For all the changes affecting media these days, the essential product of media, its content, is really no different. But consumers now consume media content in a wholly different context, one that is embedded with many new cues. What’s changed about media are the cues that surround content.
Old media were advertising vehicles, pure and simple. The cues were all commercial; they were all about advertising. Content was read and viewed in the context of ads. All the cues directed people to the advertising. Media delivered a content experience bejeweled with ads that were themselves a type of content. Not so for new media.
New media are social engagement vehicles. Advertising is often there but ads play second fiddle to the social cues that dominate what consumers encounter when they read or view the content. The very layout of content attunes consumers to social dynamics. Consumers see the best liked content, the comments left by other consumers, poll results of prior consumers, ratings by prior consumers, links to other sites or content, and more. Content is surrounded by all of this. The cues that dominate the terrain in which the content is delivered are not just ads; they are cues about social context.
Content is no longer consumed in an advertising context. Now it is consumed in a social context. This has three important implications for brands.
First, ads are competing for attention against more than other ads. Ads must shout above the din of content conversations. Ads not only have to be more interesting than other ads; they have to be more interesting than the social interaction about the content. What’s perhaps most interesting about this in terms of advertising to date is that ads have not yet dared to engage the content in which they are placed. Ads are more relevant to the context next to them, but they have nothing to say about it, whereas many of the social cues next to the content are saying something that is specifically about that content.
Second, ads continue to engage people as if the content experience is an individual encounter. In the media models of yesteryear, individuals were presumed to consume information in isolation. They might get some input from others, but individuals processed what they heard and read and then made individual decisions about it. Whether or not this was ever actually the case (much recent evidence from network analysis suggests that this view stemmed from incomplete data), this is not the experience of media today. Nowadays, content is consumed in a social context. This is widely understood among brand marketers, but insufficiently appreciated for its importance. All content, ads included, reach people through a web of conversation and interaction. Even within social media, ads continue to target individuals not individuals embedded in a social context.
Finally, what people want from media these days is connection not information. Whether or not information ever dominated is up for debate, but certainly it now takes a back seat to connection. As all media have come to be dominated by social cues, connection has come to define the central form of engagement with media. It is not always direct connection, but the very presence of social cues creates a psychological engagement with others. When media serve up information in a way that delivers connection, consumers are more engaged.
Brands should look to media for social opportunities not commercial opportunities. Media are no longer commercial vehicles; they are now social vehicles. Or perhaps it is better to say that commercial exchanges are now social exchanges not individual exchanges. However the transaction is framed, though, social cues predominate. Brands must quit advertising and start engaging. Brands must drop the outdated commercial stance and take up a contemporary social stance with consumers. Brands must look to the cues embedded in the context of their interface with consumers and reflect that ‘social-scape.’
Contributed to BSI by: J. Walker Smith, Executive Chairman, The Futures Company
Sponsored by: The Brand Positioning Workshop