The idea of a supply chain for a business sharing 'content' used to be so simple. But it’s not just digitization that’s shaken up the natural order of creator, publisher, retailer and consumer. It’s the way we think of middlemen.
You can’t have escaped the rise of the word 'content'. It’s used now to describe anything you might put in a book, magazine, website or screen – intellectual property made real, in other words. The term is everywhere – and is rapidly becoming a catch-all for… stuff.
You’ll often see it used in the phrase 'content marketing' – which is a way of saying “advertising that doesn’t really try to sell you anything”, and means, essentially, the sharing of interesting material paid for by companies rather than publishers. (You are currently enjoying some content marketing, of course…)
Content marketing is now a big and growing industry. The decline of traditional news outlets and great consumer choice means that many brands can only engage with customers by offering them interesting things to read about, visit, watch or hear.
Some of it is terrific. I recently read a great piece by British Comedian Al Murray retracing the ill-fated mission to take the Rhine bridges in the Second World War, a story immortalized by the film A Bridge Too Far. I read the whole thing without realizing it was a piece of content marketing, hosted by Enterprise Rent-a-Car!
This is a shakeup of the supply chain between content creator and consumer. Ultimately, the latter is still readers, viewers and listeners. And we still have creative writers, musicians and film-makers. But the medium to connect them? The people in the middle handling marketing and presentation? Where once it might have been a magazine or TV brand, now it’s often corporate platforms.
That reminded me of something Nicholas Negroponte, the MIT visionary, wrote in 1997 about the disintermediation of content. (We looked at other parts of that article in a recent blog post by Guy Strafford - Publising: A story of supply management.)
“Since books are physical things distributed largely through thousands of retail outlets that buy one or two copies at a time, you and I would have trouble distributing as well as Knopf [a big publisher]. Otherwise, we really can do without them.
“But tilt. People will say, ‘I bought your book because Knopf published it.’ Knopf was the talent scout, the finishing school, the company whose judgment is trusted. Well, rubbish to that. Think of the last three books you've read. Do you remember the publisher? You know the author and the title, as well as the book's color, shape, and thickness. But you're unlikely to recall which company published it.”
In some cases, that’s spot on. An Al Murray fan will probably discover his Arnhem piece for Enterprise Rent-a-Car, perhaps via social media links – but, like me, probably not remember where they saw it. Digitization has pushed us closer to content creators, making the rest of the supply chain seem even less visible than it was for Negroponte.
But it’s not the whole story. Negroponte’s analysis of the content supply chain dismisses the way its participants are evolving – and their understanding of where the value in that chain can be found.
Equally, Knopf as a brand might not have mattered much to Negroponte’s readers in 1997. But its sub-editors, typesetters, designers and marketers probably did – and still do. Today, the difference between an off-the-shelf blog and a professionally designed website is clear for all to see. Marketing might have changed – but it’s still growing fast, and still connecting content creators and their consumers.
In fact, the shifting nature of content consumption has been a force for innovation. Publishers cannot afford to sit still, so they’re developing new platforms to deliver content or aggregating it in convenient and trusted ways for consumers.
But for many publishers, keeping pace with the rapid changes in technology, consumer consumption patterns and rights management is increasingly difficult to do by themselves. Each of these three elements requires constant up-to-date specialist knowledge and, perhaps more importantly, critical foresight to identify the next big thing. For example, rights owners used to be tremendously hostile to video sharing sites like YouTube. Those who anticipated consumer attraction towards these outlets quickly aligned to them and began creating their own channels to publish content – in some cases creating new revenue streams.
Insight and foresight are two major drivers for any publisher’s success. However, capturing and exploiting both of these requires either a very large internal team, connected to the core of your business or a specialist external resource in the areas that matter most. The disintermediation of media and content middlemen has led to the disintermediation of traditional functions – yesterday’s editor is tomorrow’s social media expert, relying on a network of external bloggers, designers, secret shoppers and industry experts to get content packaged and distributed to the world.
Successful publishers have not only identified and aligned with the changing role of the middleman, but they have gone one step further and reverse engineered the supply chain to incorporate the middleman into their own value chain. Take Netflix: not only has it invented an entirely new market for streaming video content, it’s also making its own content and signing deals with ISPs for faster access. This is a young company, born in the era of disintermediation, that’s driving value within a complex supply chain using innovative technologies and carefully negotiated supplier deals.