Thursday, April 7, 2011

May I have your attention?

I mentioned recently that I'm reading The Idea Writers which is a guide for advertising copywriters in the digital age but which is applicable to any kind of content creation. Case in point:

"today, as a copywriter or other brand creativity maestro, you're not just making something that will compete with other brands and other messages created by brands. You're making something to compete with every other piece of content, every other media experience that a person has during her waking hours."

Years ago I did some freelance writing for an excellent magazine editor named Robert Mendelson, who at the time was the editor of Pitt Magazine. (Today he's the editor of Carnegie Mellon Today.) Robert told me that Pitt Magazine wasn't competing with other alumni magazines. (Most people only get one, anyway.) Instead, it was competing with everything thing else that Pitt alumni had to read, everything that arrived every day in their mail box. So it better be a damn good magazine that anyone would want to read, whether or not they knew the first thing about the University of Pittsburgh. Now that I supervise the publication of the alumni magazine at Robert Morris, I've adopted that same attitude.

In other words, the competition for attention that we face as content creators didn't begin with the Internet or social media, though those things certainly intensified that competition, increased it geometrically. Each new medium threatens to steal the audience of the media that preceded it. The creatives who survive and thrive are those who refuse to be chained to any single discipline. In the 1950s, Disney was the first film studio to embrace television, because Walt Disney didn't see himself as being in the movie business; he saw himself as being in the entertainment business. Many newspapers have been flailing because they think they are in the newspaper business, and forget they are in the journalism business.

It's also worth noting that audience control over content didn't begin with the Internet -- it really began with the TV remote and the VCR. The remote control freed us from our own laziness at having to get up and walk to the TV to change the channel when we were bored with what we were watching. Not only did it impact advertisers, since we could avoid commercials, but the producers of TV programs could not longer take us for granted. They had to grab our interest and hold it if they wanted us to keep watching.

As for the VCR, it may be clumsy and primitive compared to a DVR, but remember how liberating it felt to be able to record a program when you were out, or watch one program and record another. I remember as a kid, the final episode of M*A*S*H aired the same night -- in 1983 -- as a Cub Scout banquet. The pack leaders had to promise everyone the event would end in time to get home to watch the show. Now, the only thing you have to worry about is reading a spoiler on Facebook or Twitter.

For those daunted by the jumbled and fragmented media landscape we face today as content creators, it's helpful to realize these changes are evolutionary, not necessarily revolutionary, in character. Sometimes, though, evolution takes a great leap forward. This is one of those times. 


Fran Caplan said...

Reminds me of an article that was written years ago in the Harvard Business Review noting that railroads lost out to airlines because they thought they were in the railroad business and failed to grasp they were in the transportation business. Robert Mendelson did a fabulous job with the Pitt Magazine. I loved reading it and passed it along to the elders at Pitt as an example of what and could be done. You've done a great job in that tradition and I applaud you.

Jonathan Potts said...

That's a seminal article, and I'm not the first person I'm afraid to draw the analogy to newspapers. Thanks for the compliment -- Mark Houser, Amy Joy and Val Brkich deserve the lion's share of the credit.