The Hidden Disruption

January 11, 2010

The best scene in the 1975 film classic "Jaws" is when Chief Brody first sees the shark. I know you remember. He's at the back of the boat laying a chum line when the monster comes up right alongside the boat, opens its enormous mouth and swims away. Actor Roy Scheider's look was perfect as he jumped and moved away from the edge, and the script was even better: "We're going to need a bigger boat!"

This "bigger boat" revelation is one that's also occurring with a few media companies as they begin see the enormity of the disruption to advertising that's taking place. Yes, disruption to advertising, not content. Most executives simply point to the economy and expect some form of return when it gets better, but that's a very dangerous view of what's really taking place. Advertising isn't just shrinking; it's completely transforming, and with the transformation is coming a blooming irrelevancy for media companies who just "serve" ads. It's going to consume those who don't see the size of the problem. Simply put, we're going to need a bigger boat.

This kind of talk generally brings about the rolled eyebrows, coughs and guffaws, because there's still a great deal of money being spent on traditional brand advertising. These executives are happy with the present and view their mission as milking it for every possible dime. There's nothing wrong with that, but the extent to which it becomes our only focus is a trap, for two very powerful forces are at work that will change everything.


The first is the steady shift of consumers' time to the Internet, where they are in charge. A Harris Poll released in December and reported in Salon reveals that the time U.S. Web users spend online has doubled in ten years, from seven percent in 1999 to 13 percent in 2009.

Harris said the increase in the past two years was "striking," and partly reflected growth in TV watched on the Internet and online shopping...

People from ages 25 to 49 spent the most amount of time on the Internet (17-18 hours a week), whether at home, work or another location. Americans who were 65 and older spent only eight hours a week online, on average.

Nearly a quarter of people aged 25 to 29 said they spent between 24 to 168 hours online per week.

This is a significant cultural shift, for consumers now spend an average of eight percent of their week online, where they're able to avoid the tricks and manipulation of mass marketing. As Denuo CEO Rishad Tobaccowala noted in 2004, consumers are now in charge.

...2004 ushers in an "empowered era" in which "humans are God," because technology allows them to be godlike. The question Tobaccowala put to conference attendees is: "How will you engage God?"

Despite what every good media company executive wishes to believe, people are simply fed up with the relentless carpet bombing of unwanted messages throughout their day. The Web is their salvation, a place where they can pursue the information and entertainment they want and need without this treatment. The marketing pyramid has been turned upside down; marketers must now obtain permission before approaching consumers.

I was recently surfing sports websites in search of stories about a particular game, and I noticed that even with pop-up ads, I pay no attention whatsoever to the message. My eyes focus on the "close" button, and that's exactly what I do. This is in keeping with studies by Web usability guru, Jakob Nielsen, who first identified the concept of "banner blindness." People simply ignore the ads on media company sites.

The point is that the longer people spend online, the more sophisticated they become as users, and that impacts what marketers can do with them. One of my baseline questions in Web research is "How long have you been online," because it determines much in how they can be approached. Things like the "price of interaction" that consumers must pay in order to interact with a website (e.g. clicking on multiple links to get to content) become real issues for long-time users of the Web. The assumption that we can tamper with such a thing is a sure path to turning people off, and that is a major issue in the evolution of advertising.


The second "bigger boat" issue is actually more significant, and it's one that no media company executive wants to really accept. Simply put, the people formerly known as the advertisers are now becoming media companies themselves and directly pursuing consumers and potential consumers of their products.

Gordon Borrell has been studying the growth of an advertising category known as "Promotions" for many years. It's an area of growth, and one that hasn't really caught on yet at the local level (it will). The below images from Borrell suggest that what's already happened at the national level is about to occur locally.

Online promotions is a growth category

What this means is that local advertisers — the heart of the "business" of local media — are picking up the tools of personal media — easy-to-use software — to become a form of media company themselves. Twitter, Facebook and other social media applications allow businesses to deal directly with consumers, and allow consumers to deal directly with businesses that they like. This is transforming commerce, and it is a significant threat to media companies — unless they can find ways to work "with" the process.

December 2009 Furrow Magazine coverAnother factor at work in advertisers becoming media companies is the stunning recent growth of what's called "content marketing," the originator of which is generally regarded to be John Deere's 100-year old "Furrow Magazine." Subscriptions can only be obtained through John Deere dealerships, and the company's website asks, "Did you know..."

  • John Deere publishes nine regional editions of The Furrow in the United States and three editions in Canada.
  • Our editors are recognized as some of the top journalists in agriculture.
  • The Furrow is believed to be the most widely read farm magazine in the world. It is published in 14 languages and is circulated in more than 115 countries.
  • Our worldwide circulation is more than 1.5 million.

What you may not realize is that there is no mention of John Deere in the magazine, except for occasional ads. Since 1896, the company has used the magazine to generate business by developing ownership of the market on farming news and information. This is the premise of content marketing, and the low-cost, easy-to-use tools of the Web are undergirding dynamic growth in the market.

According to a new study by the Custom Publishing Council (CPC), the creation of branded content is at an all-time high. The annual study found that marketers poured more money into branded content in 2009 than ever before, double what it was in 2008.

"Due to rising demand, branded content has proliferated in recent years, expanding beyond its traditional roots of print publications and the Internet. The study shows substantial growth in our industry sector," explained Lori Rosen, Executive Director, CPC. "Perhaps even more importantly, 78% of respondents reported that branded content is more effective than advertising."

The number one reason marketers choose this category is to educate consumers, and that's why it's felt to be so effective. It's not a method of directly marketing, but it does provide a very positive position in the minds of consumers.

Joe Pulizzi, Junta42Joe Pulizzi runs Junta42, a company he founded to help businesses create branded content for themselves. He's a "content marketing" specialist and a threat to traditional media, because money that his company generates or channels to others comes directly from the pool of money that advertisers used to spend on traditional advertising.

"Content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.

Content marketing "works" on the Web, because it doesn't insult people by interrupting their experience. In this sense, it fits perfectly into the cultural shift to a post-industrial, post-colonial, post-modern, participatory culture. As the years go by, this kind of marketing is going to become increasingly important, and, as Pulizzi told me, the tools of personal media are making it happen.

Everyone is a publisher today...I can communicate information in any industry with a computer and two minutes to set up a free blog account.

In the past, publishing was exotic. It was expensive to deliver information to that by print, television, radio or in-person event. Now, anyone can do it...including brands. And they have to. Customers are gathering information to live their lives better or do their jobs better every minute of every day. They are ignoring more traditional advertising than ever before to get to that information. So, if the brand is not the content provider, how can they connect with the brand?

Brands are now the new publishers.

The problem is that this kind of activity is taking place outside the view of media companies, most of whom are still trying to deal with content disruptions instead of those posed by advertising. Content is not the problem; advertising is the problem, and our websites — our boats — are simply not big enough to deal with it.

We have to either get a bigger boat through the creation of local ad networks, which take advantage of the growth of promotions and content marketing, or we have to get into the water and become disruptive sharks ourselves. We do that by teaching the people formerly known as the advertisers how to do everything we know how to do.

The disruption to advertising may seem hidden, but if that's truly the case, it is hidden in plain sight.