Content, Commodification, and Convergence

We’ve reached peak content. There are now too many good TV shows, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu shows for anyone to keep up with. There’s also a glut of multimedia content aimed only at Millennials, including such sites as Buzzfeed, Mic, and Refinery29, or focusing on fashion. Every segment, vertical or horizontal, is feeling the pinch. Too much being produced, not enough time to consume it, a commodification of the attention economy.

Something will have to give, since there are only a finite number of advertising dollars to support all the content being produced. And where are most of them going? To Google, Twitter, and Facebook, the people who have the enormous audiences. Now, more than ever, advertisers worship scale. It’s not enough to reach the 5 million readers who really like what we’re creating; to get advertising dollars publishers have to reach 100 million readers. Even Yahoo, which does reach 100 million users daily, sees its existence threatened.

For publishers, survival is going to require convergence. Google, Facebook and Twitter already symbolize on side of that convergence: convergence of the audience. Although Twitter has “only” 300 million users, that’s more than any pure play media property can claim. And Facebook, with over a billion daily actives, is the big Kahuna. Last year, with the release of its Instant Articles feature, it began to draw traffic away from, rather than refer traffic to major news sites. The trend will continue in 2016, accompanied by Google Amp pages. As consumers, we will receive news curated by companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, and even Amazon, whose Prime offering is beginning to define what video people watch.

Because Facebook is curated by an algorithm, however, it can’t satisfy all advertisers. Those who want to reach niche audiences must move in another direction. They must create unique and differentiated copy and target precisely the audience they want. Extreme sports is an example of movement in this direction, as is Glenn Beck.

It doesn’t take rocket science to predict that 2016 will be a year of both media and ad tech convergence, as sites aimed at Millennials seek to grow their audiences by acquisitions, and niche sites buy up their competitors. Tech journalism sites have already begun to combine, as last year’s purchase of Recode by Vox signaled. More of that is destined to happen, lest sites be forced to shut down like GigaOm. What will we end up with?

In a strange way, we’re going to end up where we began at the beginning of mass media. A few major networks will aggregate most of the consumer traffic. They won’t be ABC, CBS, or NBC; instead they may be Facebook, YouTube, and perhaps Twitter, Apple, or Instagram. They will certainly be mobile. And then there will be the verticals: sports, fashion, travel, finance, and tech. These will be like the old industry trades, with highly specific and differentiated content perhaps produced by brands like Red Bull, GE, or BMW.

The term “publisher” may come to mean something entirely new: a content creator who sends content to an audience aggregator. It’s going to be another fascinating ride.