A single shared obsession
The business models and ambitions of the giant – and despite their sheer size, power and visibility, often unfathomable – technology firms that stand guard at the borders of the consumer’s online experience, Google (including YouTube), Apple and Facebook, need careful scrutiny and differentiation, in order for us to understand the threats and opportunities they separately and together represent.
One thing before we look at them individually. All three of the businesses – and the same goes for their many associated products and services – are distinguished by their obsession with consumer value, consumer control, and consumer power.
The value they command in their respective market spaces, along with the significant compromises and loyalty they demand quid pro quo of their users, all sit firmly upon this revolutionary imperative.
Each of them drives their users – often compromising, sometimes even destroying previous commercial value chains in the process – to the very heart of the value bulls-eye. Before, consumers languished at the right hand of the value chain, at the disposal of product and service providers, as and when they decided to bestow their outputs on the market. Now, connected, empowered and increasingly “flattered” customers sit at the control panel of a remarkable spider’s web of influence and information. And nothing at all will ever be the same.
This relentless, dramatic shift of value, control and power, from enormous traditional business concerns over to connected consumers, sets the foundation for all of the contextual and competitive changes that content marketers are now facing in the online market.
Nevertheless, outside this powerful unifying mantra among these businesses, each of them has an entirely different vision and strategic agenda that must inform our respective approaches to them as partners, as routes to market, and, all too often, as competitors for the highly valuable, elusive attention of the online audience.
Apple is not, primarily, a consumer technology firm.
Well, of course it is, but the reasons for Apple’s remarkable ascendance to become effectively the most valuable company in the world, do not primarily lie in its ability to engineer, time and again, a world-beating ergonomic experience in devices that continue to dominate – in both sales and sheer imagination – the consumer electronics market.
Apple is, or has been to date in its growth period under the consummate marketer and brand guru, Steve Jobs RIP, a brand marketing company.
And what it markets – manifested in, but to be understood as distinct from, its family of devices and cohesive, fully-integrated vertical ecosystem – is nothing short of “your perfect digital life”. It is legendary by now that converts to Apple find it almost impossible – even when forced to do so by, for example, corporate policy – to revert to other operating systems. Why is that? It’s not just about great design.
Here’s the key insight.
Irrespective of content – and this is absolutely key to grasp: no matter what task the Apple user is performing, whatever communications they’re sharing, no matter what content they might be consuming, the Apple experience in and of itself is transformational for its tens of millions of passionate users, in terms of, for example, a sense of identity, a feeling of flow, a comfortable control, an intrinsic aesthetic pleasure, above all, a genuine and profound joy in their connected life.
Apple, in other words, exists to provide an extraordinary experiential mirror for its customers, that continually reflects back to them an idealised vision of themselves, their lives and their worlds.
This, for now, exclusive hold over so many millions of consumers’ optimal online experience, is the root of the success of Apple’s iOS/iTunes walled garden ecosystem, now boasting some 250m accounts worldwide.
It’s also the basis of their startling, rather sudden ability to call the shots to the world’s biggest entertainment firms.
And this is how they’re able to inject a highly significant dimension of extra “Apple value” into the hitherto simple experience of selecting, buying or renting, and watching a home video.
More so than perhaps any other brand – and yet with a certain appealing balance, given that the passionate user experiences an unrivalled sense of control – Apple truly owns the customer relationship.
Google is, for many people, The Web. But behind the juggernaut lies a business that is great at some things and not so great at others. For every successful Google start-up there are dozens of failures, big and small.
We need to bear this in mind in our approach to them, to avoid the knee-jerk assumption that the company is all-powerful in online matters.
This isn’t the place to get into Google’s numbers … in a sense, their sheer scale masks the strategic truth about the business.
It has, for example, more or less single-handedly gutted the traditional advertising business by taking a huge proportion of online consumer attention by the scruff of the neck, at source, by creating the killer search engine. But despite its potential to kill entire categories, this is perhaps the only area where Google’s formidable ability to both destroy and reconstruct industries and sectors has fully manifested.
A key thing to remember about its two key entities – both of which are ad-led – the web search business and YouTube, is that they are above all on-ramps to experiences of some form, portals, if you like, to discovery, to relevance and to reassurance.
This gives Google remarkable power in an online environment that is, today, hardly navigable without the appropriate maps and guides. (How often do we hunt down URL’s for sites we seek? Almost never … we either link from another document, or we search, mostly via Google.)
However, this also means that Google increasingly depends, not just as a competitor against other search engines, but far more broadly in the war for consumer attention that it fights with its two giant competitors, not just on its ability to help us find stuff at all, but – under increasing pressure – to help us find The Right Stuff.
In other words, not just search results – lists of more or less options – but the actual experiences that await consumers once they clear Google’s on-ramp and are onto the highway, are critical to the company’s strength of position going forwards.
Another way to understand this is as follows.
Google’s declared mission is, to paraphrase, to give us mastery over the world’s information. Now, we’re spoiled for information: the search results that used to delight us just for being there at all, begin to irritate us, and we begin calling for deeper, more substantial value. It is, in fact, what lies behind the search result that interests us.
So, even though Google’s search business is not intrinsically concerned with or geared towards what comes after the search (for a start, it’s not what they get paid for … more than one person has pointed out that Google doesn’t in fact find and aggregate information that’s relevant to consumers, but finds and aggregates consumers that are relevant to the brands that fund it), the company is forced into becoming much more of an experience business.
Interesting? Yes. For a number of reasons.
Hold the ticker-tape for just now, but we begin to understand, at least superficially, why the company continues to explore and invest aggressively around the edges of its search business (the company’s acquisitions in 2011 alone cost it some $40bn), and also why YouTube has suddenly begun to find content of longer form and higher quality of such interest. And the company is clearly utterly determined to get Google TV front and centre in tomorrow’s media landscape.
Let’s look at this from yet another angle. Apple and Facebook, individually and together don’t only exercise phenomenal influence over both range and quality of online experience, but are increasingly able, albeit to a degree standing on Google’s shoulders, to support consumers in finding, evaluating and sharing high quality entertainment experiences. They are, therefore, increasingly able to compete in new and quite compelling ways, on Google’s home turf of search and discovery.
Facebook is perhaps the most potentially destructive force in this case, one of the key reasons for Google’s focus on its Google+ social network, alongside its recent and controversial integration of services (read consumer data …) under one universal scheme.
If Google is, like the three other giants, playing for a dominant share of the experience pie, it needs to move rapidly and convincingly beyond vanilla search-and-result on the one hand, and LOLcats cuteness in YouTube on the other.
We can’t jump straight from here to the all-too-common “Great! They need us more than we need them!” assumption.
But we can, quite reassuringly, see a significant fit for the world’s highest quality long-form content alongside the world’s biggest information company, as it seeks to move convincingly – let’s not forget, in the face of very, very persuasive and aggressive competition from Apple and Facebook – into the broader and very competitive arena of rich, profound consumer experience.
A concern here, certainly, remains Google’s core revenue model. As long as it remains almost entirely advertiser-driven, the company has little intrinsic interest in sustaining or enhancing the value – market pricing or perceived – of our product.
We are thus in danger of being left a vehicle for another purpose altogether … a premium reward for the consumer attention that is to be sold on – still at commodity prices for now – to Google’s own customers, brands who, like Google itself, still have insufficient grasp of entertainment to be considered true long-term partners.
If Google is, for many consumers, The Web, then Facebook is what they do with it. Staying away from its current valuation and IPO (happening at the time of writing) the company pulls in by far the highest volume of quality consumer attention in the world.
This is the reason for Facebook’s truly explosive commercial success, the fascination with its valuation, but above all, its profoundly disruptive effect on the media market, including the giant incumbent, Google itself.
And the key underlying driver of all the above, that propel the business forward? Its users – 50% of whom, so now 500,000,000 – use Facebook every day remember – both create and consume Facebook’s content (if that’s still the right word for such a biblical torrent of incredibly diverse material).
It’s also essential that we appreciate that, just as with Google and Apple, consumers’ motivations are not simply to consume content. The driver of social media behaviour among connected consumers is above all self-expression. It’s our stories, first and foremost, that we tell on Facebook and the content of Big Media is sometimes, sometimes not “co-opted for this higher purpose”.
When consumers take on the role of tellers of their own stories, and the platform itself takes care of assembly, distribution and – above all – the precious feedback that Facebook delivers (its dynamic is far more about the Like and the Comments than it is about the publishing), the value of professional content of any kind, while not disappearing, is radically shifted into a new and quite unfamiliar context.
What is being shared on Facebook, therefore, is not primarily our content, or indeed anything of direct commercial relevance. It’s billions of personal narratives of consumer identity, that may or may not feature references or links to our product.
It’s also for this reason that the value exchange that has underpinned consumers’ (admittedly dwindling) willingness to consume ad spots in the context of linear media, is broken, and in the age of social, brands are obliged to retread their budgets, to take into account what’s being called “engagement”. If I’m producing what I see as compelling content for myself and my personal tribe, advertisers play – at least for now – little tangible role in its creation, promotion and distribution, and thus my willingness to tolerate – let alone appreciate – interruptive messaging is, understandably, sharply reduced.
(Impressive though they may be in isolation, when stacked against the volume and depth of consumer attention it commands, and compared to how other forms of media are valued and monetised, Facebook’s revenues at the time of writing could be seen as pitiful.)
So – perhaps more than the other two giants – Facebook’s revolutionary dynamics and its resulting extraordinary upending of culture, commerce and consumer power, represent a powerful threat to traditional media and indeed to many of the web’s huge incumbents, that must first be looked right in the eye in order to establish where and how defensive imperatives and offensive opportunities can be found, balanced and exploited.
Specifically from the home video perspective, Facebook is the least passive, richest and most vibrant online environment currently in play. As such, we need, I’d argue, to approach this entirely new continent as first and foremost a foreign territory: one with enormous riches indeed, but also with close to a billion empowered, spoiled inhabitants whose goodwill and possible custom we must negotiate for with care.
Beads and tomahawks are not enough to conquer Facebook. As with Apple and Google, its potential as a mere content distribution channel is far outweighed by the alternative – many of them actively movie-hostile – forms of consumer value on offer.
If we can grasp and align with these, appreciating that in Facebook, far more than any other media channel, the consumer truly is king, we can begin to leverage this titanic new player while still in relative infancy.
Nothing about Amazon? Ah ... That's for another day! And it's a big, big story.