Size doesn’t matter: The distributed media economy
No, size does not matter, not in media, not anymore.
I know that’s counterintuitive and counter everything we’ve assumed about mass media. But today what matters is reaching the right people by the right means. That has always been the case. Only now, thanks to connected, collaborative media, it’s finally possible.
I’ll pull together a lot of links around this topic below. But most of them are still trying to measure mass: the new pageview, the
new audience count, the new click. I say the change we’re facing is much bigger than just the obsolescence of the pageview, much more fundamental: Size doesn’t matter. Relevance, credibility, and attraction do.
Instead of measuring quantity, we have to measure quality. And only when we do that will the true value of these new media be unlocked for everyone.
Some of the discussion that is boiling up out there:
* The end of the pageview: Steve Rubel has been doing a good job hammering on the anti-meme that the pageview is over: ‘The page view does not offer a suitable way to measure the next generation of web sites. These sites will be built with Ajax, Flash and other interactive technologies that allow the user to conduct affairs all within a single web page – like Gmail or the Google Reader. This eliminates the need to click from one page to another.’ See, for example, Yahoo grappling with the impact of the unpage. This is not entirely new; it was a problem I grappled with on refreshing chat pages a decade ago. But the phenomenon is growing in both an Ajaxed web and a Flashed video world: What’s a page now? What’s a view? What’s a viewer? A decade ago, I spent months on a tortuous committee of the Audit Bureau of Circulations answering just those questions. Now, it doesn’t matter, or at least, it matters less and less.
* Targeting and verification matter more than size: When I sat in those endless ABC committee meetings, our aim was to come up with the standards against which to audit the circulation or audience — old terms — of web sites. But that effort was eventually abandoned because advertisers didn’t care about verifying the size of a site; only publishers cared about those bragging rights and not enough to pay for auditing them. As it turned out, advertisers cared only about auditing their own flights of ads: ‘Did I get what I paid for (whether that was people or views or clicks or actions or demos or branding)?’ You see, circulation mattered only when you were stuck in the same pages as all the advertisers and you all got the same audience whether that audience gave a damn about you or not. But online, you could find ever-better ways to reach just the people you wanted or who wanted you. Travel advertisers didn’t need to care about the circulation of NewYorkTimes.com, only about who saw its ads in the travel section. Oh, yes, advertisers are still buying the old way, but that’s because it’s more convenient — albeit far less efficient — to buy us in bulk. But the mass is gone. Size doesn’t matter.
* The widgetization of the web: Niall Kennedy called it back in July: Pages are now made up of widgets that operate like multiple pages themselves. But this is about more than adding cool stuff to your site. See how MySpace is built with widgets from elsewhere and how Flickr is spread via widgets. This is a new means of distribution.
* The people are your distributors: One day this week, seven of the top 10 viral videos — determined by links and embeds, that is, by recommendations rather than just traffic — were performances by James Brown, following his death. (By the way, I didn’t see these videos on the most-viewed lists on YouTube; those are the old, mass lists people still look at but they’re pretty much meaningless). This tells me that the people will distribute your stuff if given a chance; they jumped onto word of Brown’s death and they served relevance. Note well that you don’t need everyone doing this; even as Wikipedia’s content is made by the fabled 1 percent of its users, so can the new networks of information be driven by 1 percent of their members.
* The distributed media economy is taking over: This last week, Google was said to surpass Yahoo as the second most visited site on the internet after Microsoft; this comes after MySpace surpassed Yahoo in pageviews. But the truth is that Google surpassed them all long ago, for Google is not a site; it is a platform. Every piece of Google — like the ads on this page — counts as another pageview, if you’re still counting them. This is why I keep saying that Yahoo is the last old-media company, relying on controlling content and marketing to attract an audience to see ads, but Google is the first distributed platform, no longer making the people come to it but going to the people wherever they are. And see James Brown: The people will take you to the people, if you’re good and if you’re lucky and if you let them.
Add to this the notion that advertising can be content (the viral ad) and that ad creative gets tangled up again with media and distribution (being on MySpace is itself the brand statement) and you continue to unravel all the old assumptions about the media economy; see Scott Karp arguing that the page view will be dethroned by innovation in advertising.
And mess things up even more when you start tearing apart the methodologies of measurement. Fred Wilson, on the board of Comscore, begins to address this. I argue that any paneled, sampled measurement scheme will simply not work in this new world. Full stop. The Nielsen method of putting together a sample of people who represented the rest of us cannot work in the mass of niches, for you cannot have a sample that is ever large enough to measure the tail. You can’t measure quantity.
So pageviews are obsolete already, thanks to Ajax and other unpage technologies and to the widgetization of content, funtionality, and branding: Again, what’s a ‘page’? Audience measurements are obsolete, at last, thanks to the fact that the former consumer is now also the creator and distributor: What’s an ‘audience’? Mass measurements are dead, thank God, because we are now joyfully fragmented into the mass of niches: Who’s a ‘user’?
The truth is that we, the former audience, have long paid only scant attention to the old, quantitative measurements: Box office numbers and Nielsen ratings were curiosities. We have always measured, instead, relevance, trust, usefulness, interest, attraction, action, value. Those are the measurements that matter, always have been, only now media must catch up to us. And when media and marketers do, they will give us greater value and get more in return.
This is about far more than the damned pageview.