You Can’t Spell Media Without “Me”

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Editor’s note: Guest contributor Ben Elowitz  (@elowitz) is co-founder and CEO of Wetpaint, a media company distributing content through the social web. Prior to Wetpaint, Elowitz co-founded Blue Nile (NILE). He blogs about digital media at Digital Quarters.

Without question, one of the greatest gifts of the human species is our ability to communicate.  We can create, transmit, and absorb ideas with immense freedom in pictures, speech, writing, music, and more.  And yet, from the earliest days of man until very recently, the state of the art of media has been about as sophisticated as cave paintings.

Taking this a step further:

Truly great communicators don’t start out by focusing on their message.  They start with their audience.  They research, observe, and monitor every knowable detail – from background facts beforehand to micro-reactions during the conversation – and adjust their content and delivery precisely, so it will make an impact.  But it’s not like this is a secret formula.  Even toddlers do it, carefully measuring parents’ reactions and perpetually tuning in to the behavior patterns that get them the attention they want.  That tuning is carefully optimized to achieve maximum effect from each individualized recipient.

Meanwhile, media has virtually ignored its audiences.

But it’s finally beginning to open its eyes and ears to them through personalization. I believe that personalization has the greatest potential to transform the media business.

But before we get to that, let’s start with what’s gone wrong in media that has made us blind to our audiences’ cues.

In the world of print and broadcast, there was fundamentally no data about audience interests or reactions.  It was impossible to “read the room,” because the room was pitch black.  If media leaders’ eyes were closed, I’d be hard pressed to blame them; there was nothing to see.

As a result, there were two operating principles that made sense at the time, but which have since become outdated anachronisms.

First, that an editor should serve as oracle for what the audience desires (I call this the “Editor Fallacy”); and second, that content created in that vacuum of data should then be distributed as broadly as possible (let’s call this the “Broadcast Assumption”).

These two assumptions – even though they came from the print and broadcast legacy businesses – have errantly managed to drive the entire Web media mentality.

And the resulting misguided formula – across the board – has been Prophesize, Publish and Proliferate.

The big hope with this media Ouija Board has been that the guesses will be right, and that those who broadcast widely will then draw a big audience.  When the guesses miss the mark with audiences (no surprise there), publishers turn up the volume or amp up the sensationalism. To some degree, this is why the Huffington Post succeeds with its brash and blaring headlines, and it explains why, thanks to Henry, we’ve collectively Blodgetized Web 1.0 media.

But to make room for the new media model of the next 100 years, we need to let these old assumptions fall by the wayside.  The new vision is for media to start doing the work that each member of the audience already does; and that means deliberately selecting and contextualizing the media we each consume.

Putting it simply: media’s great opportunity is to bring the right content to the right person at the right place and time.

And this is where things get very interesting.

Bring Me My Very Own World

The social transformation of the Web has already taken us half way down the road toward a personalized future.

We finally recognize that the Web is made up of people, and Facebook and others have made people and relationships the key “nodes and edges in the graph” of the Web, replacing pages and links.  The social Web is now people-centric; and, increasingly, social is becoming the operating system for the Web at large.  Most impressively, “what my friends like” is already proving to be a good starting point to predict “what I like,” and so much of the Web is beginning to get at least a clue of how to serve us.

Despite this tremendous progress, however, when you go behind the scenes, the Web is still organized by data, not by people. Server data is affiliated with accounts; cookies are associated with Web browsers; and activity logs are tethered by IP addresses.

And yet, as the social revolution has proven, the real value of the transformation has been to stop looking at me as an IP address, a browser, or an account; and to start holistically realizing that I’m a person – I am me.

So, the great opportunity is to move from a Web of sites to “my” Web of me.

Media is at a critical transition point today, because we are about to completely redefine our sense of the audience. Starting now, the audience is no longer one massive opaque agglomeration. It’s not a “them” or an “us”; it’s a lot of individual “me’s.”  (This must-watch from Monty Python paints the picture.)

In this context, the Broadcast Assumption of content creators is completely out of touch with the 21st century zeitgeist.  It revolves around the played-out maxim of “create once, distribute everywhere,” which made sense when audiences were opaque and distribution channels were just big dumb pipes.  But it totally ignores the “me’s” in the audience – when it comes to both creation and distribution.

The bottom line, then, is that media experiences, which used to be one-size-fits-all, must now be customized so they’re just for me.

In other words, the media experience of the future must take a cue from Facebook, and bring my world to me – regardless of where it originated. 

The Six Elements of Ultimate Digital Personalization

Social represents progress toward this vision of fully personalized media, but it’s only one part of the game.

In my view, there are six key elements that contribute to ultimate digital personalization – and these elements are the basis for the ultimate success model in digital media:

  • It’s social – What happens to people close to me is important, because these people are important to me.
  • It’s curated – People aren’t just content sources themselves; they’re also curators. To know me is to know my tastemakers.
  • It’s an experience, not just a stream –Newsfeeds and timelines are a meager start.  Twitter’s 140-character format is great for insiders, but it’s inscrutable for Grandpa. Personalized media should come in all formats – not just a feed.  And it will be more powerful (and more profitable) when it creates an immersive experience.
  • It’s incredibly, incredibly smart about what it recommends, and what it doesn’t – But better than today’s Facebook and Twitter, it brings me the right content, not all content. I trust it to filter the world for me, and to highlight what’s important to me out of billions of pieces of information.
  • It’s self-refining – Speaking for myself, it would know to bring me news about digital media; about my company; about my friends’ reviews of great restaurants in Seattle, LA, and New York; and, in the winter, a helpful article or two on snowboarding tips would be greatly appreciated. It would also turn down articles about Glenn Beck, and turn up the latest find from Brian Stelter. And, before you cry (or scream) “filter bubble,” let’s get it straight that this is what I do already.
  • It’s not just the content that’s personalized – It’s the advertising, too. Today’s version is very primitive: I go to a Web site once and its ads follow me around for weeks. But, instead, my demographics, interests and intent should all combine to inform what ads to show – and not show – me.

After considering these six elements as a whole, I’m most inspired (and encouraged) by Facebook, Twitter, AOL Editions, the recent Flipboard clones, NetFlix, and the potential of a new Siri-powered Apple TV.

Each of these demonstrates the central aspect of this new vision for media: bringing my world to me.

Data Is the Currency of Personalization

To be successful, we all need to be data companies – as data is the clear way to know what our audience wants.  Data is the currency of personalization, and so it is our best path to delighting our audience.

News sites should know by now what topics and stories to program for whom; and no sports site should serve a balanced home page when no sports fan likes all teams equally.

It’s an approach that, of all companies, Yahoo! ‘gets’– and for them it’s been paying huge dividends for a long time.   And so it should for the rest of us.

What this means for media is that it’s not all about the content – instead, it’s all about the audience.  And that means the nature of media has changed.

It’s all about you. It’s all about me.

That’s the digital media future. And we need to start going there today – because audiences are asking (and even demanding) that we pay attention to them, that we really know them, as true individuals.

So, if you’re a publisher, here’s the challenge as you try to create meaningful content experiences today: Each member of your audience – no matter how vast it is – has to become the most important person in the world to you. Or, looking at it in a slightly different way, you have to become deeply involved and digitally intimate on a global scale each and every day.

Image credit: Shutterstock/almagami