Monday, April 18, 2011

The rapid growth of E-books, harbinger of changes in the audience

Over the past year, I have been involved in several very interesting efforts in a think tank that focuses on the intersection of mobile, narrative and play, and cloud services. Through this very forward looking group, named Moveablecode, I have had the great pleasure of getting vanguard exposure to things that are coming in the mobile space and capabilities that are fast rising in terms of apps, cloud services and much more. One thing has become abundantly clear.  Change is happening at an exponentially faster rate than many of the established industries and companies are fully recognizing. These changes are broad based, technologically driven, and unlike the explosion, come with applicable business models, many of which are direct to user/audience in nature.

For now, tablet and phone based mobile technologies are largely carrying the majority of this revolution (there are certainly other areas but none quite as pervasive and convulsively immediate yet).

I am struck at seeing and hearing the anxious application of "tried and true" thinking in terms of when to jump in and start working with the emerging newness. I have seen first-hand, leading companies in several industries convincing themselves to wait until this all sorts itself out. This wait and see mindset has largely developed from hard won experience in jumping in to new technologies too soon.  Big investments in vanguard tech can leave content companies and play companies reeling from picking the wrong side in an app or tech battle. Additionally, most of the audience aren't "early adopters" so the companies seeking to sell and market to us don't want to be either.  because of this, most content and play companies like to wait and see what emerges on top and then follow on.

I believe there is something fundamentally different at work this time in regards to what is being enabled with content and play through technology.  Access to content FROM ANY SOURCE is quickly becoming more democratized by affordable mobile devices with simple interfaces so much so that the audience isn't taking years to change its habits. Its happening in months.

I am posting a link to an article on the explosive growth of E-books here to make my point. "E-book sales triple in February to surpass paper!" Witness the extreme growth in e-books. This is not only a dramatically less expensive way to consume books but its far easier and more immediate. The new e-formats have opened the direct ability for authors, artists and specialty groups to publish direct to audience without having to worry about getting a large publisher to say yes to their content.  Large content distributors console themselves by saying that they have the financial and structural depth to advertise far better than individuals and to some extent this is true.  However, non-aligned reviewer blogs, special interest communities and social sharing can all add up to awareness over time.  Authentic community distribution has already yielded proof that direct-to-audience distribution of your content is not only possible but can be quite successful.  Even the economics of this alternative and direct relationship with the audience carries with it different thresholds of what is considered an economic success.  Do you have to reach as large an audience as a mass market distributor when a much larger percentage of the profit falls through directly to you?  Perhaps not.  There are already smaller and more entrepreneurial companies rushing in to the space between mass and self distribution to supply lists, interim management and development services and simple to use software to enable this possibility.  What seems certain is that the distribution landscape is going to have a lot more flavors to choose from on a go-forward basis.

I also firmly believe that we will see significant changes in how connected the content in "books" will be over the next 24 months and beyond. This has wonderful and huge ramifications for Meta-story. When a reader can explore more than what is on the next page whenever they want, those stories with deeper content will find their audience even more effectively and not always have to go through a large multi-divisional conglomerate to do so.  There is nothing stopping larger corporations from developing parts of their companies to aggressively expand into these new developments with the audience but waiting to enter this market and waiting to aggressively explore it while it is evolving, may have some significant downside.

To be clear, I love traditional books and will always buy them. I believe they have a place in the future and that place will likely have to do with legacy purchases, collections, gifts and keepsakes, precious objects, upscale value and much more.

 It will still be necessary to write great and captivating stories and all manner of form and format will be possible on E-formats from traditional page turners to fully interactive and interruptible content. The audience will decide what works and what doesn't.

This same radical change is well under way for TV, motion picture, toys and much more. I strongly suggest to all those industries to not stand by and "wait" or those lighter, faster, more aggressive or new companies/individuals as they will quickly gain primary foothold in this new "direct-to-audience" world.  Investing in your own obsolescence is critical these days because others outside of your company are certainly doing it for you.  Now is the time to create disruptive enclaves protected from the core culture to think differently and find solutions that a contiguous publicly traded culture can't.  If you are in the business of stories, this is where Meta-stories can help.  Meta-stories and Meta-story creators, by their very nature, have to be engaged in the evolving edges of narrative.

Even if the large corporations do get on the tips of their toes and lean forward to run faster, they will have to think in very different terms. So much of the new relationship is about community, authenticity, giving in order to get, and showing that you have earned the right to sell and exchange with the tribe. These things have always been at the heart of truly good storytelling and I find that I am excited about the audience gaining more voice. They empower creatives and creators who have conviction and vision and a connection to the larger tribe. This is becoming increasingly clear as new commerce moves to those who can change and get the connection with the audience right.

In many ways, this isn't a wildly new way of connecting and sharing stories. The technology is new and the formats are incredibly exciting (and bring with them new narrative needs and strengths that need to be understood and created for).  Though this is all true, what is really happening is a simplification of the relationship between storyteller/creator and audience. It's beginning to resemble the more personal, connected and tribal relationships that groups of humans have had with storytellers since before the industrialization of the world and the creation of large corporate structures. I believe the control in the relationship is partially returning to the audience/tribe...with all its quirks and human imperfections.

What this suggests is blanket, or "push," marketing will be less and less effective in certain categories of stories and play.  Direct and unique relationships with the audience will continue to show their strengths.  (I am including a link to an interesting article about why Justin Beiber is a unique relationship with his audience and not a template for brand success).  Over time, audiences will demonstrate that brands and franchises need to have continually expanding narratives that have true, relevant, meaning and empowerment in order to have lasting value.  These success elements in a connected and self-selecting tribal media environment favor creator-driven meta-stories.

As an aside: It is interesting to see the rush to name this new age. Information age, social age, connected age, etc... Words are important because we build on them like raising a building up. The foundational interpretation becomes part of the structure and defines it. personally and for now, I'll go with "digital tribalism" because it incorporates the idea of self-selecting tribes enabled by the new communication technology.

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