Content and the Future of Knowledge: How to Win

Here’s a speech I made in London:

Content and the Future of Knowledge: How to Win

APA CONTENT SUMMIT, London, November 23rd, 2011

Talking about the future always seems too easy or too hard. Anyone can speculate. No-one actually knows. So what’s the point?

If talk is cheap, isn’t this the cheapest? We all know of “futurists” who have discredited themselves sounding like Nostradamus. If we can’t even predict the markets from one week to the next, what price longer-term shifts in culture, technology, and business?

In practical terms, there are two poles to the futures discussion: futurists who pontificate, and cannier leaders who engage in scenario planning. The former may get it very wrong (remember the “paperless office”?) The latter tend to cover their backs by imagining the obvious and making sure all possibilities have been sketched out.

I once took part in a scenario planning project run by the U.S. government called Project Horizon (the report is out there somewhere on the internet). They pulled in Booz Allen to run the process, and top officials from many federal agencies as well as a smattering of outsiders (like me). Five detailed global scenarios were articulated, and after a couple of years of interviews and meetings some core conclusions reached that would fit them all. For a generation and more, governments and major corporations have used scenario planning – pioneered in the oil industry – to guide their long-term decisions. It can be a clumsy process, but captures the insights of “futurists” and other smart thinkers and turns it into usable intelligence to drive decision-making. So what’s ahead for branded content?

First let me sketch five keys to thinking about the future.

1.Change is exponential; don’t ever forget Moore’s Law, which is helping drive it. Gordon Moore, who founded Intel, famously predicted the extraordinary pace of change. He spoke originally of the number of components that could be fitted into integrated circuits as doubling every year. The “law” has evolved into a prediction and observation that every 18 months or so chips would double in power and halve in price; it has proved remarkably accurate and explains why our computers keep getting smaller, more powerful, and cheaper. What this means is that while the impact may not be as dramatic (there are other factors driving/slowing change than the chip) the pace keeps getting faster. Perhaps annual industry conferences should cease to be annual and, every year, take place after a shorter interval to catch the increasing pace of change.

2.As we think about the future we must avoid at all costs the danger of groupthink – in which everyone essentially agrees with each other. Think Wall Street, 2008. There are no guarantees where change is concerned, but one way to future-proof your business is to make sure that in every planning meeting there is an outlier in the room; someone who just doesn’t agree with everyone else; someone who keeps challenging the assumptions of the group. This does not make for easy process. But it makes for good process. And is unavoidable if the future is in view.

3.We need to think in contexts in which disciplines, perspectives, and styles are mixed; that is, whatever the particular issue we deal with, near term or longer term, our perspectives and decisions will always be improved if we involve people with a variety of expertise and outlook – if you have experience in project management you will be aware of how important this is; but it is a lot more important where the future is concerned.

4.Whether in the formal sense of strategic planning or more ad hoc brainstorming, the future process must be iterative. And (my point about the exponential nature of change) the iterations need to be increasingly frequent.

5.Behind every problem, every issue, lies a question. Get the question wrong and it is pretty much guaranteed you will get the answer wrong, however hard you work at it. The policy institute that I direct, the Center for Policy on Emerging Technologies, has for its strapline, “Asking Tomorrow’s Questions.” It may not seem obvious, but getting the question right is in fact more significant than how we work on the answer. For example, when NASA put a man on the moon in 1969, America – and much of the rest of the world – was enthralled. Interest in space travel is now negligible. How do we account for that? It’s quite simple: the reason everyone was fascinated by the moonshot was not out of interest in space as such, but because it came to symbolize the future. Now, the moonshot as NASA’s great emblem means the opposite. Unless you are 42 you weren’t even born then! The moonshot is the past. If you are excited about the future, you buy an iPad. As we probe the future, we do have to get the question right first. That’s why the “content” idea is important. The issue isn’t magazines. It’s the stuff that goes inside.

That having been said, what does the future hold for branded content? Three underlying principles seem very plain to me. Three huge forces are a work reshaping the landscape.

1.The future is mobile. I met someone the other day who explained that she has an old desktop PC at home, a heavy ageing laptop to carry around, and was wondering about getting a netbook or tablet to use as well. I gently explained she should throw out both the dinosaurs and spend what she thought was an amazingly small sum on a new lightweight item, probably a netbook, given her needs. Point is: we are on the move all the time; we desire to communicate and be informed as we are on the move; and while our smartphones have yet to merge with netbooks and tablets, we know they will. I’m not quite sure how. But I’m confident that in three or four years we shall carry only one device, which will be small enough to use as a phone, and in some clever way expand so we have a full keyboard for easy typing and a full screen for easy viewing. There will be no “PCs” on desks, and I am surprised how many of them are still there. Cloud-based storage is already highly effective where access is sufficiently high-speed. The device in your hand is merely an access-point. Mobile is driving everything – including driving content off paper and into digital.

2.The future is global. The spread of the internet, and especially mobile access, is best compared to a forest-fire. It took decades for landline telephones to spread even around the wealthier parts of the world. Already most Africans have mobile phones; tens of millions of them do not yet have electricity in their homes. They already use their phones for mobile banking more than people in the “west.” And this despite the fact that few have “smartphones” like the Android and Blackberry and iPhone. But cheap versions, especially Android-based, will soon sweep the continent. Point is: Hundreds of millions of consumers are already accessing the global knowledge network we call the internet using mobile devices. Many of them will never have anything else. And the newly-connected global community will benefit enormously from advances in translation technology, which already means you can chat with someone who speaks another language and will soon (five years?) make that routine. This will have enormous impacts on everything from the nature of governments in the “nation-state” system basically established in 1648 by the Peace of Westphalia, to the workings of the United Nations and its agencies, to – yes – the future of global brands. The establishment of global brands has been a hallmark of 20th century (primarily American) business. How to retain control of brands is emerging as a huge question as consumers get savvier and more connected. My own view is that Facebook will be over (well, like Myspace) in five years. But there will be powerful successors. How will it be if Brand X has a Facebook-type, crowd-sourced, consumerist group with, say, 2.5 billion members across every global market? I assume someone in Brand HQ is thinking hard about this. Because the game is about to change big-time.

3.The future is social. Companies big and small have been rather desperately seeking to get into “social” with Facebook pages and Like buttons and seeking integration with their product line. My view is that they have hardly begun to work through what this will soon mean. More to the point, how does it relate to branded content?

This is where it gets really interesting. Because the most powerful content-related force out there is best described as reciprocal curation. The future of global knowledge is curation by “friends” or, in Twitter terms, the people you follow; for whom you curate in turn. That is, everyone reads and reflects and assesses and then shares what they read and think with everyone else who happens to be interested. I discuss this phenomenon, which seems to me the central value (and value adder) of the internet, elsewhere. Its significance for branded content becomes clear when we consider the content models currently out there.

As we know, there are basically two others. Paywall and click-through ads. The old-tyme print media has begun to fall back behind paywalls. Search has been powered by click-through. Those two explain the business models of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Google, plus all the lesser players. But these models are flawed. The number paying for journalism and magazine content through paywalls is very small. The exceptions (e.g., Wall Street Journal) are highly specialized and handling high-value intelligence. In general, these efforts have failed. We know the core reason: internet users have learned bad habits; we expect “free.” There remain options, for example using micropayments, that may give “paywall” thinking a future. But it is unlikely to be widespread.

Meanwhile, the click-through ad model is also under stress. Google has grasped around half the web-based advertizing for the simple reason that it dominates search. But it is very hard to believe that this will last. Its algorithms may be smart, but there are other players out there where smart people also work. In five years, perhaps sooner, search (like Facebook-style social) will be seen as a utility. Utilities do not make “economic profit;” do not IPO at vast multi-billion sums. There are fluid markets coming in both social and search, and – this is the key – they will favour branded content.

Which brings us back to its future. Because the news – in the longer term – looks good.

First, effectively all content will migrate to digital; some will also be available in print, though I suspect, in the long term, not much. A digital option for whatever content is presently only in print format will be very rapid. Second, as we noted, curation at all levels will be increasingly crowd-sourced, whether through primitive Like buttons or the far more sophisticated system of reciprocal curation that has evolved at Twitter. Paywalls of all kinds will be abandoned except in areas where intelligence is of high value (even there, the pressure will be great). Click-through will wilt as a funding model for content aggregators as search becomes a utility. It will be the subtler marketing effort of “free” branded content that will triumph. If, that is, it attains an excellence that will survive the scrutiny of an open market in crowd-sourced curation. So there will be a race to the top, driven by the global, mobile, social marketplace for consumers – and for ideas.

Excellence will be the key. A market for content in which there are editors by the billion will be unforgiving. But to the winners, the spoils will be very great. In world increasingly literate and engaged, in which ideas and their expression flow freely and competitively, the content market is set to drive brands as it never has before.

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