Facebook became the third most popular venue for watching online video in October, signaling the end of content portals. In our age of a million channels where making choices is difficult, the recommendations of our peers are becoming the new TV Guide.
What do we mean? There are three ways that content is distributed: First, producers can push — say, NBC’s old Seinfeld appointment television viewing on Thursday nights in the 1990s. Second, users can search — Google’s rise in the early part of this decade, and more recently the popular YouTube engine that allows you to find funny cat videos. But the third wave is when people you trust do the finding for you.
Here’s a test: Think of all the content your business puts out that you want people to see — your web site, your press releases, videos, ads and marketing communications. Now, add up all the ways you enable others to share your content with their networks of people. Is the sum more than zero?
Homophily at prime time
Human networks amplify the dynamic of “homophily,” the tendency of people you like to enjoy the same things you do. This is why people in cliques tend to wear the same clothes, watch the same movies, discuss the same politics, and now … share the same content. We trust our friends and loved ones. When they share something, we want to watch.
The strategic lesson for marketers is if you want your message to go viral, you have to find ways to entice networks of users to share it with others. For example, Facebook is no Hulu or YouTube yet, but the numbers for video access there are rising. In October 31.5 million unique users watched videos posted inside the social network, vs. 13.4 million on Hulu (the leading site for professional video content) and 105 million in YouTube (top site for user-generated video).
The “sticky” portal strategy of the 1990s is dying a deserved egocentric death. The center will not hold because you are no longer the center. You have to find ways to pass it along.
Way back in the 1990s companies such as Prodigy, Earthlink, AOL and Yahoo were in a race to become your online “portal” — the single-stop-shop for you to get on the internet. The buzzword of the day was “stickiness,” meaning if you made your web site sticky, customers would return again and again.
About 2000 Google killed these arrogant hopes with its brilliant search engine, since then the main way consumers move online. Yet guess what? The portal play is returning on mobile handsets.
ABC News makes the latest bid with yet another “app” button for your iPhone. (Apps, on smartphones, are downloadable programs that allow users to leap online with a simple tap, and like the portals of yore create new opportunities for single content producers to try to make consumers stick.) ABC News has a nice offering, using the built-in GPS service in the iPhone to provide a feed of local news and weather … and hopefully get consumers to stick around for 20/20, Charles Gibson and all the corresponding ad impressions.
Funny thing is, this time portals may work. Standard web browsers look horrible on most cell phones, and one-button mobile apps give you just the content you want — weather, NY Times, Facebook — with one simple click. Pew notes that by the year 2020 (no connection to ABC!) mobile phones will be the most common tool for consumers getting online. You can almost hear Google gasp in frustration as the big PC browser that made its ad model so powerful starts to fade from tiny handset screens.
How this shakes out is anyone’s guess, as every content producer tries to create the ultimate single-button-widget for your handset. It also creates a devilish question for marketers — if you miss the right portal, you may get shut out from consumers, so which of the millions of potential online apps do you pick?
It’s all enough to make you hope Google creates a simple mobile operating system.
Marketers keep trying to create new portals, which in 1998 were “sticky sites” and now, game over, are social networks. This week AOL’s Bluestring follows Yahoo!’s new Mash. Bluestring collects photos and stuff. Mash lets you edit profiles of other people. Wow! Even hipsters at Brandflakesforbreakfast have had enough.
As new portals shake out, marketers might pay attention to the content formats most likely to go viral on the existing networks (though we’d avoid “Leave Britney Alone” for brand implications). Check out MySpace TV’s new “quarterlife”, a professional TV series produced at $500,000 per pop. The series, on Nov. 11, will use comments from viewers to change story lines, even future actors. Dunno if the 36 episodes will go nova among MySpace’s 110 million users, but advertisers should audition.