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As the calendar changes over from one year to the next, it’s only natural to look ahead and wonder what the new year is going to bring. My own prediction is that 2012 will be the year for online video. I believe there are a number of reasons why this will be so… I address the first in this entry: shifting audience focus.

It’s being said that audiences are fragmenting – but that’s just how it looks from the perspective of media incumbents. Actually, audiences are diversifying away from content intended for mass audiences towards what best suits their interests. This move away from the mass has been aided and abetted by search and social media; it will be further encouraged by the rise of content curation.

There will continue to be a place for media giants with the institutional access to the famous and powerful they provide. Large advertising deals and syndication payouts will still pay for high-quality production. Sport will always require deep pockets as it is one of the few genres that can reliably attract large numbers of eyeballs.

However, despite the advantages of their incumbency, media giants are going to have to work harder to keep smaller audiences. The advertising money derived from mass audiences and readerships is already declining. In print, paywalls are being thrown up but the realisation is dawning that audiences will only reliably pay for content that is valuable to them. Media outlets geared to producing generic content for mass consumption are proving ill-equipped to provide this value.

Now is the time for content makers to target audiences directly – by giving them exactly what they want, when they want it.

Sharpening Focus

The key to success in any business is a steady and growing customer base. This is no different for media and has been well understood in both broadcast and print environments, which require an audience that comes back every month, every week or every day to the next episode or edition.

One of the early implications of the shift online is that broadcasters are finding that their own brand is becoming less relevant. Audiences can go directly to the studio or the home network (or even worse, to torrents) to get the content they’re looking for. Thanks to search and social media, what has been traditionally considered a ‘sub-brand’  – the show’s name – is now the main brand. That’s what everyone is talking about and searching for. This is a problem for studios looking for the security of big syndication payouts (where the risk of the success of the series in a given market is passed to the broadcaster). However, it creates opportunities for producers prepared to focus on creating content for that has real value for a particular audience.

A similar situation is faced by traditional print businesses, but they have more potential to salvage the situation. Readers can now go online to any news site (or, typically multiple sites)  that takes their fancy.  So the question becomes, what is it that takes the reader’s fancy? News websites all carry pretty much the same core news, so what counts in attracting and retaining readers is how the tone and context provided fits with the reader – both in the writing itself and the op-ed content. The masthead brand embodies that tone and context and so retains value – for now.

How well print adapts to the online media environment will be key to their success here. Analysis and op-ed provides the tone and context that the reader is looking for and video has a valuable role in this kind of delivery. Audiences get more from an interview by seeing the subject sweat or squirm than by reading a transcript, for example.

Whether as print or video (but particularly video), this kind of content tends to be personality driven. We see it right now in the op-ed columns of newspapers, while even in the relatively dry area of economic analysis, Alan Kohler attracts dedicated audiences in both print and TV. These personalities become sub-brands, which if managed well offer the opportunity to build an audience and even reach beyond the home website into other platforms and new audiences. Alternatively, the sub-brand becomes poses the same threat in news as it does broadcast – it becomes the audience’s focus. Again, there are opportunities for competition as audiences increasingly go directly to the source.

If Content is King, Its Crown is Audience Value

Moving beyond the mass and attracting audiences by more closely meeting their interests inevitably means smaller audiences. This doesn’t sit well alongside the cost and complexity of production and distribution, factors cited as the main reason more targeted content will struggle to succeed. (That both cost and complexity have been dropping rapidly is a subject I intended to address in a future entry).

And yet content that is more engaging to its audience can more realistically expect to attract subscription revenue from that audience. If an individual audience member is worth ten dollars a month as a subscriber rather than forty cents an episode as eyeballs for advertisers, audiences in the tens or hundreds of thousands (rather than millions) become viable.

This entry has focussed on only one facet of a broad trend (future entries will seek to balance this). The shift in audience focus has been fueled by a diversification of distribution platforms – notably mobile and tablet form-factors – and a move from broadcast to on-demand delivery. IPTV services will continue this diversification, encouraged by the launch of the NBN. However, a look at the sort of content audiences will be seeking in this shifting environment seemed an obvious place to start.