Working Without a Stage

March 5, 2012

The media as stageI first began exploring and developing the concept of media-as-a-stage several years ago (here, here). Of special significance is understanding how the Web interferes with the idea. This has led me to many insights, especially in the areas of ethics and advertising, but I see it everywhere today, and overcoming it represents the single, most important challenge in media reinvention. If we're ever going to dig our way out of the problems caused by disruptive innovations, we're going to have to address stepping away from this fundamental idea.

The stage is the earliest form of mass media. The audience sits neatly in rows in front of the stage and views whatever production is being presented, whether it's a play, a concert, a speech, a debate or some other form of performance. What I like about the stage metaphor is that it's possible to separate the performers from the platform itself, and this helps us clearly see what's wrong with media today.

Lewis DVorkinIs it the actors that draws the people to the stage or the stage itself? At Forbes, Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin has created a different form of journalism presentation built on personal brands separate from the stage. DVorkin is a brilliant innovator with a mind that sees what most others cannot.

Those same standards (for professional writing), though well founded, often led to homogenized and pasteurized content across a wide swath of journalism, all in pursuit of the unattainable — objectivity. Now, in todayís world of social media, authentic voice and perspective are required, putting traditional media in an awkward place and struggling to fend off newer, more free-minded news brands developing alternative models.

FORBESís new model for individually branded journalism is all about self-publishing, self-marketing, voice, knowledge, perspective and context.

DVorkin is one of the few who really "gets" the stage metaphor, and his innovation at Forbes will one day be standard operating procedure throughout the world of professional media, but I digress.

In the newspaper world, the paper itself is the metaphorical stage, one that functions with certain rules and procedures, each designed to protect the stage from criticism. One may criticize the actors, but the stage itself is neutral, and the lengths to which the newspaper industry has gone to protect this illusion is astounding. To be a performer on this stage, the actors must agree to perform in concert with the ethical considerations due to the stage. The sanctity of the stage is paramount, and for a good reason. The audience sits in front of the stage with certain expectations about the performances it hosts. This is the bargain, the value proposition the stage has negotiated with the audience.

Why has the audience accepted this proposition? Because the stage and the people on it have sold them on the idea that this is reality.

And since the stage is merely the platform for any message or performance, it can speak in self-defining terms with which the audience will find it difficult to argue. A stage can say, for example, "I'm objective" or "I'm impartial," while the same cannot be said with certainty by the performers, for sooner or later, they must come down from the stage and live their lives with the rest of us.

The stage is about attention. While actors may perform in various positions on the stage, the script determines where attention should be focused. This can be accomplished with lighting, visuals, or sounds, but it's safe to assume that attention on a stage is the result of effects. The greater the effect, the greater the attention, and this applies to all forms of stages.

A big difference between the stage and the network

In the online, hyperconnected universe — Jay Rosen's "Great Horizontal" — the stage disappears. At best, it is simply another node on the network, but it cannot function as in days gone by, for the "audience" isn't sitting in rows watching a performance. Attention-getting effects — those things that the media and advertising industries know so well — produce an effect opposite of what's intended, therefore, because in a one-to-one universe, whether online or off, showing off or blatantly seeking attention causes people to turn away. And as anyone who has worked in television production will tell you, the way to render effects ineffective is by over-using them.

Irritating UsersOver on the stage, a screaming child is the center of attention, but in real life, it can be a jarring and highly irritating experience. The old car commercial of a newsboy running through the parking lot hollering "Extra, extra, read all about it" may help people remember the name of the auto dealer, but put that scene in real life, and people would demand the kid be taken away to the loony bin. This has profound implications for advertising in the network, because the industry is ignoring the reality of how much this irritates users in the name of maintaining the premise that the Web is a stage. But the ramifications are even deeper than that.

It means that the advertising creative that is designed for a stage doesn't "work" online, where the experience is one-to-one and personal. This is an enormous stumbling block for those seeking to make money online. We keep throwing TV ads as prerolls, for example, at people who are in an intimate, one-to-one experience, and it results in a fingernails on the chalkboard effect. For all the science and experience we possess in brand advertising from a stage, no one, and I mean no one has unlocked the key to marketing in the network, because we keep pushing creative at people as if it's from a stage.

Take the typical professional media company website, for example. In new research this year, Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism discovered that the top advertiser on the average mainstream media website is the company that owns the website. That's right, we are our number one advertiser. And each of those self-promotions competes with everything else on the page for attention. Whether it's video, animation, so-called "rich media" or some other form of bell & whistle, we compete with our own content to be seen. Think of a stage where you haven't a clue as to where to look. It's that bad.

The same Pew research found that the number one format of advertising on media company websites is static banners. Take a look at your own media website. How many advertising banners do you see on a page, especially the home page? How many self-promotion banners?

As Jakob Nielsen has proven through eye-tracking studies, people are conditioned now to ignore all of it in a quest to find what they're actually seeking. For example, I've learned to find the X that closes any form of ad without my eyes even looking at the ad, and I know I'm not alone. People are just sick of the relentless bombardment of marketing in our culture, and this is especially true in the network, where technology has given us the tools to escape.

Study reveals people are overwhelmed with advertisingDon't think so? The 2012 Digital Advertising Attitudes Report by Upstream/YouGov reveals a shocking number of British and American consumers are sick to death of the bombardment.

...more than one in four (27 per cent) British and one in five (20 per cent) American consumers online would stop using a product or service...if they were subjected to too much advertising.

The findings come as a stark warning to all consumer-facing companies as nearly two thirds (66 per cent each) of British and American online consumers already claim they feel subjected to excessive digital advertising and promotions.

Of even greater concern in the study is attitudes about advertising on mobile devices. Marco Veremis, President of Upstream, warned that mobile is a mine field.

...marketers need to be especially mindful that the mobile will always be a deeply personal medium and to avoid a backlash, any advertising must be personal, intimate and targeted. Companies must avoid repeating the mistakes of the one-to-many broadcast and volume driven online advertising years and especially on mobile, they should focus on using short, text-based ad formats instead of intrusive graphical banners.

This report clearly reveals difficulties for media companies, if we continue to push for more, more, more online, and it's all due to one simple reality: we think of our websites as a stage and our users as its audience. Our users want a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Who will be the first to give it to them?

No matter what it looks like from afar, what spin we need or wish to put on it, or what our business model needs it to be, from a usage perspective, the Web is always one-to-one. We may actually believe that we're dealing with an audience — and we may find considerable evidence to prove to ourselves that it is — but the truth is that consumption of media via the Web is personal. The devices are personal, the experience is personal, and the control is entirely personal. I can't begin to count the number of times I've bailed on a piece of content — written or video — because something about it crossed my line of tolerance. I just won't play the passive, sit-in-my-seat-and-shut-up role when I have the wherewithal to do something about it. Nothing is so compelling, so "exclusive," so rare, so fascinating, or so necessary that I will put up with your BS to watch it, read it, or listen to it. Nothing. I'm in charge of the controls, not you.

Let's pretend we're at a wedding reception, and the groom wishes to make a toast. He is on a stage at that point. We are his audience. He has a microphone, hams it up for a bit, and then delivers a poignant message of love, to which everyone rejoices and applauds for the wonderful performance. Later, the groom walks up to you, microphone in hand, and proposes a toast for the two of you. It will not, cannot be delivered in the manner of the "staged" toast, for you would not receive it the same way. The same dynamic is at play in the audience-less net.

The reason media companies are conflicted over employees posting on Twitter, Facebook or any other website is the mistaken belief that the stage needs to dictate practices for actors when they're not on the stage. This is an absurd and very dangerous practice, because the network values authenticity above all else. Why? Because it's not a stage, and individual people acting as though it is — especially when they're away from work — smacks of artificiality, the ultimate curse of "playing" in the network. Even if friends, fans and followers are aware that their media company buddies have to restrict their input, the disrespect extended through this practice is permanent.

Then there's the practice of turning social media into a stage. Eager Silicon Valley companies are more than happy to assist us and the business community with preparing stage-like pages for two reasons. One, it fits what we know from a mass marketing perspective, and so we recognize how to play the game. Two, it allows them to exploit our brands in lining their own pockets with display advertising. We proudly embrace social media this way, because we think it helps extend our brands. However, it's really the spider and the fly.

I'm not sure that media companies can ever bring themselves to view the Web as it should be seen, so my money's on somebody within the advertising community figuring this out first and bringing more personalized, one-to-one advertising to the Web. The infrastructure is in place, although pricing will have to be reconfigured and not sold or bought in units of 1,000. Simply put, an ad that delivers a one-to-one-friendly message has a much greater likelihood of being effective and ought, therefore, to be worth more than one delivered from an artificial stage. Length doesn't matter in this kind of environment, but the real challenge is with the creative.

For us, working without a stage is a whole new way of viewing the problem of disrupted media in the 21st Century. It means we need to rethink everything, including ethical and legal issues. Our comfort zone is the safety of the stage, but our need for new ways of making money will lead us, — perhaps kicking and screaming — into a more prosperous tomorrow.