Pirates vs. Ninjas: Marketing in P2P Environments

By now you should be familiar with the Internet fad that seeks to answer the age-old question: Who’d win in a fight, pirates or ninjas?

The debate continues online, recently manifesting itself in a popular Facebook application that’s attract millions of players. In it, users recruit friends to assume the identity of either a pirate or ninja and face off against each other in a never-ending battle for virtual supremacy. The game is perfectly balanced, so no attack is too overwhelming. Every ninja attack can be countered with a pirate salvo, tit for tat. No one loses.

Another, similar battle is raging online. The battle is more clandestine, with millions of participants around the globe but very little mainstream press. Though fought in the virtual world, the stakes are very real, including hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue, billions of dollars in retail sales, and the future of digital content distribution. Pirates are still involved, and illegal P2P (define) digital content — music, TV shows, major motion pictures — is their plunder. Ninjas are replaced by marketers, who are mostly helpless against the nonstop pirate attacks. If Pirates vs. Marketers were a Facebook game, the pirates would win. Every single time.

Many still associate the term “P2P” with the music industry and the illegal transfer of digital music files. The P2P landscape has evolved dramatically over the past few years, however; bandwidth has increased and is more affordable to more people. Video has eclipsed audio.

Must-see TV episodes are the new hot singles; entire seasons the new hot albums. Recent studies show that upwards of 50 percent of all BitTorrent (define) downloads at any given time are for TV content. Almost 25 percent are for full-length movies.

Years ago, it might have been true that only the upper echelon of Web surfers (read: “geeks”) were involved in the seedy world of P2P. Today, more than half of the top 50 downloads on download.com are for BitTorrent clients, proprietary P2P programs, and utilities that help users convert and play downloaded files. Even broadband providers like Verizon are reportedly getting involved, touting new “P4P” technologies to increase the efficiency of large file transfers and reduce the burden that such transfers place on the overall broadband network infrastructure.

It can be argued that most users don’t have any malicious intent when downloading illegal content. The industry hasn’t caught up with consumer behavior. In this age of YouTube instant gratification, consumers are conditioned to expect content be made available online almost immediately. These users will naturally seek the path of least resistance. Networks such as ABC that have adopted an ad-supported model for streaming popular programming have made this process relatively painless, but such solutions are few and far between. When arcane legal restrictions and dated intellectual property laws prevent coveted programming from being streamed online, when cable on-demand is not an option, and when a DVD release is months away, there’s only one place for consumers to get content: from the pirates.

It’s time to step up your knowledge of the P2P space, regardless of industry taboo or the continued indifference and ignorance of those who ultimately control content distribution. Legal solutions to address P2P issues will come slowly, if ever. In the interim, we must understand consumer motivations behind download behavior and leverage existing P2P environments as a potential marketing channel:

  • There’s almost no excuse for not having at least cursory knowledge of BitTorrent, by far the most popular and technologically advanced of file transfer platforms.
  • If you’re a technology provider working on a legal BitTorrent or P2P marketing solution, be proactive about educating your clients about the space.
  • If you’re a marketer working in the entertainment vertical and your job is to work with TV or movie assets, ask your digital agency about how to best leverage legal P2P tactics to distribute your content to users actively seeking it. If there isn’t at least one person there who has intimate knowledge of the P2P space, you might be in trouble.
  • If you’re at a digital agency, realize that thought leadership in the P2P space will be a key differentiator in the next one to two years as bandwidth continues to increase, consumers become more aware of their options, and industry continues to lag behind consumer behavior and marketplace trends.

The P2P space is in the same position with video that it was with MP3 files seven or eight years ago. There are more questions than answers, and there’s more speculation than solutions. This time, we have the opportunity to educate ourselves, develop new models, and test possible solutions before it gets too out of hand. Collectively, we marketers can have more of a fighting chance against the pirates.

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