Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Wolff on the Warpath: Welcome to the Golden Age of Online Content

There are "media pundits" and then there are REAL media pundits - folks who feel specially ordained to speak about and for the general media industry. I don't put our own observations in the latter category - we're just glad to have some insights now and again - but Vanity Fair columnist Michael Wolff's observations on media and publishing put him in the real pundit arena by his own measure at least. paidContent.org's Executive Editor Staci Kramer caught up with a Wolff-moderated panel at this week's Online Media, Marketing and Advertising Conference and Expo in New York this week. In Staci's summary Wolff laments that the current levels or revenues and earnings that mainstream media companies are making online just aren't going to be enough for his foreseeable bar tabs. "What if what we are doing right now is creating a kind of ghetto of cheap content?" Wolff howls. "There will never be this golden era of online media?"

A timely retort came from Jim Bankoff, EVP, product and programming at AOL: "If you're just a consumer, there's never been a more golden age than now." And there's the point. Most media hit their peak in consumer value before they've been packaged and channeled to death by marketing execs and other agents of profitability that whittle out the fun but unsustainable options. While this golden age of content choice may be only in its very early days its profitability is not likely to focus on just a few original producers of branded content in the ways that it used to ever again. This is probably in part because of the way that business models are approached. As Bankoff noted later on how to use a media company's content online, "It has to make economic sense as a whole. If there is no business model then it doesn't make sense."

By contrast, many of the most successful online content companies started out with only a glimmer of how to monetize their offerings but a strong idea as to how to build an audience. They built it and indeed they came in many instances, at which point the audience was there to cash in on readily. And there is probably the key difference that traditional publishing companies stumble on again and again in online venues: they look at monetizing content from the product on out rather than from the audience on in. For all of the weaknesses of VC-backed content plays this technique opened up the door to radically different ideas as to how to conceive of a content product that had little to do with traditional media marketing and distribution methods and everything to do with servicing audiences where their interests lay.

It's an outlook that may discourage many publishers today, but there's still plenty of time in this golden age to develop and position high-quality content in audience-friendly venues. They may not look like your typical content products of yesteryear, but after they've been chugging out profits for a few years that probably won't be of much concern to you anyway. So thanks again, Michael, for reminding that this evolving world of online content doesn't look anything like the old watering hole. Let us know when you're ready to have a round with the new crew...
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