Written for Thinking Aloud, an Indian publication about all thinks digital and mobile.
I once had the pleasure to be in a lecture with Vint Cerf at the podium in Sydney. He was fascinating with his observations and predictions about the Internet. But there was one comment that stuck with me: the Internet was created as a place without borders and this was deliberate.The people behind the creation of the Internet knew that the only limitation to the information shared between people is the networks they are connected to. Even the HyperText Markup Language (HTML), arguably one of the most important steps towards the set up of the World Wide Web (WWW) was written around the idea of linking people’s content. Sure the motivation at the time may have been to share research documents, but the fundamental idea was the set up of anchors between nodes (i.e. links between pages).Since then, there have been more than a trillion unique URLs created (source: Google 2008). Streams of content (video, text, images, etc) are created on a daily basis from millions of sources today. The web is growing at a rapid pace. And with new platforms, duplicating this content is easy. Sure there is quality and unique content opposed to recycled garbage or just garbage but remember, most content on the Internet is free.As aforementioned this was planned from the very beginning, but the trend is most visible now given the technologies that allow it. At a time when every one is trying to enslave social media, make their website, video and content ‘viral’, a glaring theme has emerged.You cannot control what happens to the content that you create on the Internet. Unlike traditional media, there is the ability for Internet users to view, copy, share, discuss and criticize other people’s content. All of this, as we know it, happens at lightening speed.In fact, the absolute rise of websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Wordpress, Reddit and Digg is based on the premise of users being able to link to, view, discuss and share other people’s content.There are different types of content, but for all of this content there is one thing true. This content has two parts to it – publishing and distribution. Over time with more publishing of content, services that help us search and consume this content emerge. That consumption involves distribution and creation of more content related to the original content (e.g. viewing a Youtube video, sharing that on Twitter, and then your followers on Twitter comment about it).With so much content being published and distributed every second, the value of this content comes into question. There are visible facets that make it clear that content, while king in many aspects, is easily devalued online.Take movies and music for example. Even for the honest user who sees value in buying songs online, is able to do it for as low as 99 US Cents. This is very different to the physical album approach where albums and record titles usually guaranteed (a lot more than it does today) the artist and the producers at least $10USD per album. This is in addition to the pirated content download, which anecdotally, far outweighs legal downloads in most countries. Clearly, even the online sales strategy around songs as opposed to albums, while innovative and a step in the right direction has not been the absolute solution that the music industry has been dying for.Another example is news websites. One of the biggest discussion points on the Internet today is how to monetise traditional media online. In fact, as I write this, some of the biggest players on the Internet including Google and Apple are trying to make a deal with publishers to get them to move away from their old way ofthinking. Online advertising rates are not lucrative enough for some of these media houses compared to the offline rates they are able to attract. But with increased competition online and reduced readership for offline media, they are struggling. Creating content is not the main challenge anymore for readership retention for such media houses. A user online is able to access the same information from multiple sources using search engines.In reality content has become a commodity with largely no real value by itself. The little value content may have is either at valuation by the user willing to pay for it (online songs, movies) or in aggregate (premium price for quality news websites).All hope is not lost. Where content is a commodity, there is another emerging trend. User experience is starting to play the most critical role in the online world today. The Internet is now a platform for users to interact within themselves as well as interact with your tool, platform or the said media house. That type of experience is now becoming critical.Interaction and engagement should not be taken lightly. Your website and online presence need to take into account why people are going to come back to your website. What are these users going to go away with and want to come back for. Your core value and proposition isn’t simply the content you offer any more.The said experiences can be visual, communal, interactive (e.g. games) or personal. In almost all these experiences, the content is one of many factors but certainly not the only factor. For example, more often that not if your website design is an eye sore, your user will close your website in a few seconds without bothering to go through the text there.Today, with the presence of content aggregators, the same content is shared and offered by a number of providers in different forms.Online websites and social media allow users to create, play, read and ignore content at their own will. This speaks to the obvious visible opportunity. The way a user builds or becomes part of online communities, engages with websites in that realm and most importantly sees the value in their online experience becomes the core of what the user will come back for.Competition and positive reinforcement is one such way to build a quality experience. Online experiences that see competitions not in the traditional sense but in a subtle ways are winning. This competition can be created through reputation scores on websites, number of friends/connections you are associated with or simply having the coolest “profile” online. At the end of the day, wherever possible, there are no “losers” in such scenarios and hence where there is positive reinforcement, they form a positive experience about their time at a website.Of course, these experiences have to be innovative and build a thread of importance and connection for the user who visits your website. After this challenge is addressed, you can think about monetisation and transactions.This trend is almost constant in the Silicon Valley backed startups these days. Facebook and Twitter are classic examples of websites that spent more time raising money to get their websites and the experience right than to monetise them from the word go. Their investors clearly agree with this approach. This does not have to be true for everyone, but it does bring out the point about the importance of the experience of your end user.Existing online giants are also looking at the online experience of their users very closely, albeit differently in some cases.Yahoo! is using its vast pool of resources to focus on ‘behavioural targeting’ to display ‘relevant’ advertisements for a specific user. The experience, as you will note here, is in the advertisements tailored for the end user. The advertising is no longer simply limited to the content itself but how a user has navigated the website to see the ad that is relevant to that user. This brings appreciation of ads amongst users as well as a higher dollar return per ad shown from a client.Google has a slightly different approach to this. It is spending millions of dollars on Chrome (Browser and Operating System) and Mobile. This is to customise the user’s experience online, regardless of the medium where they access and view content. Again, the idea is to make their users happy and encourage them to ‘search’ their content more leading greater search revenue for the organisation.Vint Cerf in the same aforementioned lecture said that the Internet is naturally evolving at a rapid pace. Note the word naturally – not in versions 1.0, 2.0 and so on. I agree with him, but at the same time I used 3.0 in the title to point out this that trend will stay with the web for the next cycle of this natural Internet evolution.Focusing on what user’s come to on your website is well and good. But remember, most people and organisations who are online and successfully making money now have a reasonable understanding of this. They realise, sometimes inadvertently, that in addition to the quality of their content, at the end of the day how they keep their users there is what is most critical to their online success.‘Disruptive technology’ is a phrase I hear frequently used in the Indian digital and software space. No doubt, if someone puts their mind to it, various disruptive approaches, ones already emerged and ones yet to follow will allow us all to better leverage the value of our content.