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 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 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

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

Friday, February 6, 2015

YouTubers in 2015 Part 2: A king of trivia and a girl-next-door beauty blogger

The celebration of the 10th anniversary of YouTube continues here on the blog, with Part 2 of a look at the state of YouTube creators aka 'YouTubers' in 2015. (Click here for Part 1, featuring one of the people behind the Annoying Orange, aka the unofficial cartoon of YouTube).

By now you may know about some of the biggest YouTube stars out there, such as PewDiePieSmosh, Jenna Marbles, and The Fine Brothers. These are people with millions of subscribers and billions of views, and while the names may not be familiar to you, the videos may well be. And if you have kids under 15 or so, that is almost definitely the case.

But these billionaires of YouTube views like The Fine Bros., producers of the "People React To..." videos, are the exception. More interesting -- to me at least -- is that there are about 6000 YouTubers each pulling in over a million views per month. At a recent digital content conference held in Toronto I had the opportunity to attend panels featuring assorted 'Tubers telling their tales and today, some nuggets from two more: Rachel Cooper of the RachhLoves channel and Matt Santoro, the guy on YouTube who does those 'amazing lists' videos that attract tens of millions of views per month.

First, let's hear from Rachel, one of about 50,000 beauty bloggers on YouTube.

For some it's a hobby, for some it's a part time job that supplements their income, and for some, such as Michelle Phan, it's been the path to getting their own makeup line with L'Oreal. For Rachel, recently married and with a baby daughter, it's a full time job, and one that now also employs her husband. She posts two videos per week, on a consistent schedule, and each video runs around 5 to 6 minutes. When she started posting videos a few years ago it wasn't about money, because nobody was making any. "It was about community and making friends online and just having fun" she told the crowd at the conference.

Rachel is part of the Style Haul network on YouTube, which is home to about 5000 YouTubers creating content related to beauty and fashion. While not everyone's YouTube MCN, or third party multi-channel network experience has been great, most notably the Annoying Orange's as explained in Part 1 post, Rachel says she's happy with hers. Among the things it brought her that she says she probably wouldn't have achieved on her own are increased visibility, opportunities for collaboration, a web series, and a deal with Unilever.

To me, personally, beauty bloggers' videos aren't interesting  (I still have no idea how to do a 'smoky eye'...maybe I should watch the channels once in a while?) but what is interesting is how many of them there are, and most come from the humblest of beginnings...literally shooting videos in their bathrooms with a headband on and a makeup palette and flat iron just a few inches away. And yet, they're able to pull in hundreds of thousands of subscribers and millions to billions of views. Whereas a previous generation of girls and young women flocked to magazines like Seventeen and Elle for beauty and fashion tips, today it's a much more fragmented landscape, spread across the 50,000+ beauty bloggers and their often niche areas of expertise. What is too various to be covered by mass market magazines and broadcast networks works perfectly for an army of YouTubing young women and their video selfies.

And if there's one thing the Internet has taught us it's that people love lists. So when it comes to lists of particularly mind-blowing facts, it shouldn't surprise us that one man can generate tens of millions of views per month doing videos that regale us with this trivia. Meet former accountant and now full time YouTube video maker Matt Santoro.

Matt told the audience that he didn't want to perpetuate the stereotype of one guy in his apartment making videos and throwing them up on YouTube, when in fact that's exactly what he does.  "If I had more funds I'd have more people...writers, social media person, editors...but I'm everything. If I had just a writer I could triple my production but I'm still just a 1-man show."

When he was posting one video a week Matt's monthly view count was around 23 million, he told the crowd at the conference. One he added a second video per week his monthly views jumped to 35 million and he says it's now closer to 40 million views per month.

The many obsessions of Matt Santoro, in easy to digest list form

"I get a lot of brand deal offers through my YouTube network The Collective (incidentally, the same network with which the Annoying Orange production team is embroiled in a lawsuit). They get me deals to do things like fly to L.A. to do the YouTube Super Bowl half-time show and I also do integrated brand stuff when it feels right, which means I tweet about things and post on social networks, but the number one thing for me is that it has to feel right. I value the trust I've built with my audience. That's the most important thing."

When asked how he keeps up with all the research, writing, production, marketing, and personal appearances that are part  being a 1-man show such as he is Matt ascribes it to two things: "empty bottles of vodka and a lot of crying."

"For the first four years I really didn't make any money. It really just blew up last year. What other job would you do for four years, make almost nothing, and still do it?  You do it because you love it. When I started  making the same I did as an accountant, by uploading 1 video per week, that's when I decided to take the plunge and do it full time. And people know it's not teams of people, yet if I don't post on the day of the week I usually do people are hitting refresh every minute and sending me tweets and emails saying "Matt, where's the video?"

Talking to and/or back to YouTubers? All part of the job in this world of direct-to-fan media and 2-way communication. Which is another way of saying this ain't your mama's TV show.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

YouTubers in 2015 Part 1: The appeal of the Annoying Orange

One of the aims of this blog, now 2 years into its existence, has been examining and then breaking down the economics of the creative industries in the digital era. Why? Because in a little over a decade we’ve gone from industries worth double and sometimes triple digits billions to revenues that are now valued at a fraction of that as people move from purchasing CDs, DVDs, movie tickets, books, newspapers, games, etc to streaming music, playing freemium gamesgetting news on the web and on apps, getting getting what used to be called radio through podcasts, and getting what used to be called TV shows and movies via Netflix, YouTube, or torrent sites.

Today’s post will be a kind of turbo history of YouTube, from its earliest days as a repository of nothing in particular — people’s home movies, random clips of trips, pets, and kids, illegal uploads of old commercials and TV shows and music videos — to today, where it accounts for more 18-34 year old viewers than any television network. 

The first video was posted to YouTube on April 23, 2005. In those days randomness ruled, as nobody knew what the platform was best suited for, and the wild west mentality of uploading things for which didn't hold licenses or copyright was on its way to becoming a new norm. Within a year and half of the chaos of the early days Google acquired the startup for $1.65 billion and today, just short of ten years since its inception, YouTube is a primary platform for a new generation.
This journey from digital dumping ground to entertainment industry power broker was very much on my mind recently when I attended a digital media conference in Toronto. And one thing that’s becoming increasingly clear is that we’re moving toward a world of (at least) two YouTubes. One is the world of the weird and quirky ‘Internet famous’and the other is the world of YouTubers of more mainstream and even corporate appeal. 

Yes, the eccentrics and anomalies are still there, and always will be, but as YouTube evolves and matures, we have the co-existence of the weirdo world of YouTube with the one that favours those with millions of views per videoas well as agents, managers, and video network affiliations Pioneering philosopher of the digital age David Weinberger has come up with a characterization for today’s interesting underbelly of YouTube. He calls it “mass net fame”, and explains here how the Internet in general and YouTube in particular “… enables mass marketing of culture, resulting in old style fame being foisted on us, as well as the Bieberization of talent that first emerges bottom-up and then gets absorbed and re-emitted by the mass media. The Net allows for both of these modalities simultaneously.”

With this cultural tug of war in mind I bring you highlights, in two parts, from the recent Digital Dialogue 2015 conference held in Toronto. Today, it’s the pulpy story of the Annoying Orange (at least I didn’t say juicy) and in the days to come I’ll follow up with a post on the day’s other panelists, amazing lists guy Matt Santoro and beauty blogger Rachel Cooper of the RachhLoves channel.

So, you may ask, who is this Annoying Orange? Well, as the name suggests, he is an orange, but not just any piece of citrus fruit. This one has 2.5 billion YouTube views and over 4 million subscribers and a kind of media empire comprised of sub-channels on YouTube devoted to characters from the series.

From the Annoying Orange camp we heard from Bob Jennings, producer, and voice actor for the series, most notably as Grapefruit.

On the origins of the Orange

Jennings, who got his degree in film from Boston’s Emerson College and had a day job at the American Film Institute, told the crowd it all goes back to January 2006 and the Wicked Awesome Films YouTube Channel. He and his friend Dane Boedigheimer uploaded a video. Jennings remembers: “Within two minutes we had a comment…from Australia…so I said I’m in!”

It was so early in YouTube’s history that there were no thoughts about money. People just made videos and uploaded them because they loved doing it. 

The Orange expands

When asked by the panel's moderator YouTube’s David Brown on the moment when he got hooked on YouTubing Jennings said: “On YouTube you don’t need permission. It’s a two-way stream with the audience. But things really started to pop in 2009. There was nothing like Annoying Orange online. Even our thumbnails didn’t look like anyone else’s. We got a huge young audience and it really became the unofficial cartoon of YouTube. Then other YouTubers like Shay Carl got in touch with us wanting to be involved and then James Caan called and wanted to a Sonny Corleone character talking to a grapefruit." 

                              James Caan takes on a new thespian challenge as Jalapeno

The Orange and its Audience

Jennings tells the crowd that the primary metric was number of views up until recently. Now it’s ‘watch time’, or how long viewers stick with your video, also where your videos get placed outside of YouTube (e.g. posted on Facebook, a primary driver of traffic to YouTube . "And actually gamers taught me a lot about making content that makes people keep coming back."

The Orange Moves to TV

In 2011 in one of the first deals to see a YouTuber move to television it was announced that Annoying Orange would be seen on cable television channel The Cartoon Network. But Jennings admits: “The show is way bigger online than on TV. The problem is we have the brand and advertising dollars backwards…with more of them going to TV when they really should be showing up online.”

The Orange joins a YouTube network, or MCN (multi-channel network)

For a lot of YouTubers the path to optimizing revenues is by way of an MCN, or network that aggregates thousands, if not tens of thousands, of YouTube channels, and strikes deals with brands and advertising agencies that are more favourable than deals available to an individual YouTuber. That’s the theory at least, and for some it pans out. Not so for the Orange, however. “The Collective (Annoying Orange’s network) hasn’t paid us for 5 months. The story is in the Hollywood Reporter if you want to know more. Now we’re in a legal battle.” Jennings continues: “So we just started our own company, New Media Trader, to connect brands with creators."

Click here for Part 2 of this YouTubers in 2015 post.