It’s all about unbundled distribution

unbundled news itemsOne of the things that keeps media companies from realizing the potential of the Web is an instinct that says, “I must control my distribution.” In the world of scarcity from which traditional media comes, this is an understandable and necessary thought, but online, it’s ultimately suicidal, because the world of the Web is one of abundance. The issue then becomes one of “how do I get my content to stand out in a world of abundance,” not how do I limit its distribution to create scarcity.

This was played out last week in Knoxville, when veteran radio newsman Dave Foulk was forced to remove a news and traffic report service he had created on his Facebook page, because his employer wanted those people to come to its website only for such information. The 42-hundred plus “fans” he was serving are upset, because they’d come to know Dave as a trusted source. They will not go to the station’s website, no matter what the station does, so the end result is just 42-hundred pissed off fans.

In a world of scarcity, restricting access creates value, but in a world of abundance, it does the opposite. People didn’t need to chase Dave Foulk; they read him, because he made it convenient for them. Can they live without that information service? Of course, and they will. We’ve got this idea in our heads that we can “force” behavior, to which empowered consumers now respond, “Screw you!”

(This decision by Foulk’s employer also conflicts with our beliefs about the value of personal branding, but that’s another entry altogether.)

Scarcity and abundance are diametrically opposed concepts. The dos for one are the don’ts for the other, It’s the central explanation for the bruising on my head from bashing it against the wall when well-intentioned news people argue with me about things like, for example, website design. We think design is the top priority, because we think the home page is where people interact with us. It’s our doorway, we think, the place where interested people judge our skill in keeping them informed. The truth, however, is it’s just another URL in a literal sea of others. Do we honestly think ours is “special?”

“Well, Terry, if it’s the only choice they have about getting our content, then they’ll HAVE to come.”

No they won’t. And those who do will, at best, be your most loyal viewers, so what have you gained?

In a world of abundance — where aggregation is king — website design matters nil, because for all media today, it’s what you send into the real-time stream that counts and that can be “received” lots of different ways. We keep wanting to create a nice user experience that assumes people come to our websites for a visit, when the Web itself — and especially those who are designing and building its applications — cares ONLY about what’s in the wild that it can use. In this context, “the Web” refers to the multiplied thousands of people who are constantly working to evolve the tubes and pipes into the real time experience it was built to become. If the Web was just the infrastructure, media companies might have a case for strategies that smack of scarcity, but it’s not.

Facebook isn’t so much a destination as it is a precursor of the Web itself.

I don’t want this to be a rant or to sound critical, but our obsession with developing revenue instead of making money prevents us from working with the Web itself. Rather than try and go WITH the flow, we foolishly try to force the Web into our own wants and needs, and in the end, this will hasten our demise.

So let me repeat something I’ve said often in the past: your RSS feeds are vastly more important than your website.

What you release into the wild for others to use — as they see fit — will determine your health as a business in the years to come. We should be designing for our feeds, not using them to drive people back to our websites. This is contrary to what the industry believes is best practices, but it is the truth.

I first began exploring the concepts of unbundled media in late 2004 and published The Remarkable Opportunities of Unbundled Media one year later. People were already using the Web to unbundled things that others wanted kept bundled, such as, oh, music cuts. There was an extremely powerful consumer message in this action, and one that, frankly, most media company people ignored entirely. Then came YouTube, and again, people unbundled — made into clips — that which traditional media wanted kept bundled.

Never underestimate empowered consumers.

Also never underestimate the smart people trying to meet empowered consumers’ demand. Whole new business concepts have been developed — funded primarily by venture capital — that help people unbundle and rebundle to fit their needs (and their busy schedules). Can you say “TiVo?” If there is one truth that you can take to the bank in looking towards tomorrow, it is that content will be separated from its source. Fight it at your own risk. Explore it, and you’ll find opportunity.

For example, GoogleTV is almost upon us. By this time next year, many people will have TV sets or set-top boxes that allow them to find programming through Google’s TV search engine. What will you put into the stream that will “help” Google find it? How will you monetize that? These are incredibly important questions, because Google’s intention is to, again, assist in separating content from its sources.

Another example is the hot, new iPad application, Flipboard. Flipboard is controversial, because rather than take RSS feeds, it scrapes content and images from media websites (with appropriate links back to the original source). It does so, because a) it can, and b) the RSS feeds of most media companies are crap. Flipboard rightly wants to create a great user experience, and I expect there will be some sort of legal fight downstream over this. If media companies “win,” they’ll actually lose, because, once again, we live in a world of content abundance, not scarcity. The right response would be to pay attention to what we’re distributing in the wild.

We’ve developed the concept of Continuous News and are currently helping media companies reengineer their news departments to better serve the genre. It is quite an undertaking, but the results are magnificent, and these companies are much better positioned to meet the demands of tomorrow than those who cling to old ways of operating.

In the Continuous News environment, the output of the stream — and that includes the Web, Twitter, Facebook and any other application that will come along — is the reason these news departments come to work. We’re continuing to define and redefine that output, but at least we’re working on it, because we recognize that developers working on Web applications outnumber us and outgun us, so our only choice is to “give” them better content to work with. That begins with designing it for unbundled distribution and trusting that we will benefit in the end.

As I wrote in The Economy of Unbundled Advertising, ad snippets that are released into the stream can be reassembled to produce the sale paper of tomorrow:

If unbundled media is where we’re headed, then unbundled advertising must necessarily follow. This is a scary concept, however, for there is no command and control mechanism or manipulable infrastructure in the unbundled world. The upside, though, is that it costs very little to participate. All that’s necessary is the release what I call “ad pieces” into the seeming chaos of the Internet, where other businesses will take those pieces and reassemble them when summoned by customers who are trading their scarcity for information they actually want.

This is already taking place on a small scale with Twitter, but I suspect it will be the source of whole new business models downstream. We simply live in an unbundled world, although most of us don’t realize it yet.

Here are five things you can do today to get you moving down this path:

  1. Establish in your thinking that the Web is about abundance, and that your mission is to stand out, not control. Attraction always works better online than promotion, because consumers are in charge.
  2. Bring your RSS feeds to the top of your priority list and keep them there. Make them full feed. Refine them. Hone them. Put ads in them. This will be the content that you make available to “the Web” to distribute as it sees best, including GoogleTV.
  3. Build any unbundled content “apps” around your RSS feeds. Got an iPhone app? Is your RSS output its main content source? Work with apps like Flipboard to let them know YOUR content is available to them for distribution beyond your ability.
  4. Experiment with measurable ways to monetize unbundled content. Don’t know how? Read my 5‑year old essay and then talk to me.
  5. Establish in your revenue thinking that the creation of new value — i.e. “making money” — is at least as important as growing revenue.

Above all, get it in your head that unbundled output is where you HAVE to be, no matter how that conflicts with your traditional instincts and training. We are just beginning to realize the reality of content separated from source, and it will dominate the media landscape in the years to come.

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