Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at email@example.com, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
YouTube announced this week that, in digging out from the Adpocalypse, it would hire 10,000 people to monitor all the problematic content that we humans keep posting there. Earlier this year, after Facebook’s own content debacles, it said it would hire 4,000 additional human content cops.
Both announcements are reminders that as more of our lives are powered by artificial intelligence and digital assistants and nifty algorithms that serve up just the entertainment and news and services that we think we want, we’re still going to need real people.
And I suspect the need for human engagement will only increase for years to come, and not just for the Duopolists. Everyone else is trying to figure out how to thrive in a Facebook/Google universe. Given the direction many publishers and creators are headed, it looks like thriving online also will depend on thriving more offline.
All of this brings to mind a book that came out almost exactly 30 years ago, “Megatrends: Ten New Directions Transforming Our Lives,” by futurist John Naisbitt.
Among the megatrends Naisbitt identified was one he called “High Tech, High Touch” (11 years later, he would write another book with that title). The premise was simple: as we get more technologically sophisticated and digitally immersed, we will hunger ever more for human-centered and “high touch” experiences, as a sort of counterbalance. Sure enough, even in the world of online video, the thirst for human connection to creators beyond the digital is driving more and more profit.
Last Friday, I moderated a Silicon Beach Fest panel on video distribution and monetization, featuring top executives from Twitch.TV, Jukin Media, Studio 71, Machinima, Fullscreen, Ripple, and One World Studios, as well as a Greenberg Glusker lawyer. One consistent theme: you have to go beyond the screen to get the green.
“Live programming and event-based programming are going to be important parts of our strategy for next year in part because how do you cut above the noise” of all the content out there, said Jason Dimburg, Machinima’s VP of Programming and Talent.
Javon Frazier, Studio 71’s EVP of business development said the talent repped by his company is focusing on “building above and beyond the (video-distribution) platforms. (Creators) have a direct connection to their fans. Their fans want more of them and want to interact in creative ways.”
For instance, Studio 71 worked with a toy-focused creator (aka Guava Juice) to sell a quarterly subscription box of curated toys. In receiving the box, it created a whole new subgenre of content, with fan unboxing videos, videos of them posing with an action figure of the creator and more. Then the creator dressed as Santa Claus and surprised three fans by visiting their homes.
“There’s a video where the kid opens the door and it’s his favorite creator in the world and the kid passes out,” Frazier said. “It’s not just watching a creator on YouTube. You actually have a chance to have a connection with this person.”
For major video publishers trying to make their way in and around Google and Facebook, that means not only distributing video everywhere they can find a platform that will pay. It also means coming up with lots of ways to get their stars in front of paying fans in non-digital ways. That can include be best-selling books and lines of merchandise from makeup to clothing to collectibles.
Studio 71 also did a Kickstarter campaign for one of its bigger stars (aka Cyanide & Happiness), raising $3.2 million in 30 days from 65,000 people, Frazier said. The resulting mailing list itself became an invaluable resource.
“You’ve now got a very powerful email list, and that’s yours regardless of whatever platform is out there,” Frazier said. Studio 71 triangulated that mailing list with other information it had about its biggest fans to more effectively sell the star’s merchandise through Amazon and Target.
Selling merchandise has been part of the monetization playbook for a while now, but it’s a more nuanced option than you might think, said Fullscreen’s VP of Talent Julie Kennedy.
For instance, sometimes the better approach can be a limited run of goods tied to a specific anniversary or event. The next step is to create an in-person happening around the limited-edition goods. One Fullscreen creator did a pop-up shop on a fashionable stretch of L.A.’s Melrose Avenue, selling a limited run of 10,000 pieces of merchandise. Fan turnout was so big it shut down the street.
Companies as diverse as Musical.ly, Medium, and Twitch have all created ways for fans to not only interact (sometimes live) with creators, but also give them money during online programming. Jane Weedon, a director of business development for Twitch’s non-gamer content initiatives, called it, “creating community viewing experiences from social video.
Imagine if I said to somebody, ‘Would you like to watch Antiques Road Show on PBS?’” Weedon said. “They’d say, “Hmmm, maybe.’ But if you said, ‘Would you watch Antiques Road Show in a bar with a bunch of strangers where everybody’s laughing and everybody’s competing and everyone’s interacting with the content, and you make some new friends because you realize they’re interested in the same things that you’ve (are)? And then you come back week after week and do that thing.’ That’s really the essence of what we’re trying to do at Twitch, having people enjoy the experiences of creating a fan community around video together.”
Twitch was approached by a pro wrestling site called Wrestle Circus, then realized it should create an entire space online and off that is focused on pro wrestling as programmed by multiple outlets. Now Twitch is trying to make that pro wrestling experience will be even more interactive, potentially allowing fans to choose a match’s next move.
The shift to smarter, data-powered, in-person experiences is transforming areas such as retail too. Amazon’s e-commerce operations are hammering traditional retail (it reported nearly $44 billion in sales last quarter). But even as lots of traditional department stores and retail chains are closing, Amazon has been opening bookstores and buying the Whole Foods grocery chain.
Of course, we shouldn’t worry too much about virtually focused Google and Facebook, even though all this hiring of humans will hurt their profits. As it is, media buyer GroupM this week said the two companies should scoop up 84% of global spending for online advertising. Even with a few thousand more hall monitors on their staffs, Google and Facebook will be fine.
Meanwhile, the rest of us get to spend more time connecting offline with those we may first discover online. Heaven help us all if Google and Facebook figure out how to insert themselves into that interaction too.