Online content properties critically need a own/develop a compelling reason for media consumers to come back, and "a better experience" just doesn't cut it.
On the interwebs, consumers have nearly infinite choice of news sites and we are all faced with a seemingly endless buffet of information & content destinations to choose from. Never before has the media industry had to deal with such a techtonic shift of available inventory & fragmentation to the nth degree.
So if content isn't so differentiated and distribution isn't controlled, what's the glue that makes a reader come back to a specific web property? Does "brand" have enough strength in a world of attention deficit disorder and infinite choice? Over the past decade, or even past couple of years, we have seen companies rise in from nowhere thanks to the power of the internet. Yet, I question the long-term sustainability of a brand for a content destination online. Not because a brand can't get awareness, but more because thousands of brands can get awareness and consumers don't have to stick to just one media outlet.
Printed newspapers & magazines are by & large "pushed" to consumers. The New York Times is delivered to our doorsteps and Time Magazine shows up in the mail. Since these products are delivered to us (for the most part) we are practically forced to read them. Before the Internet, I read the NYT day in & day out because (a) it was one of the few options and (b) because it fell in my lap. Once I signed up it was made easy for me and I was hooked on a handful of media brands/outlets, rarely changing my devotion.
When broadcast television was introduced and became prevalent, the same held true for that media. Practically push as well, the TV was the centerpiece of the living room and we had the choice of a half dozen channels to choose from. If the TV was on, there was a 1 in 6 chance that we were watching said media companies content. Empires could be built because the $70 billion in ad spend was spent across a handful of media properties.
With cable, TV faced fragmentation and the broadcast channels had to step it up a notch. But, even so, we consumers are still laze and the top ten channels on the cable box still get most of our attention. It's hard to be channel 73 but it's really easy to be channel 1 or 2. Viewership in the latter dwarfs the former. And, although cable expanded our channel choice exponentially, it's still a finite selection of content.
The fragmentation caused by the Internet is a million times worse! Very few new media companies have figured out how to get consumers' repeat attention in the world where media isn't push.
Steve Rosenbaum recently wrote a post called Content Is No Longer King: Curation Is King, which argues that content is no longer scarce and in fact "it's everywhere, it's overwhelming, and it's gone from quality to noise." I couldn't agree with Rosenbaum more. However, I would also argue that curation isn't all that scarce either. Rosenbaum added to his thesis of curation in this post about online media consumption, but all that highlighted to me is that nobody is really winning as it's a dog eat dog business and there are no barriers to entry right now.
Vin Crosbie also recently opined on the matter with "the greatest change in the history of media is that, within the span of a single human generation, people’s access to information has shifted from relative scarcity to surfeit." This is exactly the change that leads to the question being posed here - with so much content available everywhere, in hundreds of forms, by hundreds of editors, how does it get monetized at scale? How does a single media company own & defend enough scale on the hyper-competitive internet?
One way that new media companies have created recurrence in consumer usage is by creating a communications channel, which is critical to walled garden media companies. Communications services create a network effect barrier. Hotmail was one of the best acquisitions MSN has ever made. Yahoo has webmail and Google has gmail. Search engines rely heavily on return & recurring traffic from their respective mail applications. Even Facebook now relies heavily of it's messaging tool. Blackberry has managed to hold on to millions of consumers because of it's closed BBM network and Bloomberg seemingly still holds strong because of the critical use of Bloomberg chat by thousands of traders everywhere.
Content & product alone don't seem to be enough to get users to come back. When it comes to choosing where to go on the web, users need a stronger deeper hook than just "better" content. It's painfully clear that content is not "king" today and instead the world of online content is being ripped apart by aggregators, curators, and indexers. Twitter, RSS, and Bit.ly are fantastic tools for disseminating content, but they clearly devalue the destination.
How does one create a single content brand that can withstand the attention deficit affliction on the web?