The most reliable way to protect your local media business in a time of great cultural change — such as the one we’re in today — is to embrace only the biggest of the trends that define the change. In my work, I’ve identified seven key cultural shifts that impact media:
- Consumer and Business Empowerment: Everybody’s a Media Company
- The Shift to Real Time Information Flows and Streams
- The Shift From Managers to Leaders at the Top
- Social hyperconnectivity: The Rise of the Network
- Movement of Ad money to “Promotions”
- The Shift from that which is Bundled to that which is Unbundled
One of the most important of these super trends today is the reality that everybody is a media company. This is an incredibly significant change in humanity’s progress, and although its roots go back many years, the trend itself has only been around for about 10. In fact, this may be THE most important trend of all for small businesses, where it impacts most the intersection of media and advertising. Neighbors, after all, can be among the most difficult to convince of new thinking. As Jim Moroney, now CEO of A. H. Belo, once told me, “The consultant from Maryland is always appreciated more than anybody in-house or down-the-street, no matter what their credentials may be.”
In the days of mass media, there was an almost impenetrable line between the audience and the provider, best symbolized, I believe, by the stage in a theater. The audience both paid for the privilege of facing the stage but also being exposed to whatever messages the provider wished to put onto the stage. We have this today when we go to the movies. Believe it or not, there was a time when the theater business wouldn’t have dreamt of forcing people to sit through commercials before the show began — but even that has changed.
In the home of country music, the Grand Ol’ Opry, performers themselves handle commercial announcements. That’s the way it used to be in the days of live radio and television. My first job in TV was at WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee, where our weatherman Bill Carlson did live Butternut Coffee commercials during the weather segment. We got him once by gluing his cup to the saucer and the saucer to top of the coffee can. Nobody there will ever forget that moment.
Nearly a decade ago, J. D. Lasica published “Darknet, Hollywood’s War Against the Digital Generation.” In the book, Lasica coined the phrase “personal media revolution” to discuss the broad category of people behaving as media companies themselves by creating and distributing “media” via the Web. This White House photo from 2009 at Barack Obama’s first inauguration ball says it all.
We were all exposed to the up-close and personal horror as camera phone images — both static and moving — revealed the bomb blasts that rocked the finish of the Boston Marathon this year. Working together with authorities, the people who took these pictures directly aided in the quick apprehension of the bombers, who had thought they could plant their explosives without being detected. That we now have eyes everywhere is just one small cultural impact of JD’s personal media revolution.
But far beyond breaking news, the explosive growth of personal media has disrupted everything it touches. The same inexpensive tools that consumers are now using are also available to any-sized businesses, which has the potential of entirely leveling the playing field in consumer goods and services by driving down the cost of marketing. The neighborhood doughnut shop can just as easily make and distribute media as the Kroger Bakery up the street or, by God, even Walmart. We may chuckle today but just wait.
A part of this that few seem to comprehend is what I call “The Evolving User Paradigm” — the longer users use the Web, the greater the acceleration of the disruption they create. This is why the efforts of traditional media companies to understand the real disruption remains largely hidden from sight. A product or service that seems like it might be something people can use is outdated the moment somebody figures out how to do it for themselves. This is only going to continue to snowball.
Perhaps the only role left for media at the local level is that of curator of all this “media.” Curating content categories — including commerce — is a business just waiting to blossom, and this includes much of Doc Searls’ VRM work, where the personal media revolution will be used by consumers to turn advertising completely upside-down by broadcasting want and need messages to businesses. Today, those companies spend money to get THEIR messages out. Tomorrow, they will pay to receive messages from potential customers. This would be a smart thing for local media executives to explore, although I doubt they will.
The ability of everybody to be a media company puts a big value on the skill of listening, as I noted in a column here a couple of months ago, “The Web Is a Listening Post.” Go read what Annie Pettit of Conversition Strategies had to say about this new value.
Finally, another Street Fight issue pertaining to this is that legacy media companies don’t have the tools to genuinely support the wants, needs and possibilities that local businesses have available now, thanks to the ability of everybody to function as a media company. Google, for example, already takes a ton of cash out of local markets by offering a suite of tools and resources to help businesses exploit this ability. Local media companies reason that the best and quickest way to get onboard this gravy train is to accept the dribble that comes from a “partner” relationship with companies like ReachLocal, another pureplay that has figured out how to create value by using pureplay tools — especially Google’s — to generate business for local companies.
Among other things, ReachLocal provides a wonderful dashboard that allows any business to track the money it is spending with Google and other products. ReachLocal is a great company that doesn’t really need a local sales force because it shares a small piece of revenue (around 15%) with their local partners who then use ReachLocal’s tools to offer a form of ad agency business that includes a package of just about every other concept known to the digital advertising world. In this way, local media digital units are at least getting a piece of the action, and it’s apparently enough that nobody cares that they’re actually feeding the mouths that are sucking ad revenue from their own communities. It makes no sense, unless the only view you care about is the quarterly financials. If you follow the logic out completely, however, it’s like sitting on the bench scrounging for crumbs, when you could be out there competing for serious money.
Some day, the chamber of commerce is going to figure out what’s really going on, and it will have some hard questions for the local media companies who facilitate these companies from (mostly) California. They pay no taxes. They employ no local workers — they are exempt from the community chest. They are neighbors only in the timeless and spaceless world of cyberspace, but completely able to siphon money that used to be spent with people who actually set foot on the streets and sidewalks where real people exist.
Embrace the big trends, and you won’t go wrong. Don’t wait for something to copy; innovate yourself. Why should outsiders take money that used to belong to you? There’s nothing they can do that local people can’t do at least as well, if not better. It’s only technology and investing in the future.
There’s more at stake than most people think.
Terry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.