Sunday, July 12, 2009

Connecting Content and Audience

As anyone who follows the media business (whether music, movies, publishing or TV) knows, they run on the premise that those in charge can predict the preferences of millions of individual people, and somehow create content that maximizes hits and minimizes flops. It is a business in which the top decision makers are paid extraordinary sums to provide those predictions about what the masses next want to see, hear, and read. In most cases those expensive predictions appear no better than guesses.

A growing body of research suggests that reliably predicting hits is impossible no matter how high up the totem pole someone is, or how much market research they have available. [1,2] And yet the process continues. Media executives make bets on future hits based on past hits, which is like making bets the next coin toss will come up heads because the previous one did.

Egregious examples of missed calls include the 8 publishers who passed on the Harry Potter novels; the studio that greenlit Land of the Lost; the networks that passed on Battle Star Galactica, and the record companies that blew off the Beatles. The list goes on, and what it tells us is this: when it comes to predicting what will succeed and fail in the media marketplace, William Goldman had it right, nobody knows anything.

And yet consumption of media continues to grow. A recent comScore study showed U.S. audiences watched more than 14.5 billion online videos in March of this year, up from 11.5 billion a year earlier. These numbers are staggering, and provide studios, networks, filmmakers, marketers, and content creators of all kinds an amazing opportunity. But what is it people are watching? What is it they are responding to and can that translate to other platforms?

In his excellent White Paper titled Distributed Influence: Quantifying the Impact of Social Media, Jonny Bentwood discusses what he calls the Arc of Influence, a model showing how topics spread, and influence causes action among different groups - those he calls influencers (people who lead the crowd) and influence-ables (people in their personal networks who follow their lead).

For influencers the Arc of Influence is:
1] Attention
How do influencers grab a user’s attention?
2] Engage
How does the influencer engage with the audience? Is it in an informative, entertaining, or challenging way?
3] Influence Is the content personal and relevant. i.e. Does it demonstrate need + context + timeliness?
4] Action Does the influencer inspire the individual to act?

For the influence-ables the Arc of Influence is:
1] Interest
The consumer identifies a need or interest in information
2] Fulfillment
The consumer seeks fulfillment from what they hope are credible sources (information, entertainment)
3] Review
The consumer evaluates the content provided
4] Action
The consumer forms or modifies their opinion and acts accordingly.

The chart below shows Bentwood's model graphically.

Viewed this way we see that while the context between the two groups is different, the end goal is unified. Influence isn't based on being predictive, it's based on delivering information that inspires action.

If we apply these same rules to the creation of content - replacing influencer with content creator, and influence-able with audience
we can draw some clear inferences. Content created to satisfy the internal goals of the creators has no intrinsic value. Content only has value when it appeals and has meaning to the macro environment viewing the content. 

To put it in the terms of the chart above, content creators must align their internal goal to 'grab the viewer's attention,' with the individual's interest; the internal goal to 'engage the viewer,' must align with the individual's goal to view satisfying content; the internal goal to 'influence behavior,' must pass the individual's evaluation of being credible, authentic and entertaining. In other words,
, content succeeds when it satisfies the one person with the power to make or break it - the audience.
If the ultimate goal of a network program, online video or motion picture is to influence an audience (it is, even if the goal is to make us laugh), we must remember that "influence is only influence when it motivates people to act."[1] To create that kind of result content creators must rethink how their content is made and who it is truly made for. They must be less concerned with predictions and attempts to recycle past successes - the media world moves far to quickly for that - and more concerned with creating quality content that engages passionately with audiences.

This doesn't mean we should ignore internal goals, we can't. It means only that we should pay more attention to the goals, interests, and motivations of the audience the content is being creating for, and remember the two most fundamental tenets of media...

- The audience is the client
- The individual is the audience

1. Bentwood, Jonny. Distributed Influence: Quantifying the Impact of Social Media. Edelman, 2008.
2. Mlodinow, Leonard.
The Drunkard's Walk. Pantheon Books, 2006.
3. Kim, W. Chan, and Mauborgne, Renee.
Blue Ocean Strategy: How to Create Uncontested Market Space and Make the Competition Irrelevant. Harvard Business School Press, 2005.
4. Horn, John.
Summer Movie Season Cooling Off. LA Times, 2009.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

A Story about Storytelling

The last several weeks I have been thinking about storytelling. This isn't difficult in NYC because there are stories unfolding before us - and behind us, below us, and above us — everywhere we go. They begin and end on buses and subways, in the streets and in the parks, in cabs, pubs, diners, and even Upper East Side high rises.

Most of the time we miss these stories because we walk the streets with our mask of disinterest set firmly in place (If you are a New Yorker, you know what I mean). Recently however, I decided to remove my mask. I decided to look around as I wandered the City and even make eye contact with people! [yes, this is actually legal in NYC].

What first struck me was the sheer number of stories being told. Everyone, it seemed, was telling a story — even those trying their hardest not to tell a thing.

The vast majority of these stories seemed of interest only to the person telling it (or screaming/ranting/proselytizing it as the case may be). These stories either didn't attract attention at all, or attracted attention just long enough for us to realize the need to move quickly away.

Other stories attracted the attention of small groups, but failed to grasp the interest of the majority of people. The people telling these stories sometimes got our attention with gimmicks - jumping up on mailboxes, or playing guitar in their underwear — but the attention of those gathered quickly waned when the surface of the story failed to achieve any depth.

And then there were the stories we simply couldn't ignore. These very rare stories did more than just attract attention, they actually stopped dozens, and even hundreds of people in their tracks, who became emotionally involved and truly invested in the outcome. These stories shared a remarkable simplicity, and yet created boundless wonder and empathy. What these stories did was connect us to the one thing we all share - our humanity.

Later, tired from my wanderings, I stopped into a pub famous for their Guinness pours. I thought about how good that beer was going to taste, and about how cute the bartender was (please don't say anything to her, I am feigning disinterest so she'll be attracted to me).

As my Guinness settled I put words to something we all subconsciously know about stories, but seem to forget in the quest to over-hype audiences into the theater.

Tell a poor story and find yourself alone.
Tell a good story and find yourself some friends.
Tell a great story and find yourself an audience.