This Time, It's Personal
We increasingly live in a world where our media is always on and available on our device of choice. At the center of this media world is entertainment. Endless content libraries–video, music, photos, books, websites–exist on an ever-present, always-connected, infinitely large cloud that enables instant access to these libraries.
We have already witnessed the rise and fall of traditional media distributors, and the triumph of digital distributors: Blockbuster versus YouTube, Virgin Megastore versus iTunes. Entertainment providers must remain nimble by re-evaluating the traditional roles of the content distributor, aggregator, and creator. Consumers not only have access to entertainment anywhere that has a network, whether it's through Xbox LIVE or a 3G signal, they expect it.
Consumers are demanding always-on entertainment, as revealed by these four key trends:
1. Consumers have moved away from maintaining large collections of media in formats that soon become out of date and discarded. While some may keep digital or physical collections of rare or niche materials, the average consumer is not a collector. Increasingly, consumer preference is shifting in favor of one-time renting or streaming over owning a digital or physical copy.
2. Where content comes from has ceased to matter. Regardless of the source of the latest episode of 24 (Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, OnDemand or network TV, for instance), the consumer's loyalty relies on the experience of finding and watching the episode. This seeds the expectation for new releases to be available as soon as possible–hence the popularity of Redbox. No one should have to understand the murky complexities of distribution deals in order to find something to watch.
3. Rather than a monthly or weekly edition of a print magazine, the blogosphere as well as iPad magazines are filling the need for continual ongoing updates–a distinct change to the periodical frequency of publishing. Rather than a homogenized audience tuning in to watch the nightly news or the Oscars as a shared experience, there are now many audiences consuming different specialized programming. This leads to the rise of targeted advertising models that can be updated frequently to focus on serving the right product to the consumer's niche interests.
4. Subscription services such as Pandora are on the rise, offering consumers an unlimited all-you-can-eat plan. This trend is further validated by Apple's recent purchase and shut-down of Lala, leading to speculation of pending cloud-based subscription services to enhance the pay-per-content iTunes marketplace. Streaming subscription services are flexible enough to provide a wide range of content mixes and lengths, easily fitting into a busy viewer's availability to dip in and out of content.
The New Value Proposition
As the consumer relationship with media rapidly changes, media companies must have a differentiated consumer value proposition for entertainment. There are four building blocks: Information Retrieval, Smart Bookmarking, Service as Business Model, and the Brand Experience.
When all the media in the world is available, how do consumers find what they want to watch? The problem is not accessibility, but retrieval. There are several facets to the retrieval solution. Crowdsourcing is an easy way to figure out what is popular, what similar people have looked at, and what is selling. TED.com offers alternate facets of crowd interest by slicing content both practically and emotionally–most jawdropping, most favorited all-time, most languages, rated funny, etc.
Another option is to source from friends. Survey after survey shows the number one way that consumers find out about new things is word of mouth. The recommendation of a friend–who knows you and your interests and/or is an expert on a particular subject–is the most relevant and trustworthy opinion. Aardvark, the social search engine, offers a beautiful tweak to the search concept by allowing users to ask questions which are then answered by experts within their networks.
The wave of the future is more intelligent recommendations. These "secret-sauce" algorithms can be based upon a variety of factors, such as demographics, consumption habits, viewing statistics, personal ratings, and friends' suggestions. iTunes' Genius recommendation engine starts to deliver on this promise but is still an early version, more guesswork than pure genie.
Now that we have the media we want, the process of finding it should not have to be repeated. In the past, bookmarking consisted of keeping DVDs, tapes, books, or CDs in an easily accessible drawer or shelf. This, along with collecting, is no longer desirable.
Instead, sophisticated bookmarks built upon a system of personal tags, level of interest, and contextual meta-data (e.g. who you watched a movie with, or where and when it occurred), allow consumers to easily re-find something they have already expressed interest in without having to store it using a traditional filing system.
Service as the Business Model
Traditional routes for consuming media fail by lacking personalization of payment model. Unlike purchasing an entire CD or cable package, the new business model is flexible for the many ways different individuals consume media. Media junkies may get a subscription plan, spanning multiple rentals and multiple devices. Theme-driven watchers could have subscriptions to bundled channels of content types such as family-centric, horror flicks, or Bollywood. Tiered pricing models that start with free for the occasional nibbler, up to bundle-based or volume-based subscriptions, truly tie monetization into value. These models ease customers into paid services, depending on needs. The key is that the focus now revolves around the service offered and not ownership of commoditized media.
The Brand Experience
When the same content is offered from multiple sources, the ultimate differentiator is the designed experience. It is a combination of the retrieval method, the ability to mark things as "mine," and the business model. Most of all it is the emotional resonance of the brand.
In this case, it does not matter what platform is involved, whether it's a mobile phone, PC, TV, or tablet. Each consumer has deeply personal contexts to how each device is used, whether it's a companion phone that is carried every minute of the day, a lightweight mp3 player for the gym, or an immersive surround-sound home theater setup.
Always-on entertainment exists for consumers to relax and be passively entertained. The interface and physical device must fade into the background to allow the watching, listening, and playing of media to be at the forefront. There must be an aspect of serendipity, a Pandora's box invoking risk and curiosity because one never knows what the experience is going to be like.
In this world where media is anywhere, anytime, on any device, it means throwing away storage and collections. The effect can be seen on businesses such as Blockbuster, Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble, who have closed hundreds of stores in the last few years. Meanwhile, Netflix's expansion into "Watch Instantly" films fueled its rapid growth of 15 million subscribers and rising. With the immediacy of being able to download any book virtually instantaneously over a 3G network, the e-books industry has expanded 680% from 2006 to a $170 million industry in 2009.
As consumers' appetites for just-in-time continues to grow, and even expand beyond entertainment, the devices on which they consume content become both the new distribution channel and the primary brand touchpoint. Businesses need to understand that their brands are always-on and on-the-go. Entertainment companies that capitalize on this changing relationship between consumers and media will find engaged, loyal consumers—and immense profitability.
Disclaimer: TED and Aardvark are recent clients of Method.
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