The disintermediation of the media can be traced back to pre-history
Today, content can reach a million people faster and more cheaply than at any time in history. The process has been a long but definitive one. Here are a few – random – milestones from the journey.
La Cueva de las Manos, near Santa Cruz in Argentina, was painted over 10,000 years ago. They are stencils of (mainly) left hands, suggesting that the right hands were used to apply the dyes. There are also images of hunting and animal scenes. It’s not known how long it took to create these images; but at that period, the population of Argentina was probably less than 50,000 (i.e. 1% of the total world population of around 5 million1). So given the population, the lack of transport, it required at least a 1,000 years for the first million individuals to see these images.
The Bayeux Tapestry traces the history of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England in 1066. Completed around three years after the event, the cloth provides an illustrated history of the Battle of Hastings, including the English King Harold being killed by an arrow in the eye, no less. I like to think of it as the world’s first recorded infographic! But for over 600 years it was hidden away in the vault of Bayeux Cathedral, a small city in the north of France, and only displayed annually to the local congregation. It was finally ‘discovered’ in 1729 and finally put on public display. On this basis, I estimate at least 500 years elapsed before a million different people had seen the tapestry.
In 1450, the invention of moveable type – the Guttenberg Press, in particular – led to the first mass production of books. Taking one example, the so-called Guttenberg Bible: assuming that it a) consisted of 1,200 pages, b) the first Guttenberg presses could produce 25 pages per hour, c) such presses operated for 12 hours per day, d) that there was a base of 10 printing presses operating in Germany at the time, and e) that each printed Bible was read by or to 10 people. I calculated that it would have taken 100 years for the Guttenberg Bible to reach a million people.
In 1885, thanks to Mark Twain’s door to door sales technique, ex-US Union General Ulysses S. Grant’s Civil War Memoirs became a sensation selling about 350,000 copies. Assuming each copy was read by or to three people, I estimate that it required three years to reach a million different people.
Fast forward 150 years and – you’ve guessed it – the time and cost required for a piece of content to reach 100 million are negligible; provided that your following is big enough.
These shifts are exerting a huge impact on brand communications. Today’s protagonists are not politicians, governments or, even, brands; they are ordinary people. Today’s currency is no longer advertising spend or, even, ownership of conventional media; it’s relevance. Celebrities have understood this; that is why you’ll find them commenting on everything from politics to health tips. They’ve embraced this new paradigm; the more they associate with the world which their audience inhabits, the more they’ll be able to influence them.
And brands which appreciate this logic will enjoy the same benefits.
In the 1990s when I started my career, 90% of the coverage was generated by vendor-initiated announcements; by, about, for and from them. From the likes of Vehicle Upholstery Weekly to Knitters’ Gazette, the trade and specialist media were thriving. Who remembers the weighty and ubiquitous BRAD media directory listing such esoteric publications? Any product or corporate announcement could find a home and coverage, somewhere. Gradually, these publications folded and vendor-led coverage became harder to secure. Push PR was increasingly replaced by Pull PR; about, from, by and for the world – an opportunity opened for brands to be relevant to other people’s conversations. It wasn’t about the brand, product or service anymore; it was about their consumers.
The reality is that most consumers don’t talk about light fittings, factor 3 levels of encryption, bank accounts, payment systems, SIM cards, Google Chrome, car tyres, or whatever else your client is selling. And this has proved very, very difficult for brands – and brand managers – to appreciate. People talk about relationships, holidays, cricket, who they like and work with and who they don’t.
If we can find out what our client’s consumers care about, and make their brands relevant to the same, we’ll be included in their conversations. And here is the opportunity. In reality, we are not very good at it; as the world moves towards PULL PR, we (and the rest of the industry) have been slow to exploit the opportunity. If brands are indeed resigned to (or ready to embrace) life as ‘extras’ in other people’s stories, they and their PR agencies are going to have to adapt fast to a new set of rules.
Brands (and PR firms) who are best able to assess and respond to changing situations and how they relate to their particular propositions will stand to inherit the earth, at least in editorial terms. News stories that emanate in traditional media and are then extended across digital in the form of conversation and sharable, participative content, today, represent conventional propagation –‘traditional-to-social’. However, it is the inverse of this process which is really driving the accelerated news cycle; stories which commence on social and are then legitimised across traditional media.
In the future, as with financial or commodity trading, news brokers will use a combination of theory and instinct to spot and exploit arbitrage; both activities will be complemented by technology – big data, analytics, research etc. – but human insight and judgement will remain fundamental.