Friday, May 29, 2009

A Digital Ecosystem & Public Broadcasting’s ‘Silent Soon-To-Be Majority’

I recently had the privilege of attending a small dinner with Jack Dorsey, Chairman and Founder of Twitter. Hearing him speak about how Twitter is being used beyond the likes of Ashton Kutcher and P.Diddy as a tool in “solving the big problems” was thought provoking. He told us about a growing number of unlooked for and unheralded uses, from emergency managers in LA and San Francisco integrating Twitter into their emergency planning, to poets and writers in New York using it as a new distribution network and robots speaking to each other (and the rest of us) in Boston.

The genius is that this extremely simple tool has spawned extremely complex opportunities for consumers, which are further complicated by new sets of relationships, applications and linguistics. (@RT @grrlboy I totally agree! #topeka). Twitter is a good window into our dramatic new digital landscape by the simple fact that it is so compatible with other forms of media. Thus we see the beauty of chaos theory, from simplicity comes complexity.

The world, as it always was, it a much more complex place than that poor relationship.

When we think about digital audiences, the so-called digital natives, we have to engage more dimensions, such that shift our thinking from old-school demographics to more complex lifestyle-centric groupings. As referenced above, the complexity of the digital audience is and was equally true in the broadcast world, but conveniently hidden behind the blunt instruments of media metrics. Today we know the digital natives more often express loyalty to interests, fancies and attraction then they do with the schedules printed in TV Guide or demographer/marketers labels.

Digital natives are breaking new ground on constructing, what my former boss, Rey Ramsey, has called a ‘21st Century Ecosystem’; where digital and traditional media blend with each other, but also have deep connections with offline manifestation of actual human interactions and transactions. A new digital ecosystem is centered on the consumers who now have easy access to the tools that allow them to construct their own universe of information and services, resulting in a complex deep ecology of people, application and the bits of data that trail behind them.

Ironically, the rush to push broadcast content online now only has reinforced the formation of this new ecosystem as consumers mash, remix, share, comment, tweet and post. For many broadcasters they feed video into the digital world thinking that it is a nice sedate house with a television inside. Actually, they feed their content into a saw mill that chops it into hundreds of jagged little blocks that are the fuel for millions of camp fires where diverse tribes of online consumer huddle.

Today people time-shift, place-shift and device-shift all of their media streams to meet not only the requirements of their complex lives, but also their own fancies. This is the essential lesson of the digital ecosystem – that it is a highly personal, highly referential and individual to the person in charge. Some think of this as fragmentation, but in reality it is the creation of a new order that requires new sets of analytics to perceive useful patterns, niches and groupings; a new digital ecology.

Rather than “punching through the din” of media, the future is following the consumer where they lead us. Rather than unifying the audience we need to provide varieties of multiplatform and multi-application content that escapes through multiple rivulets out into the world. And rather than to try to continually experiment to discover the secret formula, the audience desires the high-quality information that PBS, NPR, PRI, APM and stations are already producing, but perhaps not in the containers that are so familiar to the system.

So, what are the elements of a digital ecosystem? While no expert – because really is no expert frankly – the average digital native lives in a continuum of media inputs and outputs. The continuum travels from simple/quick and immediate (Twitter) through appointment (and one-way) media (broadcast). The rise and fall of usage of any particular media stream moves with the rhythm of the individual’s day. A few minutes in the morning yields a Facebook update, watching an episode of The Office on a iPod on the train to work, a shared video out through multiple networks after getting an email at the office, twittering during a business presentation, watching NewHour in the evening on an HD TV while keeping up with your friends via Twittering online, Facebook and email at the same time. (And then supplement that with Hulu, more iPod and Nintendo DS when someone travels.)

And even this picture becomes more complex when we think about the all of hooks that are being created between Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, MySpace, Digg, Content is fungible and as producers we need to respect and understand that it is an opportunity to provide additional user value.

The multiple dimensions of the digital ecosystem may be confusing to some, but one of the core lessons that public broadcasting stations must wrestle with an ecology defined by the combination of bandwidth, device, time/availability, digital skill level and lifestyle-identification.

The goal of programming is not to hand-off promotion to promotion to promotion, rather producing content that comfortably can be distributed within the ecosystem. While editorial may, largely, remain the same across topics, the quality and temperature of the content may undergo significant shifts as it moves from ecological niche to niche.

This is not a widely understood strategic opportunity within public broadcasting, but one to watch is Tom Karlo at KPBS (San Diego) as he merges his television, radio and online content producers into one unit. Rather than forcing the same story out onto different mediums he is weighing lifestyle, access and opportunity to repackage and re-report content out on various platforms and syndication channels. Tom’s experiment in San Diego should be watched by all of us for lessons and good ideas.

The adoption of robust digital ecosystem development is not an easy leap. While many cite a fundamental generational barrier (perhaps also an ego barrier?) to understanding and operating in this ecosystem, there are other obstacles that public broadcasting must address.

A key problem is that there is no effective single package of metrics that allow public broadcasting to pull back to a high enough level to identify clear digital ecology trends and niches. It is not that there is a lack of techniques for this type of analysis. Our friends in political campaigns, business intelligence departments and financial market trackers do a pretty good job of understanding and exploiting trends data. The core problem is that our media metrics have spent too long in front of the TV; they are fat, slow and tired. This is an area of opportunity for public broadcasting to again lead the way.

The new digital ecosystem requires that public broadcasting turn its strategies on it head from a set of “appointment media” programming to variety of engagements – including appointment media - with audience that allow them to break the old rules and formulas of content consumption, distribution and participation. Some implications for public broadcasting include:

  • Develop and publish editorial and content policies that recognize the digital ecology of its consumers; provide a range of editorial content delivered on multiple platforms aimed at interconnecting interest areas, but also ‘niche-only’ content;

  • Understand the appropriate use of content creation and distribution tools to tell a story, such as layering high cost/static techniques (e.g. documentaries) with moderate/dynamic tools (blogs, social networking) with cheap/immediate opportunities (Twitter).

  • Use the opportunity to create ‘digital only’ or ‘digital first’ content as a gateway and starting point for more robust story-telling that may involve multiple future platforms;

  • Embrace digital metrics not as a ‘winner or loser’ measure, rather as a guide to refining digital ecology strategies. But also break the traditional model by using a variety of metrics and analytics, such as BBC’s trust measures, transactional data, online and offline focus groups and consumer engagement tools to really understand the patterns and niches;

  • Accept that your input of content into the world might not be the last say; you are not writing a canon, rather creating high-quality information that will only last if it offers an interesting, important (and dare I say it…entertaining) perspective;

  • Leverage the public broadcasting brand by attracting, associating and curating (I still hate that word, let us minimize our brand association with museums) the BEST content on the web. Users want a trusted editor that can help explain the context of the world and provide some sense of navigation and action, a perfect role for public service media!

The new Digital Ecosystem in massive, confusing and shifts constantly and rapidly, which can cause terrible indigestion in anyone who attempts to “own the space”. One of the key lessons that we must embed throughout the public broadcasting system is that we must place more trust and expend more energy in understanding the individual/user/consumer. We must sweep away the days of brilliant minds declaiming from the mountain top out to the wilderness. Time to put on our safari hat and jump in.

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