New Media Predictions, Part 2

This is my last column for ClickZ. Teaching graduate school courses in new media business is taking more time than I can properly devote to the issues that make ClickZ valuable to you.

Part one of this short series offered some predictions based on what I’ve learned in the past 31 years working in media, including the past 16 years full-time in new media. Here is my final prediction:

    Media industries as we traditionally know them — newspapers, magazines, film, radio, and television — and the marketing and advertising agencies that work in those media will have a wrenching upheaval during the coming decade as the dominant mode of media in post-industrial countries changes from mass media to individuated media.

Mass media are those in which numbers of consumers are sent the same package of editorial content and advertising, be that package a newspaper, a magazine, or a broadcast program. Mass media are the forms we’ve known for the past 500 years, since Gutenberg invented the printing press. However, mass media arose not necessarily because everyone wants to receive exactly the same package of content in each edition (most people read only a few stories in the average newspaper or regularly watch only one or two of a network’s or channel’s programs). A mass medium sends people exactly the same edition or program at once simply because analog presses and analog transmitters are limited to delivering the same thing (i.e., edition, program) at any one time.

Mass media were a fantastically lucrative business during their halcyon years, which culminated during the 20th century, but they profited mainly because consumers didn’t have much other choice. Thirty years ago, the average American’s access to media was limited to one to three locally distributed newspapers, three or four local TV channels, a couple dozen locally available radio stations, and a similar number of magazine titles on newsstands. People in those days consumed mass media because they didn’t have many other choices, and media found it easy to “aggregate their eyeballs.”

But the media technology evolutions in the past 30 years, thanks mainly to the computer microchips, have shifted the average American’s access to media from relative scarcity to nearly informational overload. The average American now has access to many daily print newspapers, to hundreds of TV channels at home and magazine titles on newsstands, and to broadband Internet connectivity that gives her access to the Web sites of newspaper, magazines, and radio and TV stations from around the world, plus social media sites, 100 million blogs, and a few hundred million other Web sites.

What is consumers’ natural reaction to their newfound cornucopia of information? They gravitate to whatever information mix best fits their individual interests and needs. It’s why people use “favorite channels” buttons on their TV remote controls. It’s why the average person uses search engines more than any other online site or service. It’s why mass media audiences are fragmenting. The people formerly known as the audience are no longer consuming mass media’s entire packages.

Instead, they are hunting and gathering only those few stories or programs that fit their specific interests. This is why most mass media companies’ Web sites might have more unique users than those companies’ traditional products have, but each of those unique users visits the that Web site much less frequently and less thoroughly than the traditional product users.

Online, people don’t consume newspapers, magazines, or broadcast networks or channels; they just consume parts of these things. As the Director of BBC World Services Peter Horrocks recently put it, “In effect, the users see a single unified news universe and use technology (e.g. Google, Digg, etc) to get that content to come together.”

Moreover, each online user’s overall choices will be different from any other online user’s. We now live in a world of individuated media. The packages of information we traditionally produce are no longer as important as the individual stories or programs we produce.

If you work in an advertising or marketing agency, you’ll need to find eyeballs not by placing your ad in an edition or a program, but by using behavioral demographics or permission marketing to find individuals who are interested in your clients’ products or services, via any stories or programs on whatever Web sites those individuals are using. Individual demographics will become more important than any media package’s aggregate demographics.

We’re now in the early years of this transition from mass media to individuated media, maybe 10 years into a process that will take a generation. The writing is on the wall, but most traditional media companies still think it’s only graffiti. Yet the change will come and be sudden and sharp, not gradual. Just ask the newspaper industry, the first to be affected. The radio industry’s and the TV industry’s affiliate infrastructures will be next. There are pioneers who are ably leading the advertising and public relations industries through the change, but not everyone in those industries will make it to the Promised Land.

If you think you’ve seen changes in the past 10 to 15 years, you ain’t seen nothing yet. If you think you’ve seen layoffs, redundancies, and restructurings, you’ve merely seen the opening acts.

However, the opportunities to profit and grow careers within individuated media, for those who know how to do it, will be extraordinary. Be one of those people.

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