When Advertising Enters the Stream

August 31, 2012

news is a river, not just a lakeWe've entered another one of those remarkable times in the tech world. Several elements have come together recently that strongly suggest to me a new downstream thrust that will likely impact everybody. It has everything to do with something I first wrote about in 2005 — the move of news content away from fixed, "finished products" to one built by flows and streams of ongoing elements of stories in real time. AR&D has been calling this "Continuous News" since 2007. What's happening today that's so compelling, however, is the disruptive idea of advertising entering these streams or at least becoming a part of information distributed in this fashion.

This isnít going to happen overnight, but the ramifications are so disruptive that it would be smart to begin thinking about this today. Online information distribution is already moving to real time, but current events are likely to accelerate that movement, because there's real money at the end of the line.

Whatís Happening
Fresh off disappointments in what they view as the commercialization of two of the Webís most visible "stream" companies — Facebook and Twitter — the alpha geeks of the world are turning their attention — seemingly overnight — to reinventing the basic building blocks of what weíve all come to know as "social media." The implications for us are many, and they will impact not only our own use of Facebook, Twitter and a whole host of other "social" applications but also the very nature of what we offer in terms of original content.

Weíve known from the beginning that those who created the Web believed it was more a social disruption than a technological one, but it took applications like MySpace, Facebook, Twitter and many other versions of "social media" to make us see what that meant and what it would be like. Today, very talented and influential developers are working to turn the Web itself into a giant social application. In this world, identity will be set at the DNS level, and not "inside" applications owned by private corporations.

Perhaps the biggest contributing background factor has been the rapid rise of mobile in the world of news and information. Streams of content work much better on mobile devices than static displays of web "pages" that take a long time to load. This will continue to put pressure on companies that provide the news, 'lest they be swept aside by well-funded start-ups with models that demand this kind of "unbundled" content.

This new blast of technological energy is essentially about removing content from privately-owned and operated infrastructures by creating and using open source tools. In this way, no individual companyís "stream" will theoretically be higher on the food chain than anybody elseís, because the infrastructure will be shared. The only one who will "own" the content you create is you. It partially stems from the commercialization of Twitter and Facebook, but itís more about the dangers of any private company maintaining control over content created by people who use their service. To many of these alpha geeks, itís a question of freedom of speech and limiting censorship. If the self-preserving nature of the request (or government demand) is great enough, both Facebook and Twitter have proven that they will violate their own terms of service and either shut down accounts or otherwise block expressions they deem inappropriate. The latest iteration of this occurred during the Olympics, when Twitter shut down the account of someone complaining about tape delays and who published the public email address of an NBC vice president. Twitter, which had an Olympics business connection with NBC, was flooded with complaints and soon restored the account.

Dave WinerDave Winer has long been the leader of this thought stream (recent examples here, here, here, and here), but now many others are moving technological pieces into place and at a pace thatís quite impressive. In the last few months, Winer alone — the principal founding father of blogging, RSS, podcasting, OPML, news rivers, and a host of other technologies vital to the real-time Web — has advanced a suite of software tools that allow anyone to create an identity within the Cloud and use that to propagate private (or public) applications.

The announcement and remarkable funding success of app.net is another new innovation. Itís not so much a "competitor" to Twitter as it is a platform on top of which new flows and streams can be built. This was what many geeks had wished for Twitter in the first place, wishes that were trounced when, gasp, the money behind Twitter decided it would be a good idea to make money themselves. Then, thereís the launch of Medium, by Twitter co-founders Evan Williams and Biz Stone. The Medium platform purports to be the future of publishing, but that, of course, has been claimed before. A whole host of applications are so far downstream in the content-stream world (e.g. Pinterest) that it's hard to miss the significance.

In thought-stream after thought-stream, the idea is expanding rapidly, and this month has been one of intense examination of things about the real-time Web that Iíve not seen before, except perhaps in my own wishful thoughts. The point Iím trying to make here is that we must note the consistently trending move towards flows and streams of information and away from static displays or even static "libraries" of content. Facebook and Twitter have both taken away from the world of aggregating disparate blogs by creating nice environments within which to filter pieces of content that people add to the stream. The problem is that they own everything, not the people doing the creating.

There is one stream. There are many tributaries. It works in real time. Filtering mechanisms are but islands in the relentless stream.

Anil Dash wrote a piece about it (Stop Publishing Web Pages) that included this familiar web "site" comparison:

difference between pages and streams

The image on the left represents a "page." As media companies, we publish pages, because the ads that we sell are embedded in the page's infrastructure. The image on the right represents a real-time stream. We have streams, too, in RSS. We use them, however, as promotional tools, to invite people to come to our pages and our ad infrastructure. This is going to eventually become a tactical liability, because the stream is taking the place of the "site" in terms of the ongoing distribution of, especially, news and information. Linking back from within the stream is fine, as long as the link opens quickly. This is the problem most media companies ignore, because the ad infrastructure is what it's all about. Think of it as a giant river to which everyone contributes, and where software applications allow for filtering the flow based on user choices. Itís Twitter on steroids without a limitation on characters. This is the vision the Web's developers are advancing. Itís very much the opposite of mass marketing, which ought to get at least some of our attention.

Advertising Raises Its Head
These events (and a whole lot of back-and-forth on Twitter) pushed Mathew Ingram to publish a piece called "What happens to advertising in a world of streams?" This is the most important question being asked right now, and itís one with which Iíve struggled for many years. I think itís vital to understand that a whole bunch of brilliant thinkers are now probing this question, and it'll be the most important paradigm change in the history of advertising.

Here are a couple of excerpts from Mathewís piece:

...itís great to look at the clean and stripped-down design of a site like Medium or an online discussion community like Branch or a lightweight blogging platform like Svbtle, but part of the reason they are so attractive is that they have no ads. While some new ventures like App.net are hoping to build platforms that are funded by users and the developers who build for them, content-oriented networks and services typically have to rely on some kind of advertising — a challenge that both Twitter and Facebook are confronting as well, with mixed success.

...The bottom line is that if advertising is just another form of content — and content is moving towards a world of mobile streams — then you have to figure out how content works now, instead of just slapping your banner ad on top of someone elseís. We may be seeing the initial seeds of the future with things like Twitterís "promoted tweets" and Facebookís social ads, but the backlash that even those experiments have produced makes it obvious that there is still a lot more work to do.

ads as items in a streamSomebody is going to crack this code, and when it happens, we will see a wholesale abandonment of a universe where click-through rates of display ads are measured in the thousandths of a percent. As Mathew notes in his piece, "Irritating people into clicking isnít working."

For those clients of ours that employ a Continuous News strategy, weíve been promoting for years the concept of "ads as items" within the streams that we publish. In this scenario, advertiser "stories" are pages of content flagged as ads and inserted within the unbundled stream. The day will come when these stories are passed around just like anything we create, and we will get paid when that happens. The reality of that scenario is closer than we all might think.

Real-time flows and streams — what Dave Winer calls "rivers of news" — are not only here to stay; theyíre also where everything is heading and fast. Take a look at what he calls "tabbed rivers," and you can see the future shape of news aggregation. I've not heard a lot of people talking about advertising as a part of the stream — or perhaps even its own stream — until this current round of discussions about moving identity to the backbone of the Web.

Media companies donít need to wait for somebody else to invent the means and mechanisms that will bring this revenue stream to life for us. We can and should be doing that for ourselves.