Two counter culture youth icons. One has 100m members. The other 82m viewers. The first is transforming the online promotion of music, and just got a fat $900m revenue guarantee from Google. The other established video as the ultimate vehicle for music promotion, and even after a quarter century, continues to seduce big brand advertisers. In the showdown between MySpace and MTV, its tempting to call the round on the numbers. But there is a more interesting comparison to be made.
Both MySpace and MTV got their start in music and ended up in very different places. In the early days MTV almost exclusively played music videos. Now, in between urban reality programming, adult cartoons and lifestyle features you would be hard pressed to find one. Similarly for MySpace. Bands and fans formed the majority of the early fare. Now MySpace is a platform for anyone with something to say about anything at all. But strangely enough, both brands take exactly the same approach to selling advertising. We represent the MTV/MySpace generation - they say.
And they do. At least for now. After all, the one thing harder than being cool is staying that way. Dig up an early eighties photo of MTV's first VJs, and you would be forgiven for stifling a shudder. Like a grown-up's idea of what might be hip - the first generation of screen talent are terminally at odds with the edgy personalities and programming that define the MTV brand today. Things change. The same may ultimately be said of MySpace. With a cadre of the world's early adopter teens signed up and 'friending' each other to death, the MySpace brand currently has the zeitgeist pulse under its finger. But what happens in five years, when the teens become twenty somethings, and god forbid, their parents start using the network for dating?
But that's the magic and mayhem of social networks - best summed up as the difference between products and platforms. Media companies have traditionally been geared up to produce the former. Newspapers, DVDs, TV shows, or channel brands like Discovery, ESPN or MTV. If you have enough talented producers, programmers and marketers, you can move with the times with engaging, high rating fare. If not, the times move past you. Platforms are radically different. You play host, not dictator. That means being prepared to deal with the zany, illegal and inappropriate as well as all the stuff you secretly hoped that people would contribute. Media companies, meet your audience.
If you think that's scary, imagine how advertisers feel. Sure there are clever algorithms that match advertising with on page text references, but its a brave marketing custodian who lets their billion dollar brand casually hang out in a world where content runs free. That's why despite the fact that MySpace, YouTube, and the Web2.0 bratpack are getting so much media hype at the moment, their 25 year old sibling still has one big advantage - context. MTV might have lost some of its cutting edge with their audience, but at least brand marketers know what they are getting in for. Ironically, its no so much about controlling material - as have some degree of confidence about the environment in which an ad might appear. Call it editorial coherence if you will.
The best example of editorial coherence at work is not television but magazines. I don't mean magazines as a glossy product - but the magazine business model of identifying a targeted audience and uniting focused editorial, specific advertisers and interested readers in an integrated community. Coherence is not the same as control. Its about having a defined vector that everyone who contributes, reads or advertisers implicitly accepts. Of course, these days the most authentic way of achieving that goal is not to hire a fascist editor, but to turn moderation over to the community. Consider Slashdot - the infamous technology media community. Stories and comments were entirely moderated, rated and ranked by readers. Literally through the act of consumption, the product became more useful for everyone.
One way that content specialisation will be advanced is through fragmentation of existing social networks. Part of this is simply users getting sick of being bothered by people they don't want to hang out with. Already on MySpace you will notice many profiles being locked to private, or people setting their ages at 14 to avoid turning up in general searches. However the other powerful driver of fragmentation will be the greater utility users will derive from being part of a more focused network where the content and community more closely match their interests. Over the next eighteen months, don't be surprised if a number of brands, egged on by eager agencies, try their hand at creating their own micro networks. With varying degrees of success. Case in point is the invitation only soccer community created by Nike and Google.
Don't get me wrong. No one is going to want register repetitively to individual social networks, and go to the trouble of uploading their photos, videos and personalised pages a thousand times. Sites like MySpace may end up abstracting into a basic container for your personal information and connections, and allow consumers to emigrate to other more targeted networks using their original profile as a kind of tourist visa. These targeted networks themselves may grow out of the groups functionality that exist on many community sites at the moment.
Unlike paid search, Brand advertising has always been at least three fifths black magic. You can draw as many brand pyramids as you like, but at some point you have to simply trust your overpaid marketing director, overworked creative, and oversold host medium. Google's great invention over the last few years was putting confidence back into the response marketing game. Now the mission for emerging media platforms is creating appropriate promotional environments for brand advertisers similar to the reliable media products they once and continue to utilise.
Rewrite your marketing mantras. Forget content. Context is king.