The evolution and dispersal of social media tools creates the opportunity to rethink the traditional content publishing model for media brands.
That’s the conclusion I’ve come to after puzzling through the different ways we create editorial content, the ways that we engage with customers in a market and the opportunities to leverage that engagement for the advantage of our advertisers.
The dichotomy I’ve zeroed in on is the difference between Creating and Sharing. The best model for the future of an editorially-driven businesses will benefit from increasing the focus on Sharing and sacrificing some of the focus on Creating.
Social media tools can drive process change
The driver for this transition is the relative ease of use and ubiquity of social media tools. These tools make it easy for anyone to create and distribute digital content. If you can turn on a computer and type, you can set up a blog; if you can take a photo, you can post it to Flckr; if you can use a FlipVideo, you can publishto YouTube.
The use of social media tools by consumers is incredibly well-documented and is a critical plot element in the story line about the disintermediation of traditional media. Consumers are creating content and sharing content: in June alone more than 1 billion links, photos, videos and posts were shared on Facebook.
But there’s been virtually no discussion about how social media tools can be used to help transform traditional publishing operations.
One reason for this absence of dialogue may be the technical focus on content-tool innovation on the web. Over the past 20 years, the development of the web has been the purview of technologists who have revolutionized the concept of media. What has developed, however, is a media platform that creates more depth, dimensionality and interaction than any other media platform that has come before it. [The media proposition on the Internet is able to wholly close the commercial loop, moving from awareness, intent and transaction without having to shift from one media to another, or even having to move from one place to another.]
Some observers have posited that we are moving into a postdigtal age, where technological innovations become secondary to the primacy of social imperatives — the needs and abilities of people — in structuring the processes that will drive the next generation of media.
The intersection of technology and the social has often been a driver of social change. The mainstreaming and mass production of powerful digital tools has had a profound effect on the way that we live and learn. These digital tools have allowed us to speed up communication, publish our thoughts in any number of ways and allowed for new complex forms of collaboration. The speed and reach of this transition has had a profound effect on what it means to be a participant in society. The speed of the change, however, has left us with the mistaken belief that social change was somehow ‘created’ by the digital rather than simply played out on a the canvas of the digital; that the digital itself is the main driver of change. We would argue the opposite. This ontological error has had us move towards placing technology at the forefront (think e-learning as distance learning) and moving our focus away from the people involved in these processes; the needs that they have and the skills that they bring.
Not only is the digital subservient to the social, it is, in some ways (and soon most ways), transparent. We are moving towards a postdigital age where the tools driven by the microprocessor are common to the extent to which they will no longer be noticed. As the ‘digital’ calculator and the ‘digital’ watch have become calculators and watches, so will the ebook become a book and IM become ‘message’: the ‘instant’ will be taken for granted. Things digital will be accepted alongside our other technologies and the slate swept clear of many of the distracting dualisms (and technological factions) that pervade the educational discourse. The postdigital frees us to think more clearly and precisely about the issues we face, rather than become tied to an obsession with, and the language of, the new. It allows is to take a broader approach to the challenges and opportunities we face. Removing the focus on the digital leads us to see the division between the ‘digital’ have and have-nots not in terms of their lack of access to digital technology, but in terms of their lack of access to economic, social and political power.
When you look at the graphic below, ask yourself how you are interpreting the different elements that make up the variegated starburst. Does each element represent additional fragmentation of an already dispersed audience, or a suite of tools that can be picked from so that you can communicate more efficiently and more frequently with your audience?
The application of social media to a traditional publishing environment
When you think about social media as a set of tools that can enhance your interaction with the marketplace, you find yourself answering a new set of questions. The focus is not on how to handle media displacement, it’s on how to integrate the tools into your workflow so that you can be in touch with an audience in multiple ways across multiple platforms with minimal extra cost.
This is a reinvention that is about increasing the relevance of your core assets, not of protecting your legacy business.
The schematic below is an attempt to identify what things are different about a social media-enabled publishing workflow from the traditional workflow.
The first section represents the linear focus of the traditional workflow. Content elements are identified, managed and aggregated by contributors and a staff, and then organized, sharpened and filtered by an editorial team. The outcome of the work are a series of specialized content elements — an article, a feature, a news brief, a photo shoot, a citation — that have basic attributes, such as length, format, approach, tone and composition, that are specific to the ultimate media, such as a magazine.
This process is executed over time, and points to a key date where all of the elements have to come together and enter into a production cycle.
When you think about traditional media, the processes are highly organized around the means of production and distribution. What does that mean? Achieving success in the organization means being able to combine certain knowledge basic knowledge skills that relate to the topic and how to express yourself with highly specialized skills related to the distinct production and distribution requirements of the media.
Being a successful sports reporter for a newspaper and being a successful sports reporter for a cable network require the same basic domain skills, but highly differentiated specialized knowledge about the media, for instance.
The evolution of the Internet added a secondary distribution strategy to traditional content publishing strategies. The adaptation was largely related to the conversion of content to web publishing protocols.
This adaptation led to an evolutionary workflow that bolted an e-publishing strategy onto the traditional workflow.
The evolutionary state is where most of us in the magazine industry currently find ourselves.
We’ve created web publishing platforms to stand beside our print publishing platforms. The technologies have become somewhat standardized and the cost of generating this platform is incremental to our total content creation cost. We’ve adapted our brand approach to certain realities about web publishing, incorporating community, database, timeliness and other attributes of the Internet into our content strategy.
This evolutionary approach has put pressure on our staffs, since the majority of publications aren’t in a position to make meaningful investments in new resources. The commercial strategy for these new content products are still being developed. Driving interactive strategies have also driven core questions about value: what is an audience worth, what is an ad worth, what is a lead worth?
A critical challenge of the evolutionary strategy is that the web platform and the print platform are only somewhat synchronized. They are both outlets, and require tending and planning that is specific to each outlet. And, they remain destinations.
A word about media as a destination: Historically, the leverage in media brands was in the ability to access the means of production and the means of distribution. Each required a significant capital commitment in order to product high-fidelity content that was distributed in a broad fashion. You needed to invest in printing, or video production. You needed to pay newsstands to take magazines, or send out circulation offers. You needed to build video transmitters, invest in satellite transponders, pay cable carriage fees.
Each of these costs represented a barrier to entry that allowed media brands and properties to consolidate advertising spending at a premium cost.
Creating a destination, a place where people would aggregate to consume content, was the prime driver of economic success.
That doesn’t exist any longer. The new model will be more focused on repetition, intersection and response. How can I engage repeatedly with a consumer, wherever the consumer is spending time, around interesting content that makes the consumer want to respond?
Repetition, intersection and response are the critical success factors of the new media model.
This concept takes us to the third element of the content schematic: the Sharing workflow.
This model assumes that the focus of Creating is diminished in order to accommodate a focus on Sharing.
While collecting information for the brand, each content professional associated with the brand has a series of experiences. They can be analog experiences, such as visits to a specific place or conversations with a person; or they can be digital experiences, such as researching web sites or gathering background information.
Over the course of every production cycle, the content team is going through a process of identifying, filtering, evaluating, changing and improving different types of information. The ultimate outcome of this process is a Content Element specifically designed for the production platform, like an article or a video clip.
In the new workflow, the emphasis is on Sharing the broad stream of information as it happens.
Until now, the challenge to creating this kind of stream of sharing has been primarily technological. Content needed to get organized and formatted in such a way that it could be distributed.
That challenge hardly exists any longer. Each experience we have can be captured in easily distributed digital formats: notes, comments, photographs, videos, magazine pages, web links. And, each of these digital elements can be easily shared, using the tools of social media: social networks, RSS feeds, YouTube and myriad other platforms.
Envision, then, a content process where each person associated with the brand — a contributor, a staffer, an editor — is sharing things over the course of their work week that are interesting, enhancing and insightful. Some are raw and unfiltered. Some are structured and considered. And some are highly developed and presented.
What impact would this focus on sharing have on how the brand interacts with the market?
First, it would open the entire content process. Second, it would attract engagement and interaction with the audience. Third, it would help to sift, filter and assess the importance of different bits of information. And finally, it would make naturally segment the different intensities of engagement on the part of consumers with the brand along the lines of Forrester’s Technographics concept: Creators, Sharers, Joiners, Watchers, etc. This kind of segmentation and engagement would create a broader array of commercial opportunities for the brand.
To make this Sharing model work, the approach to the terminus of the workflow has to change from a focus on presenting a fully-realized and complete outcome of a formal editorial process to a focus on capturing the results of the curation of a set of collaborative and iterative content elements.
During the course of the production cycle — say a month — the content team would be working towards the final presentation — say a magazine issue — but a good part of what was in the magazine issue would not be unique and new. It would be the outcome of different things that were shared over the course of the month.
Doesn’t this diminish the magazine? Not at all. The format is different, the expression is different and the distribution much larger. But it does make the magazine itself very different.
This Sharing model also changes the way you think about audience. Each of the content people associated with the brand will have social identities, as will the brand itself. The content that is shared will be distributed across the various social identities. In each of these places, there will be different and unique configurations of an audience. The power of the brand will be to leverage access to the audience across these different elements, through the process of sharing.
The notes above refer to the schematic and add some color to the points I’ve made.
One important feature of this focus is the emphasis on point of view and activity as a core asset. A content team brings a unique set of skills and context that allows them to discriminate between what is interesting and useful and what is not.
In a world of vast and indiscriminate content creation and distribution, that point of view has the power to galvanize and focus an audience.
What changes are needed to drive the process change?
The Sharing workflow will require change within our organizations. The change, however, is the kind of change driven by a postdigital world. The critical skills required of our content teams aren’t technical. Anyone can share content on the Social Web. The skills are around what the entrepreneurial philosopher Dave Pollard (with a nod to Chris Lott) calls Social Fluency.
Pollard goes a step further and identifies personal attributes that must be present in order to achieve social fluency, which, he determines, is at its heart improvisation. A person must posses Openness, Attention Skills and Learning Competency. These attributes combined create the ability for Understanding, Appreciation and Self-Change. The intersection of these attributes creates the ability to Improvise.
A workflow that puts an emphasis on Sharing requires an awareness of and a commitment to the attributes that help to create Social Fluency.
This orientation creates a set of behaviors that is closely aligned with the concept of Personal Knowledge Management that was introduced about 10 years ago.
Some may argue that these are generational attributes which come more easily to people who have grown up in a digital age. I don’t agree. In my experience, more mature people in the workforce can adapt these characteristics. They are generally valued by people who create content, and are part of the internal filtering and editing that people bring to bear in their daily work.
However, people who have gained intelligence and expertise in a certain way of acting won’t change just for the sake of change. They need to understand what the point of the new rules are, how the mew rules will help them be successful in achieving the satisfaction and security that they want in their lives and they need to be given the kind of instruction and support that helps them explore new things.
Any organization that wants to shift to a Sharing content model and a new way of engaging with an audience has to make the commitment to help their teams achieve the types of social fluency that will make them successful in the new postdigital era.
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