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4/16/2007
03:32 PM
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Web 2.0 Expo: Media Companies Confront Mortality

Panelists offer troubling news to traditional media companies about the future of the online landscape.

Representatives of traditional media companies who came to the Web 2.0 Expo 2007 hoping to hear how their companies fit into the evolving online landscape learned little that offered comfort at the Media 2.0 conference session led by Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li.

Apart from the acknowledgment that Google hadn't quite extended its dominance of search advertising into brand promotion -- though Google's agreement to acquire DoubleClick will change that -- the message for old-style media magnates was more or less change or die.

"Maybe mass media was just a temporary phenomenon," mused Rich Skrenta, co-founder and CEO of news aggregator Topix, noting that mass media arose as a consequence of controlled distribution and captive consumer attention. Today, of course, getting one's message out, or film or song, for that matter, doesn't require approval from distribution channel gatekeepers. And that's profoundly troubling to those who thrived under that model.

It's not hard to understand why panelists make pronouncements such as, "The mobile internet is going to put the final nail into print media," as Ted Shelton, founder and CEO of personal news aggregation site The Personal Bee, put it.

"Consumers have scarce attention and abundant choices," came a question and lament from a member of the audience who wanted to know how advertising would work in the new world order.

The advice offered by panelists was to be early to market and unique as a startup. And for established companies, the recommended strategy was to get past anger and denial, embrace slowness as a large company, and become part of Web 2.0 through acquisitions.

Of course that strategy -- legitimate despite the obvious element of wish fulfillment coming from a panel full of poorly capitalized Web startups -- brings with it the risk of smothering the acquired company. Shelton likened the situation to a "3-year-old getting a new hamster and loving it so much she squeezes it to death."

So what's a multimillion dollar media company to do? Give up on creating branded content and become a content aggregator, suggested Shelton, who, like his fellow panelists, represented content aggregation companies.

That didn't sit too well with the media executive whose question had prompted that response. Rejecting the idea, he countered, "We have a 70% type-in ratio," a reference to the fact that most visitors to his company's Web site typed the company's brand name into the browser address bar directly.

The question is how long major media brands can continue to drive such behavior in the absence of consumer attention. It's a worry that has companies like Microsoft looking for solutions, as can be seen from the company's recent patent application for "network-branded recorded programs," which describes a way to let consumers search for recorded video content by brand.

Whether such initiatives will counter the erosion of brand power as brand-agnostic aggregators capture more and more eyeballs remains to be seen. The one certainty for media companies at this point is that doing nothing is not an option.

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