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The One Thing You Should Know About 'New Media'

  |  September 24, 2002   |  Comments

Why pay for mass-medium content via an informational-medium vehicle? Like paying to receive coal by airplane, it's a misuse of a medium's vehicle.

I'm called in as a consultant to fix publishers' new medium problems. Publishers often ask me what one thing they should know about 'new media.' If I like them, I'll tell them what I'm about to tell you.

The most important thing to know is we live at a time when the Industrial and Informational Eras overlap.

Each of these eras' media provides opportunities to marketers and publishers, but each utilizes very different theories and practices. Both eras use many of the same words, but the words have radically different meanings.

This overlap -- compounded by differing theories and terminologies -- bewilders traditional marketers and publishers. They either can't see the overlap or don't realize two eras coexist.

It's the root cause of confusion about what types of content consumers will voluntary pay to access or receive in the new medium. Hence, its pertinent to this column.

I appreciate this is all like saying humans descended from apes without explaining Darwin's theory. What exactly do I mean when I say the overlap of two historical eras is causing confusion among publishers and marketers?

To know where the media industry is going, we must know where it is now and where it's been.

Where it is now is simply described. Most marketers and publishers don't realize their traditional practices are a continuation and result of the 500-year-old Industrial Era. These practices might not make sense or lead to success in the Informational Era.

A Brief History Lesson

Forgive the brief history lesson. The Industrial Era began in about 1436, with Johannes Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type printing press. Despite increases in speed, the printing press hasn't fundamentally changed for half a millennium. It prints one edition at one time for all readers. Guglielmo Marconi's invention of the analog broadcast transmitter is another Industrial Era technology. It broadcasts the same program at one time for all listeners or viewers.

The hallmark of Industrial Era technologies is mass production of the same product for all users. When that product is advertising, editorial, or entertainment, the medium of Industrial Era technologies is called the mass medium.

The mass medium has a fundamental limitation. Because the same common print edition is confined to a finite space and must go to all users (likewise, the same broadcast program must go to all listeners and is limited to a finite time), an editor must choose stories according to greatest common interest until that space (or time) is filled. Leftover stories might be of great interest to one, some, or many users, but they're discarded. There's no real way a mass medium can match and route stories according to each user's interests. There's no way analog presses or analog transmitters can produce a customized edition or broadcast for each individual.

That's mass medium's flaw. Although we share some common interests, we each also possess uniquely individual needs and interests. We are all a unique mix of generic and individual interests. A mass medium publication or broadcast can easily satisfy our common interests but cannot really satisfy each of our individual interests.

The Industrial Era's mass production of common products for all users was a tremendous breakthrough. In the Agricultural Era, nothing could be mass produced. Everything was individually produced.

Therein lies the point of this historical overview. If you think you get the new medium, you need to understand the contrasts and differences among media in the Agricultural, Industrial, and Informational Eras. Otherwise, you're blowing smoke.

The Agricultural and Industrial Eras

In the Agricultural Era, if you wanted to publish something
-- a book, a news announcement, or an advertisement -- you had to inscribe each copy by hand. You couldn't mass produce it, but you could easily customize its content for each reader. The Agricultural Era's medium was individual, not mass. Communication between writer and reader was two-way.

Later, in the Industrial Era, if you wanted to publish something, you could mass produce it, but you couldn't customize each copy to each individual's needs or interests. The Industrial Era's medium was mass, not individual. It's communication was always one-way: from publisher to reader.

The Informational Era

For the past 500 years, it's been thought publishers and marketers would always operate within the complementary limitations of the Agricultural and Industrial Eras' respective media. You could either individualize content but not mass produce it or mass produce it but not individualize it. That's the quandary publishers and marketers faced -- until recently.

Nearly 10 years ago, a third and truly new medium came into being. Computers can slice and dice information in as many ways as there are people (and more). Computers can match each item of content to each individual's needs. Computerized online communication can discreetly (or even discretely) deliver exactly the information each individual wants. These Informational Era technologies can do all this simultaneously, for the mass of all individuals.

Just as publishers and marketers online aren't limited by page space or time, they also are no longer limited to a choice between individualization or mass production. Mass individualization is now possible. Communication becomes two-way between the publisher and all users.

This is the informational medium. It can do all the individual and mass media could do and more, without the earlier media's complementary disadvantages and limitations.

The Airplane and the Internet

Only three media exist: the individual medium, the mass medium, and this new informational medium. Traditional marketers and publishers are wont to call newspapers or TV media. Newspapers aren't media. A TV station isn't a medium. Magazines aren't media. Direct mail isn't a medium. Each is a vehicle operating within a medium. They are communication vehicles, much the way automobiles, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes are transportation vehicles. They convey content within one of the three media.

The analogy between transportation and communications media is apt. An automobile's medium is land, a ship's is water, and an airplane's is air. Much as humanity had been limited to using only two transportation media before the 20th century -- land or water -- it had been limited to using only two communications media -- individual or mass. Each of those old transportation and communication media had complementary advantages and disadvantages. Technological advances in the 20th century created a third medium. For transportation, it was the airplane. For communications, it was what I call the informational medium.

The Internet is the vehicle for the informational medium. It can deliver individualized content simultaneously to the mass of users. Most traditional marketers and publishers don't realize this. They think it's an electronic delivery vehicle for mass-medium content. They can't understand why users won't willingly pay to receive mass medium content via this informational-medium vehicle. It's like not understanding why consumers won't pay to receive coal by airplane; it's a misuse of this new medium and its vehicle.

Mass Individualization

If you get it, you realize the Informational Era and its new medium are about mass individualization. Publishers and marketers who attempt to use the new medium for mass medium are misusing it. A publisher who simply shovels his mass media newspaper's generic content online is transplanting the limitation of the analog printing press -- all users must receive the same content -- into a medium with no such limitation. It's like building an airplane that doesn't fly but taxis around the ground. Again, a misuse of a new medium.

Mass individualization best satisfies online consumers. Which of the following would you choose to use: a generic edition you cannot individualize to your interests or an edition you can customize for exact subjects, companies, teams, and topics that interest you? Both editions would still contain the bulletin stories, but one would be customized to your needs and interests. I know which edition I'd pay to use.

Provide consumers with content that utilizes mass individualization, and they will pay to use it. Remember, they're using this new medium to get the type of services they can't get from the existing mass media.

If you provide them with content designed for the older and limited mass media, most consumers won't willingly pay for it. Yet mass media content is what most publishers and marketers provide online. Most don't realize mass media products don't ably work in the new medium.

Sorry, but mass individualization isn't cheap or easy. Neither were publishers' and marketers' investments in printing presses when the Industrial Era replaced the Agricultural Era. The Internet isn't some alchemist's stone that, without investment, can easily transform anyone into a millionaire publisher or marketer. There will, of course, be many niche publishers and marketers that can do well online without mass individualization; but evermore general publishers and marketers are realizing that mass individualized publications and services sell online far better than generic mass media services do.

Cater to each and every individual user, and all will pay for your service online.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Vin Crosbie

As managing partner of Digital Deliverance LLC and publisher of the "Digital Deliverance" newsletter, Vin Crosbie advises news media worldwide about new media strategies and tactics. As adjunct professor of visual and interactive communications and senior consultant for executive education in new media at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, he teaches that wisdom to graduate students and media company executives. "Folio" magazine called him "the Practical Futurist." "Editor & Publisher" magazine devoted the overview chapter of its executive research report "Digital Delivery of News: A How-to Guide for Publishers" to his work. And his speech about new media to the National Association of Broadcasters annual conference was one of 24 orations (including some by President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama) selected by a team of speech professors for publication in the reference book, ">Representative American Speeches 2004-2005."

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