Publishers, innovation, and failure

Below is a talk I gave at News Digital last week as part of a breakfast talking about The Australian iPad app. Following me were Nick Leeder and Ed Smith, two guys who really get where their industry is going. I know it’s easy to bash the big publishers when it comes to paywalls and innovation in delivery, but I get the feeling that organisations like News are going to come out of this decade as big winners.

It’s no great revelation that social Media and the rise of digital communication have completely shifted the media landscape. The speed with which consumers have adapted to technology has outpaced the speed with which many organisations have adapted.

Technology, and importantly communication through technology, has become ubiquitous and transparent in the lives of consumers. And yet the digital world still feels awkward and ill-fitting for many businesses and brands.

And why is this?

Because the 2 billion people using the internet today have changed how they’re behaving.

They’ve started sharing their opinions with the world.

They’ve started making Skype calls to their friends on the other side of the world.

They’ve started using Google as a verb.

They’ve started to expect an instant reply.

They’re uploading 24 hours of video to YouTube every minute.

They’re watching 2 billion YouTube videos a day.

They’ve started to create advertising for the brands they love.

And they’ve started movements against the ones they don’t.

Almost one third of the world’s population is online, and they’re creating stuff. These 2 billion people have become publishers.

And if you think that these 2 billion people aren’t a threat to the way advertisers, agencies and publishers operate, I’d like to introduce you to Apollo.

Apollo helps you discover the best news content from around the web based on your preferences. Apollo gives you all the top news headlines in real-time, aggregated from 1000′s of the world’s top sources and personalised to your preferences. It is an up-to-the minute, mobile newspaper. As you use the application, the Apollo algorithm learns what articles and sources you enjoy and helps you discover new content based on your personal preferences and viewing history.

And importantly, apps like Apollo and social-news aggregator Flipboard aren’t showing users any ads. The users are the new publishers. The editor is now a combination of my social network and complex algorithms. And there doesn’t seem to be much of a role for advertisers.

Essentially, publishing is the new literacy. Publishing is now abundant. And if we look back 600 years to the birth of the printing industry we find that literacy became abundant at the same time as scribes lost their jobs.

So what of publishers, at the time when everybody becomes a publisher?

Publishers create immense value for agencies and our clients. Newspapers have for more than 150 years given us a place to get our message across to consumers. They have provided us with an audience.

And with the birth of digital, the publishers evolved. They created audiences, and gave us valuable spaces in which we could advertise. In less than 2 decades, digital advertising has gone from a non-existent industry, to one worth $2 billion a year in Australia.

But now, if we look at devices like the iPad and how it’s changing media consumption, it’s seems like we’re back at the starting gate again. Consumers aren’t paying attention to our ads online, and more and more they’re actually behaving in ways that cut us out. To continue to be able to talk to consumers, we need to understand that their behaviour has changed. They have become publishers, and that completely changes the landscape for advertisers.

Clay Shirky brilliantly highlights what happens when we move from a scarcity of publishers to an abundance of them…

…surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.

I think it’s a fair observation to say that, on the whole, many organisations are freaked out by the changes that they are seeing in the digital world.

But the challenge for publishers is relatively simple: Create something that is so compelling, that audiences will seek it out.

Create something that understands the changes in behaviour. That understands that people care about sharing content with their friends, and having content recommended back. Something that uses complex technology to present a simple, enjoyable experience.

It’s possible that in five or ten years, the launch of the iPad will be considered as the beginning of a revolution. We really don’t know what sort of impact these devices will have. But no matter what, experimentation and innovation are key.

The thing about being an innovator however, is that there will be failures. And todays publishers could learn a lot from looking at the people who were the catalysts for the revolution we find ourselves in. These innovators weren’t afraid of failure. In fact, in Silicon Valley failure is seen as a badge of honour.

While I’m sure today we’ll hear all about the success of News innovation with The Australian iPad app, It’s just as valuable to hear about, and learn from the failures. We’re on the bleeding edge here, and I can assure you that in the world of technology and innovation, nobody is getting everything right, all of the time.

The winners of the digital era will not simply be those that outthink, but those that outfail.

Communication has changed more in the last decade than it did during the first three hundred years of the printing press.

And this is not a change that can be resisted. This is behaviour, and it can only be embraced.

For advertisers, this change means being brave and stepping outside of your comfort zone sometimes. Devices like the iPad are giving us so many new ways to talk to and talk with consumers. These new opportunities won’t always look and feel like advertising as we know it, but to remain relevant in consumers lives we have to talk to them on their terms.

For media and creative agencies, it means we have to keep exploring and examining. It’s never been so important to understand the intricacies of consumers lives, how and why they’re doing what they’re doing. And this exploration informs our entire business, from the initial planning phase all the way through to the execution of an idea.

And finally for publishers, this massive change means they have to understand how and why people are consuming content. They have to innovate, and create something that people choose. Something that they seek out.

- August 2010