Choose your weapons

Godsend, or weapon of mass destruction? Over at Quartz, Monday Note editor Frederic Filloux has sounded the alarm (again) about ad blocking, which is spreading like wildfire, getting more sophisticated and making a bunch of media and marketing types very, very nervous: http://bit.ly/1LFjHmG.

We’re of two minds about this. When it comes to seizure-inducing banners, invasive pop-ups or videos that start playing without being asked, it’s hard to see ad blocking as anything other than a Very Good Thing. However the news that ad blockers are starting to target native advertising and branded content — for example, articles or microsites that are ‘sponsored by’ a company or organisation — is a bit troubling. Okay, so we have a vested interest. And yes, there is no shortage of sponsored content that probably deserves to be zapped. But that applies to all media output — and what about the quality stuff?

Savvy companies use or sponsor content not to hammer home a blunt marketing message, but to engage people and position themselves as authorities in their fields, which requires the content to be convincing, and to contain real information or insights. Who would deny Alibaba might have some useful things to say about e-commerce, or HSBC about the opening of China’s capital markets? Ad blocking certainly has its place, but targeting all sponsored content is a bit like using a flamethrower to take on a mosquito. We’d argue for a more nuanced approach — which is where some good, old-fashioned human editorial judgement may need to come in.

(As an aside, for an example of good, informative sponsored content, check out this Economist collaboration with Asia-focused Australian bank ANZ, which looks at the various ways integration is progressing in Asia-Pacific: integrasian.economist.com. Full disclosure: n/n was involved in this project, but it shows how a company can contribute to the dialogue around a remarkable process in which it’s also playing a role.)

It’s (not so) good to be king

Action camera-maker GoPro buying a virtual reality company. Verizon shelling out $4 billion for AOL to engineer a mobile video revolution. Facebook giving media giants the opportunity to publish directly on its platform via the Instant Articles initiative. With all this going on, it’s no surprise we’re seeing a lot of articles like this one (http://read.bi/1PrNZ2H) announcing that the age of content has arrived. Again.

It’s not much use to have a fantastic distribution tool or network without any content to call your own — hence Verizon’s determination not to become a ‘dumb pipe’ that does nothing but deliver other companies’ intellectual property (and ad traffic). At the same time, content needs an audience, and content creators will increasingly be forced to work with the giants of social media to reach the biggest ones. Facebook’s reach is massive and the terms for its Instant Articles service are fairly generous, so signing up seems like a no-brainer for publishers — hence why marquee names like the New York Times and National Geographic are among the early adopters. And while Facebook can (and probably will) change the terms later, it will still need well-known producers of credible content for its foray into news to succeed, meaning publishers will always have retain a certain amount of leverage.

That said, it’s inevitable that by coming to the content via Facebook’s platform many users will associate what they read or watch via Instant Articles with the Facebook name and ecosystem, even if the original publishers plaster their names and fonts all over it. More people will be telling each other about the stories or videos they saw “on Facebook” and not necessarily mentioning the original producer of the content — much like happens with with Youtube now. Publishers are therefore, unwittingly or not, helping build Facebook’s credibility as a media and publishing force its own right, and may be weakening their future negotiating position with Facebook and clout with consumers. Count on Facebook eventually forcing Instant Articles, regardless of where they come from, to conform to a more unified look or style to accelerate this process.

Distribution is important, but in the interests of balance (and self-preservation) content creators may not need to pursue reach above everything else; a bigger audience doesn’t necessarily mean more engagement, subscribers or dollars. Consistently producing top-notch material for a smaller, more receptive group of followers can be a more effective way to build loyalty and a reputation, and distribution (at least to start with) can be as simple a matter as using the industry or personal networks you’re already part of. Social media has produced some behemoths, but it’s also a great leveller, allowing content producers to reach a wide number of people without riding another brand or technology’s coattails. On the other hand for distributors or platforms (like Verizon, and Facebook) it’s nowhere near as easy to find a consistent, freely available and largely automated source of relevant content (yet). Content might not be king — but it’s got a healthy amount of sovereignty.

 

China’s startup capital

Where’s the best place in China to be a technology startup? According to a CNN article by one of n/n’s very own it’s not bustling Shanghai, or even our much-beloved home base of Hong Kong, but the factory boomtown of Shenzhen, where manufacturing prowess and (now) funding have combined to produce some very interesting results. Read more here: http://edition.cnn.com/2015/05/14/tech/shenzhen-startup-city/index.html

Sounds like a place worth watching, though not having a hardware focus, we’re not planning to pick up and move across the border just yet …

Of cake and eating it

For media companies and other creators of content, it’s one of the oldest debates in the book — is it better to specialise, or appeal to as wide an audience as possible?

According to a fine article by the new-age marketing gurus at Digiday (http://bit.ly/1AzEPF7)  the answer is, well … a bit of both. At least if you’re The Wall Street Journal, which is determined to keep its coverage broad, but simultaneously investing heavily to zero in on ‘niche’ industries like logistics. While not without risks, it’s a solid strategy to play that runs counter to the wider industry trend of publishers constantly expanding reportage to ensnare as wide an audience as possible — sometimes burning through a lot of resources and alienating people in the process. Something to keep in mind here though — first, the ‘niche’ areas the WSJ is targeting aren’t exactly of the ‘molecular physics’ or ‘animal husbandry’ variety. Logistics for example is a $4 trillion industry home to some of the biggest companies in the world; plenty of ripe marketing possibilities there. So perhaps the trick is to not only balance some degree of mass appeal and subject-level expertise, but to choose the fields you specialise in carefully.