Dr. Strangelove Jr. or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Media Fragmentation

The people who underwrite content (a.k.a. media buyers) speak about audience and media "fragmentation" as if it were nuclear proliferation, an insidious third world plot that needs to be contained or outsmarted. As eyeballs scatter to on-demand sources (DVRs, VOD, RSS, podcasts) and user-generated niches (blogs, social networking) the big question becomes how to "re-aggregate" these audiences with things like blog\pod\RSS ad networks that blast the same old message into these dispersed archipelagos of interest. The answer is don't.

Trying to find ways to re-create the halcyon days of mass media is a fool's errand. Both publishers and advertisers should embrace nascent forms like podcasting, blogging, and RSS because they all represent a spirit of what I call (for now, at least) participatory media consumption that is here to stay. By "taking ownership" of their own content streams, consumers are participating in the process of creating, parsing, and distributing media. Rather than mistake this move as a rejection of content providers and advertisers, perhaps we should explore how our users actually are inviting us to partner with them. Even if pods, blogs, and feeds are not the final forms that participatory media will take, they are invaluable testing fields for the disciplines that will be necessary in all on-demand media of the future.

For instance, blogging should not be taken as a niche phenomenon but as a future publishing platform. Media buyers should be identifying the most influential and respectable blogs in their segment (not necessarily the most trafficked) and treat them like press. Don't just take out banner ads on sites; their power lies in their voice and personality, not only their ability to expose people to ads. Give them product to test and gab about, send them your press releases, and even provide executive quotes and rebuttals as needed. Why? Not because your company loves blogging, but because a good blogger is a proxy for his community. Treat him like a partner rather than an enemy in the process of selling and improving your product, and he will act more like a partner than a bomb thrower on the sidelines. Blogging offers the opportunity to learn how to converse with consumer communities rather than just sell to them. Blogs represent a classroom in learning the language, the Esperanto, of personalized media.

Likewise, user-controlled media means that targeting is no longer a luxury but a requirement of advertising. A podcaster or feed reader assembles their own media because they want to strip away the irrelevant dross of meaningless commercial breaks, banner ads, and spam, but that doesn't mean they hate advertising. In fact, when someone tightens their focus onto content that really interests them, then a genuinely relevant commercial message in that RSS feed or podcast will be regarded as welcome information. They will deeply resent an irrelevant ad in these personalized media but will regard a well-targeted advertiser as a partner in the pursuit of their passion.

We've spoken with one media strategist who is planning to help a ski resort produce its own podcasts for visitors to download online and listen to during those boring lift rides. It gives them history about the resort and idiosyncrasies of the trails as well as a venue for featuring the local musical groups playing at clubs. Is it an ad or editorial content? The user doesn't care because it is the most valuable information she can get at that time and place.

And in both pod and RSS formats, users show their frustration immediately and unmistakably by hitting the unsubscribe button. It may be painful, and it may be costly, but the flip side is that learning to target the right message to the right audience in personalized media also pays off with an incredibly efficient feedback mechanism that tells you when you have violated the partnership with a user.

User-controlled media today both requires and invites an advertiser to become a content provider. "Tell, don't sell," says Bill Flitter, CMO of Pheedo, an RSS ad network serving 8,000 publishers. Planting a familiar pitch into someone's personalized RSS feed makes less sense than talking to them in a personal voice and giving them a full 500-word item that tells a story about how people like them use a product. In fact, enterprises should consider creating an RSS feed that includes their own press releases, new entries from any corporate blogs, executive speeches, etc.

Rather than look for ways to sneak the same old pitch into these new streams, sponsors should be adopting the formats, creating information of value, and letting users opt in. If users want on-demand content, then step up to the challenge of making on-demand advertising. Read the feed—the message in the medium. People want relevant information, so give it to them in the form they want.