An Open Letter to Big Media

Dear Big Media,

How’s it going? Did you have a good holiday? It seems like we wait so long for the holidays, then, bam!, they’re here and they’re gone. I hope you had some time to relax and enjoy yourself and get ready for the New Year.

Which brings me to the reason I’m writing to you. I wanted to see if you were ready for 2009, because, frankly, I don’t think you are. This year is going to be a tough one for all of us in the marketing, advertising, and publishing world. People just have way less money to spend on things, which means that advertising new products is bound to fall on more than a few deaf ears. Consumers are far less confident than they have been, and that’s not a good environment in which to try to persuade someone to buy cars or fancy jeans.

But there’s an even bigger problem looming on the horizon for you. The nature of your business is changing because the nature of the devices that people use to get your content is changing. Of course, newspapers faced (and continue to face) this problem when the Internet first emerged. People liked the idea of getting their news online.

And technology is moving even faster now than it did 10 years ago. The cost of digital storage has dropped so low that it’s hardly worth putting a price tag on it. Chips have had the benefit of double pressure: costs are going down as power goes up. The result is that practically everything we own will become a computer, and all of our computers will be connected to each other.

This matters for you, Big Media, because Sony’s CEO anticipates that 90 percent of the products his company creates will be able to connect to the Internet. Yahoo is ahead of the game (for once), creating an architecture that will enable its widgets to work on televisions. What happens when your evening news has a ticker of headlines along the bottom from another source? Or a chat window that obscures the view of a commercial?

Here’s a really weird one. What will you do when the first magazine ships what is actually a little, disposable connected computer? “Esquire” experimented with putting digital ink on its magazine cover last year. How far away are we from large sections of magazines, or even the whole thing, being totally connected and totally dynamic?

There are actually a few things you can do to get ahead of the trends. Because, let me tell you, the trends don’t look good for you. You’ve done a good job over the many years of building up audiences and delivering value to consumers. You need to find ways to keep on doing that. I really want you to survive. It would be a much tougher world without book publishers, newspapers, television networks, and movie theater chains.

So here’s what you need to do.

Connect the Writers to the People

If you have someone who is out in the world, generating content — like a reporter or a reviewer — give her a smartphone with Twitter installed. As your movie reviewer goes into a movie, have her tweet her expectations; as she walks out, have her write a 140-character review. Let your consumers know that your content creators don’t exist on the page but in the world and that they encounter exciting and interesting things all the time.

Find a Break in the Wall Between Editorial and Advertising

This is a pretty controversial. But advertisers are encountering remarkable new rules online, especially when they reach into the blog world. Yes, you can place an ad on a blog, but you can also sometimes engage with the blogger, bringing him into an experience. Usually, you aren’t specifically paying for the content, but the content tends to emerge. You have to give advertisers more of a way to connect with the people who write the stuff. As you build those people’s brands, you’ll be better able to capitalize on it.

Stop Hogging the Content

It’s clear that you want to hold onto your copyrighted materials. It’s also clear that the crowd wants to wrest that content away from you. You must find a way to let that happen. The companies that have partnered at Hulu have embraced the idea of letting the content flow. In many ways, the challenge is simply to become comfortable that giving something away doesn’t mean the end of revenue (thanks to Stuart McFaul of the Spiralgroup for this one).

Watch the Little Guys

Your competition isn’t other big media players. It’s the fringe — the small companies operating entirely without proven models. Anytime you look at a media company and decide that what they’re doing is crazy, take a closer look.

OK, one more thing, and this is my fault: we should stay closer in touch. You know, we only talk when there seems to be a problem. I think maybe we in the new media should reach out more frequently and share our ideas. We don’t actually want you to go away. We have ideas about how people can watch, listen, share, and build. You guys have been doing that for a long time. Let’s find some cool new things to do together.



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