From Instagram Stars to Invisible Companies: New Approaches to Content Creation

“Everyone wants to be a creator,” says Eitan Pilipski, VP in charge of developing Snapchat’s ever-evolving augmented reality (AR) platform. Pilipski was one of hundreds of executives who took to the stage at Collision. This year, the conference featured a dedicated content track, with practitioners and executives sharing their insights and experiences with creating content across constantly changing platforms and user expectations.

To set a baseline, it’s worth doing a quick tally of the volume of content being created online in 2019. Every day, over 500 million tweets are posted, about 100 million photos and videos are shared on Instagram, about 4 million blog posts go live, and the amount of video uploaded to YouTube every minute now sits at around 500 hours. Every minute.

Indeed everyone can be a creator, and hundreds of millions around the world are making the wheels of the Internet churn like no other form of media ever has. But with all the new form factors for content and new user experiences, both creators and tech platforms are in a state of constant flux. And embracing what at first appears to be chaos but is in fact a highly dynamic marketplace is what it takes to compete.

Take Snapchat for example. If you’re about 30 or older, you may think it’s yesterday’s news. In fact, it’s very much a going concern for teens and twentysomethings, with hundreds of millions of video stories created daily, and those stories yielding several billion views. The company and the community are in an ongoing state of reinvention, creating hundreds of thousands of lenses and filters so people can personalize their disappearing snaps with goggles, elevators, pickles, and anything else that can be imagined and digitized. 50 billion views later, Pilipski, a veteran of AR companies that created early AR applications for phones and smart glasses, sees the bigger picture: “AR used to be just for experts, but now anyone can do it,” referring to the reality-stretching tools Snapchat’s products have put into the hands of several hundred million people.

And Snapchat is but one app out of millions. The burst of content activity is taking place across screens big and small, and media producers and brands are vying for the same attention as every person posting from their smartphone. Consequently, if you’re trying to get the word out about your project, product, or service, it’s harder than ever to break through the clutter. So how are the tech companies, publishers, platforms, and brands thinking about content creation in this free-for-all environment? And what does it take to get noticed in that infinite sea?

Banking and basketball, 3D printed dresses and innovation

A brick and mortar bank faced this challenge when it wanted to communicate a new idea. Wells Fargo wanted to give its customers control over their financial lives with Control Tower, an online product and app that provides access to all accounts, credit cards, and digital transactions in a single place. CMO Jamie Moldafsky delivered the message by giving people control over a favourite pastime: the bank created an app for the NBA playoffs that offered control of the game-viewing experience. People could choose cameras, angles, and favourite players for the version of the game they wanted to see. “And we’re not interrupting people’s lives with something that is irrelevant,” adds Moldafsky.

GE faced a similar challenge, as CMO Linda Boff explained: “The best things we do as a company are invisible, and we wanted to make them visible. And while it’s not easy to get the average person excited about electrical infrastructure or the technology backbone of the aerospace and healthcare industries, you can get them excited about the underlying principle behind it, which is innovation.”

To make innovative thinking visible to a mass audience, GE partnered with fashion designer Zac Posen, equipping him with the company’s 3D printing technology and setting him loose to create eye-catching, futuristic gowns. Three stars wore the 3D printed dresses on the red carpet at New York’s splashy Met Gala this spring. “You used to be able to get all the attention you needed by advertising during Friends or Cheers,” quips Boff. Now, the name of the game is creating buzz and attention in the real world, and having it cascade through thousands to millions of impressions on the likes of Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, as well as through mainstream print and media outlets, who also picked up the story.

Platforms and publishers

It’s no secret that local media outlets have suffered a significant erosion of advertising revenue as a result of the dominance of Facebook and Google, and that algorithms dictate who sees which content, and under what circumstances. Speaking to the tricky economic interconnections between people, companies, and platforms, Justin Hendrix of the NYC Media Lab, described the new phase of the relationship this way: “Media publishers and platforms are now in the ‘conscious uncoupling’ phase, and we’re asking ourselves how do we want to live the rest of our lives.”

Hendrix lays out the facts of how the dynamics have evolved between individual creators and platforms as well as brands and publishers and platforms. “Only publishers with scale can thrive on the big platforms, he points out, and social media stardom, it’s more like a lottery now.” He states that, for most creators, ad revenue on its own is no longer enough to support them, let alone those YouTubers, bloggers, and vloggers that require production or editorial staff to keep to a regular posting schedule.

Hendrix is hopeful, however, based largely upon the flowering of ideas and prototypes coming out of the student groups with whom his lab works. “Things that seem like fringe ideas now may actually end up solving the problem at scale,” he notes. Among those projects are a multi-user AR challenge, created in conjunction with A&E Networks, and a framework for metadata and machine learning for news produced in partnership with Hearst Media.

Are platforms best for marketing, or for monetization?

Platforms aren’t going away, so the fact that so many people use Twitter, Facebook, and Google as their starting point for information is a reality which media organizations now have to contend. Meg Goldthwaite, Chief Marketing Officer at NPR, explained that her public media organization decided to move away from a reliance on social platforms and to more O&O (owned and operated) media channels.

“We’ll never leave radio, but we want to find new places we can meet people,” she explains to the audience at Collision. For NPR, this meant finding out what all the places are. It used to be easy: it was in the car or in the kitchen. Now the audience is spread across multiple platforms and devices, and is consuming the content in conventional broadcast forms and also via streaming and on demand. Some of the places NPR’s audiences can be found are O&O, some are on smart speakers (NPR was an early partner with Amazon and Google and is now also working with Apple and Samsung), and some are open platforms, such as YouTube, where the network’s Tiny Desk Concerts pull in several million views per month.

“YouTube is the centre of gravity for young people,” acknowledges Kelly Day, President of Viacom Digital Studios, the two-year-old digital arm of a company whose hallmark for several decades has been youth-focused, category-defining brands such as MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, and Comedy Central. “We don’t use digital to market TV shows but to create digital intellectual property (IP), to build communities, and to serve personalized, on demand content,” says Day. For Viacom, that means targeting and reaching the 2 to 12 and 13 to 24-year-old demographics. And even though substantial efforts are being put into IP on open platforms like YouTube, Day says Viacom is seeing continued growth on the company’s O&O channels, which are netting approximately 5 billion views per month.

Day and her team at Viacom are well aware that teens are spending much of their time on Instagram and Snapchat, so they have developed programming for IGTV, the new product introduced by Instagram in 2018 to accommodate videos up to 10 minutes in length. Such initiatives have the potential to corral audiences and create high engagement that in turn are attractive as sites for branded content or ad placements. Two other recent Viacom acquisitions speak to the ways in which the company is defending itself in the face of declining audiences for linear broadcast TV: the mid 2018 acquisition of Awesomeness TV, the youth-focused digital media network generating hundreds of millions of monthly views, and the early 2019 acquisition of the free, ad-supported streaming platform Pluto TV.

Leora Kornfeld
So far in life, Leora has been a record store clerk, a CBC radio host, a Harvard Business School case writer, a blogger and a crossword puzzle clue. Currently she’s a media and technology consultant, working with clients in the US and Canada.
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