Monday, April 20, 2015

The creative economy of today: Is the (3rd) party over?

Who doesn’t want the freedom of working for themselves? Of not having to endure bumper to bumper rush hour commutes, getting sardine canned on the subway, of sitting through marathon meetings, of dealing with dress codes (except for those crazy casual Fridays), and, well, all the rest that goes with office politics?


But what’s really involved in the life of being a freelancer -- or free agent --in today’s creative industries? To get some perspectives on this question while in Austin a few weeks back I hotfooted it over to a panel discussion on the realities of today’s creative economy at the recently held SXSW 2015. Moderating the proceedings was Scott Belsky, who founded the online portfolio site Behance (which I must admit has alway made me think of Beyonce), and who is now VP of  Mobile Products & Community at Adobe, which acquired Behance at the end of 2012.

Belsky got the discussion going with a compare and contrast of then and now for creative workers such as photographers, graphic artists, designers, writers, and the like. In the creative economy of the past, he pointed out, creators were generally represented by agents or middlemen, or were employed by a company.  There was not much in the middle. In the case of the former,  creators were not infrequently taken advantage of, and often felt like they were unable to make a solid living as total freelancers, because, in part, of the cut taken by agents or middlemen, and because the same entities were not highly incented to send a living’s worth of work to individual creators. 

As most people had to rely on 3rd party representatives and static representations of their work (vs. dynamic, current portfolios), it was difficult, if not impossible, to achieve scale as an individual. And on top of that, the tools that provided the capacity to scale, or manage work at a higher volume, simply weren’t there. Well...that was then, and this is the now.

"Sharing is the new networking. That is what builds reputation."

                                                                                   - Scott Belsky, Adobe

According to the panelists, today more creatives than ever are able to work as independents. Many represent themselves, using a combination of word-of-mouth/referrals, augmented by digital networking capabilities and the high quality options for posting and updating portfolios online. Software-as-a-service business tools -- e.g. FreshbooksMailchimpCashMusic, Harvest -- have made it easy for independent contractors to do everything from track billable hours to sell their wares direct to fans.

As a result, there’s a new middle ground emerging. In addition to the rugged individualism of the 1-person DIY operation we’re seeing the emergence of the DIWO (do it with others) model, in which people are creating small teams of their own, sometimes ramping up and down for particular projects, sometimes starting boutique agencies of their own.

Opportunities are now coming from a new source: Exposure.

And exposure and discovery trump referrals when it comes to new business for creative talents, said Belsky. He cited things like the ability to follow photographers and designers on Instagram as an example of work finding you, vs. you having to find work.

There are also new types of intermediaries, such as WorkingNotWorking, which provides access to some of the best work out there for some of the best people out there. . It’s described as: “an invite-only, real-time network of the busiest, most talented and most sought after creatives in the business.”  Among the companies to which WorkingNotWorking dispatches its creative work force are Apple, Google, IDEO, Wieden+Kennedy, and The New York Times. In other words, the top tier of the top tier.  Workingnotworking.com does this by seeking out, and vetting, the top 10% in the creative community. This way people know they’re going to find someone not just good, but great. Justin Gignac founded WorkingNotWorking and he possesses several accolades in the design world, but is probably best known for being part of the creative team that created ElfYourself, the application that has given birth to almost a billion selfie elves.

Another way to gain exposure, and with any luck paying gigs, is through mashing and (re)mixing existing work. Since 2001 this has been enabled by Creative Commons. Creative Commons licenses are the global standard for sharing, with over 1 billion licensed works made available online. Its CEO RyanMerkley was also on the SXSW panel and he pointed out that we used to think about publishing and sharing separately. Publishing was governed by rules and laws, whereas sharing forgave most of those.  Now we can think in terms of enabling things for distribution, as well as in terms of remixing.

And while some argue that technology has become commoditized and has therefore devalued the works of creators, Emily Heyward, a partner in the Brooklyn and San Francisco-based branding firm Red Antler remarked that in every industry (music, newspapers, book publishing) the old systems are crumbling. As a result, it's hard to justify paying tens or hundreds of of thousands for logos when you can get one for $99 online. Or even $5.


Merkley of Creative Commons chimed in at this point: "Nothing replaces a professional", and reminding us that all know how good a 99 cent anything. "This is why crowdsourcing is never going to compete with professional work. Professional work includes professional briefs, professional delivery, and professional revisions."

Hayward added: "It’s the difference between thinking about design as a cost vs. an investment. If you’re doing it twice it’s going to cost you more. And give you more grief." Despite all the cost-cutting and attempted commoditization of skills she insisted “it’s the most exciting time to be in a creative field."  Why? "Because creators are able to build their own brand, largely independently, and to use it, and digital marketing and networking, as differentiators." Her list of common mistakes for creators to avoid: 
  • Have a multi-disciplinary skill set
  • If you don’t have those skills yourself, then team up with someone else who does
  • UX (User experience), graphic design, web design are often desired together, so you can optimize by offering a small bundle
Gignac of WorkingNotWorking pointed out that it’s now also easy to make your portfolio look like a million bucks online, using tools that are readily available. “Having an outdated portfolio is not acceptable.  Also,  so much…looks like shit online”, he said. “Show off your stuff online like Barton Smith did”, who did a “Facebook facelift”, just for fun, and now has a job at Facebook. “You are your brand. And ironically, people good at selling other people’s products often terrible at selling themselves.”

So does this mean the traditional advertising agency model is dead? That independents and ad hoc creative teams will be the ones holding all the power? As is the case with so many reports of death, that one is overstated. Which is not to say that a game of fat margins and opacity between client and service provider is a game you want to bet on; just that being the David in a land of Goliaths no longer means relying on a biblical level miracle in order to have a fighting chance.

Bonus section for indie/DIY workers! 

If you're currently navigating your way through the creative economy feel free to weigh in with your thoughts/comments/experiences.

Reports from the real world always warmly welcomed here on the Demassed blog.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Why PBS moved from 'owned & operated' media to YouTube

There was a time when the mandate of public broadcasters was clear. Their job was to cover topics deemed to be in the interest of, and for the good of, the public at large. Sometimes that meant the high-minded, sometimes it meant the culturally diverse, and sometimes it meant giving voice to the marginalized. Think of it as the take your vitamins, eat a balanced diet version of media. We all know it’s good for us, but we also know that kale doesn’t exactly taste great.

At the same time, over the past few years the terrain once trod upon almost exclusively by public broadcasters has found itself imprinted with the footprints of others – namely podcasters, YouTubers, and bloggers. Chart topping podcasts like Hardcore History and YouTube science channels like Vsauce  have proven that there’s a huge audience for content once primarily referred to as ‘educational’. Podcasters, bloggers, and YouTubers have amply demonstrated that an unconventional approach to content and production can, and does, work. Hundreds of milions of views and downloads don’t lie.

In this new reality, shows, or content, (whichever term you prefer) can be made by enthusiasts, not just by broadcasters. And the product is available to anyone, at any time, via laptops, tablets, and phones. The question then becomes: how and where do public broadcasters fit into this picture?

While in Austin for SXSW 2015 I attended a session called “NPR & PBS: Public Media, Reaching New Publics” that addressed this question. The main presenter was Lauren Saks, Director of Programming at PBS Digital Studios.

As so many conference sessions do, this one began with the people on the panel throwing out one of those ‘can I have a show of hands’ questions to the audience. This one asked how many people in the room grew up watching Sesame Street.  Almost everyone’s hand shot up.  The next question was ‘how many of you either listen to NPR or watch PBS now’. What looked like about 2/3 of a room filled largely with people between the ages of 25 and 40 had their hands in the air. This was not typical, we were assured. As Saks informed us, most people in the U.S. grow up watching Sesame Street then don’t tune in to PBS again until they’re in their 50s or older. As for NPR, the radio service, we learned that the average listener is 55, upper middle class, and affluent. “Our mission is to speak to the public. And we’re not doing that with these demographics”, admitted Saks.

And so, in the spirit of decentralized media explored in the preceding blog post, PBS figured out that they needed to be where audiences were. This is a definitive move away from the old school thinking that says audiences must come to us. To the media properties we own, and have grown, over years of building reputation and brand. That’s a nice idea, but in an age of abundance (if not overabundance) of content it just isn't happening that way. Those in the content game are figuring out they have to go to where the attention is going. And that means places like YouTube, Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram etc. This is why even august organizations like the New York Times are entering into content-hosting partnerships with Facebook. For many, if not most, the primary destination is now Facebook, not a specific newspaper’s website. A similar change is afoot for broadcasters who are seeing their audiences move en masse to sites like YouTube.

Consider the case of PBS Digital Studios. 

It launched in 2012 and according to the blurb on its YouTube page:

PBS has long brought you original, thought-provoking programming. With PBS Digital Studios, we take that same mission and apply it to the Internet age. Working with creators from across the web, our network of short-form video series will showcase the best of the Internet while also celebrating the best parts of public television.


“For PBS Digital Studios we moved off our 'owned & operated' platform to YouTube”, said Saks recently at SXSW. And this turned out to be a good move. As of the end of March 2015 PBS Digital Studios on YouTube has 4.7 million subscribers and just under 350 million views. It offers 60+ channels, covering arts, culture, and science, and as Saks puts it:

“We’re bringing an audience we’ve never had to our brand. And we match the tone to the platform. We don’t try to shoehorn something into a place it doesn’t fit.”




Among several dozen others, PBS Digital partnered with pioneering YouTubers Hank & John Green aka ‘The Vlog Brothers” for a channel called Crash Course, which has become one of the most popular in the PBS digital network.


Saks said bringing Hank & John Green on board was an easy decision to make. “They were doing PBS type content on YouTube before we were even thinking about it, so people were doing it with or without us, and we’ve learned so much from John & Hank. We’ve learned about loyalty, about the conversation in the comments. People come back every week because they think of John & Hank as their friends. And these people may well turn into PBS viewers and donors in the future.”

The trade-off here is this: sacrificing the owned and operated PBS platform for access to YouTube’s 1 billion+ monthly users. The costs? Well, for starters, YouTube takes 45% of the ad revenue, but they’re the elephant in the room, and as such they can take (close to) the lion’s share of the revenue. And apologies for the mixing of animal metaphors but I couldn’t resist. 

The other beast in the room is Facebook, where YouTube video is commonly shared. It's responsible for about 25% of all traffic referred online.

And finally we have Twitter, where, from a marketing perspective, we find distribution done by the public at large, as seen here during a momentary glance at a column on Tweetdeck. This kind of circulation of comments, links, images, and videos goes on, of course, 24/7, and is driven by fans and enthusiasts, not the content creators themselves.

This is a very different supply chain. 

Distribution is essentially free. Plus you’re not buying media for promotional placement, as was the case in the past. Instead, you’re contributing content to a platform that generally doesn’t create its own. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not like the BBC or the New York Times in this way; they are the pipe, and others fill the pipe. 

And why do we fill it? Because the pipe has a global reach, and because the content that flows through it can achieve exponential, not just linear growth, thanks to its circulation in networks with many, many outward reaching nodes and hubs. 

Kudos to PBS for recognizing the value of being where audiences already are and partnering, rather than competing with, creators whose work a) complements the PBS brand and b) is already resonating with viewers.

Related Posts:

What Buzzfeed got before anyone else: Decentralized Media
YouTubers in 2015: A King of Trivia & A Girl Next Door Beauty Blogger
You Tubers in 2015: The appeal of the Annoying Orange
The Stars of YouTube: Buffer Festival 2014


Thursday, March 19, 2015

What Buzzfeed got before anyone else: Decentralized Media

I’ve been back from SXSW 2015 for about 48 hours and am only now starting to catch up on life, work, laundry, and blogging, in that order. In the interest of keeping readers of the Demassed blog well-filled with only the most up to date information, I thought I would tap out a relatively quick ‘best of the fest’ type of post, highlighting a few nuggets I gleaned in Austin last week. So today it's Part 1, and it's on Buzzfeed and how the company associated with circulating content with a high degree of contagiousness has in fact figured out the magic of decentralized media.

So what is decentralized media? A reasonable question, and one given consideration at a presentation at SXSW 2015 by Summer Burton, whose title is Editorial Director, Buzzfeed Distributed. In this role Summer creates digital content for Buzzfeed and distributes it on social platforms that are more up & coming than they are established, so things like six second looping videos for Vine, photo streams for Instagram, and blog feeds for Tumblr.



And what is centralized media then? Well, centralized media was pretty much the only kind of media most of us had prior to the Internet. Mass media ruled the roost, and while there were publications and underground media, they were very restricted by the high costs of creating content and the bottlenecks of physical distribution and geographical limitations in a world where broadcast signals and publications were not global by default, as they now are. 

Digital media has made the cost of creating and publishing content easier, and over time, cheaper than ever. Social networks brought the cost of distributing this content online to almost nil. And into this arena came Buzzfeed. The company was born in 2006, around the same time as YouTube and Twitter (more or less) and that’s probably not a coincidence, because built into the philosophy and culture of Buzzfeed is media as spreadable. In the words of media theorist Henry Jenkins “if it doesn’t spread, it’s dead”. Buzzfeed turned this credo into a business model, building a media company that sought not to drive traffic to its own, and owned properties, but to take its content to where people were congregating online. Places like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and assorted photo and video sharing networks. All in all Buzzfeed gets over 18 billion impressions per month, making it one of the most popular brands on the web. But here’s the rub (does anyone still say that?): of the 18 billion+ impressions made by Buzzfeed content just 200 million are on the Buzzfeed website. In other words, 90%+ of Buzzfeed’s traffic happens in non-Buzzfeed-branded places..

In an earlier era not only would this not have been a business model, it would have been considered ludicrous. Why would a company intentionally send traffic to someone else’s sites and/or platforms?

Summer Burton of Buzzfeed led us through some of the logic of Buzzfeed’s business at SXSW and explained it this way:

Buzzfeed is a way to surface what’s cool on the web 


In the early days of the Internet it used to look like lists and links



Then it was all “you’ll never believe….”.

And how does it look now? Now it looks like a picture of a baby weasel riding a woodpecker, showing up in a million different places.




"This is why we’re not about driving traffic to our website. Not since we noticed that our videos were huge on Facebook and YouTube", said Burton. True that. In fact, somewhere around 5%, possibly less, of Buzzfeed's video views happen on Buzzfeed's website. Burton continued: "We’re at 1 billion video views monthly, now that we’ve stopped thinking about websites and started thinking about distributed media. We even asked ourselves “what if Buzzfeed existed and didn’t have a website?”

"We give people a lot of room to try a lot of different things, using Tumblr, Vine, Instagram, Pinterest etc. Our secret is a culture of experimentation and giving people freedom more than it is just the data.

We want our content to be where people are


"We want content that taps into personal relationships. Like this one. And Ze Frank, Head of Buzzfeed video says the network around the video is more important than the video itself. This one was shared over a million times. If people say "that's me" the comments then we know we're on to something."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Notes from Podcamp Pt 2: Niche-o-nomics

And now, part 2 of highlights from Podcamp 2015 held recently in Toronto. If you missed Part 1, which looked at the future of content consumption in a world of multiple screens and necks crooked either downward or upward, you can catch up by reading it here. 

If you’re not committed enough to do so, that’s okay too, because today’s post picks up on themes explored not only in the previous post but all over this blog, namely the shift from a primarily mass media broadcast environment of limited choices to a cornucopia of niches in which pretty much anyone can publish, podcast, vlog, and blog.  

Now, there are those who have said yes, anyone can throw their stuff up online, and who really cares, because they probably won’t get anywhere. And in the early days of YouTubing and podcasting that was largely true. Sure, there were occasional ‘viral videos’ that moved around the Internet at the speed of greased lightning; but in many ways viral videos were the worst thing that could happen because they fell into the ‘one and done’ category. The chances of your baby, pet, or grandparent doing that unbelievable thing a second time are almost nil. Out of viral videos with tens of millions of views, careers are not generally made.

But what about a more modest level of success? Something a long way from household name type of stardom, and not enough to get you into a lease for a late model car…but what if you could do more or less what you wanted to? And if the money follows, that’s great. But that’s not the primary objective.

The Internet is the perfect place for such pursuits...as we’ll see from this roundup of the Podcamp panel I attended called Niche-o-nomics. Unlike the world of broadcast media, the Internet loves a niche, and these folks shared some of their stories about the benefits of choosing a thin slice of the market and sticking with it. The panel’s moderator was prolific podcaster Anthony Marco and the panellists were Greg David of www.tv-eh.com and Emily Gagne of the ‘girl powered TV site’ Cinefilles (pictured below, L to R).



Things learned during the panel:

-       Greg David was a writer for TV Guide for 15 years…until that day he got called into the boss’ office and realized that because the HR person was also there this wasn’t going to be a meeting about giving him a new column

-        After getting laid off Greg needed to figure out what to do next. He remembered coming across a website called TV Eh, a fan site devoted to Canadian TV shows and the Canadian television industry. It had been run on a volunteer basis by Diane Wild and and had been lying fallow for a while. It had a great brand and great content, so Greg explored picking up the blog baton.

-       But some sort of funding was required. Why don’t we do an Indiegogo, thought Greg. To his surprise, the campaign was embraced not just by fans of Canadian TV shows, but also by Canadian TV executives, broadcasters, and writers.

-       "Once people found out what we were doing we were getting pitched like crazy, and getting better stuff than I did at TV Guide….because people knew we were passionate about this specific topic."

-       The panel concurred: Traditional media is used to rapid fire questions from the interviewer that will be cut down to a 30 second clip for broadcast. With our format people can slow down and talk for an hour because we’re not about filling schedules and formats with soundbites and our audiences wants more, not less.

Moderator Anthony Marco then asked the panelists:

Is the key to success establishing your niche?

The answer: A lot of years – of paid and unpaid work – that’s ultimately what establishes credibility.



To check out the credible podcasts and blogs discussed in this post, click here for the TV Eh podcast and here for the Cinefilles blog. 


Next week: I'll be heading to Austin for SXSW and the Interactive portion of the festival. With any luck I'll be posting some highlights from the festival and/or pictures of oversized helpings of food, should I encounter phenomena such as Texas toast.

Image courtesy www.thisiswhyyourehuge.com

For SXSW 2015 Post #1 click here

Related Posts: 

Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching the Niches?
Podcasts outnumber Broadcasts 2-to-1 on iTunes charts
The Economy of 'Big Enough'
YouTube & filmmakers: From the small screen to the big screen..or not

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Notes from Podcamp: Fragmentation Nation

An interest, nay, preoccupation of mine for the past few years has been not just the fragmentation of the media marketplace, but the ultra-fragmentation. The podcasts, blogs, Instagram, Pinterest, and Vine accounts, music streaming services and Souncloud, YouTube channels, and  the rest of the sites, apps, and platforms that make it possible for anyone, anywhere to publish or broadcast their wares. And this is so much more than the fragmentation we came to know from, e.g, cable television or satellite radio. This is an exponential phenomenon that is often more than we can fathom -- and at the same time is becoming the norm. Trying to use a pie chart to illustrate the point is, for these purposes, essentially useless.

This week marks two years since I started writing this blog, and when I look back at the first post I am reminded of all the media forms that have emerged even since that time and also of how new intermediaries of the digital world are accumulating audience, and in turn, power in a way that the titans of the old broadcasting world did. Hopefully this is more than just ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’, but I suppose time will tell.

Nevertheless, in this world of publishing plenty, of the millions of blogs, podcasts, YouTube channels, and websites, catering to every niche out there, the new axiom seems to be:

if you can imagine it, it exists

Our media diet has gone from one of limited choices that were fed to us to one that grows unchecked each day on which we can gorge ourselves. How this works, from the perspectives of logistics, economics, production, and consumption is a work in progress, and is why I do this blog.

That’s why attending events like Podcamp, as I did this past weekend, can be so interesting. It’s an ‘unconference’, meaning it’s participant-driven, not organizationally or corporately driven, and is typically free to attend. I’ve gone to the last two held in Toronto, and in both cases about 1000 people converged on the campus of Ryerson to take in this ‘let’s put on a show’, with panels taking the place of song and dance numbers. Real stories from real people doing their blogs, vlogs, and podcasts, from reasons ranging from hobby to job.

Today Part 1 of some notes from Podcamp, followed by Part 2 in the days to come. 


A selection of Toronto Podcampers, February 2015

    
Just a few of the sessions on offer at Podcamp 2015

I popped in and out of a number of sessions but one that not only stood out, but also spoke to the larger themes of how we arrived at this point in the media timeline and where we might be headed, was hosted by James Wilkinson. James’ website describes his skill set as: Interaction Design, User Experience, Content Strategy, Social Media, Web Design, Creative Direction, Mobile Applications, Web Development ...which makes it reasonable to assume this guy knows what he’s talking about. (Note: You never really know at an unconference, so caveat emptor, etc).

The session was called “The future of content consumption”, but rather than being one of those bleary-eyed looks at a Jetsonian utopia, it was as much about the past as it was about what is to come. In framing the then vs. now James put things simply yet succinctly.  “Someone else used to create, someone else used to curate.”

As you'll note in the slides below, it took us thousands of years to get from smoke signals to the telegraph, but only about twenty to get from the rise of the consumer Internet in the mid 1990s to the social media juggernauts of YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter -- and the device that changed everything, the iPhone.


Previously expensive, fairly specialized gear, all squeezed into one chocolate bar sized gadget.






The new norm is billions of pieces of content, made by us, made for us, recommended to us, targeted to us, or sought out by us, and across a panoply of screens that many own: phone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer, wearable device. There’s also the “Internet of things”, in which computing capabilities are embedded in objects ranging from appliances to clothing, furniture, and even pills. You probably don’t think about it, but today’s cars now have millions of lines of code in them.

A miniature Times Square at Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square
The takeaway: Get used to more connections, across more screens. And these screens include not just the ones in your pocket or your home, but also ones in public places. To this end, here’s a new acronym for you: DOOH. Which is not to be confused with Homer Simpson’s D’oh. DOOH stands for digital out of home, a type of digital signage found in outdoor, retail, and special event environments, that has the ability to communicate directly to us, and vice-versa. There already is, and will continue to be, an increasing seamlessness between our own screens and these screens. The digital signage at McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s or downtown plazas is just the beginning.


“The future is smart”, said Wilkinson. “And scary”, said an audience member.

Whether or not it’s as scary as some would lead us to believe is another one for the  “remains to be seen” file. There has always been techno-fear mongering and while some of it certainly has a basis, I’ll take the net benefits of technology over a world without it any day. It’s obviously a much larger debate, and one that I’m not going to get into here, but to grossly oversimplify things, it’s the price we pay for 'always on' media and on-demand information and entertainment...and the fact that we directly  ‘pay’ for very little of it. So payment takes other forms. Deal with it? Yes, we're all trying.


In Part 2 of this post, a look at the realities, and advantages, of working in a content niche. 

Related Posts: 

Podcasting: Art, Craft, or Reaching the Niches?
Podcasts outnumber Broadcasts 2-to-1 on iTunes charts
Why PBS moved from 'owned & operated' media to YouTube