they link, recommend, discuss, and embed content and so the question for media is how to take full advantage of that. Where do the former content controllers fit into this new ecosystem? How do we add and extract value?
The simple question—how do we increase the number and value of links and clicks for media—raises these larger questions. This research can hardly answer them all but perhaps it can inspire new ways to see value and new structures and methods to realize it.