The adventures of an analog engineer and digital storyteller who studies emerging networks and their impact on the great game of business.

Last Wednesday, I presented “Audience is an Asset” to a group of seasoned marketing, public relations, and advertising professionals. Everybody understood it, but not everybody liked it. The room split into two groups: those willing to accept change and those preferring to fight it.

The experience was nothing new to me. Anyone who’s read this blog has heard my countless stories about the Traditionals. But this time it was different–I had three friends in the audience. Each approached me separately explaining how interesting it was to see their colleagues resisting so hard against new media. One even suggested that the naysayers needed an “intervention.”

I liked the idea, and came up with the following post. If I can save just one traditional with it, the post will have been worth it.

Once Upon a Time…

…marketing, public relations, and advertising professionals thrived due to the success of mass media. Marketing and advertising have always coveted mass media’s vast audiences. Public relations professionals have always looked reverently toward journalists, considering them as the most trusted members of the communications industry. These fundamental beliefs formed the cornerstones of their respective business models. As long as mass media succeeded, the cottage industries of marketing, PR, and advertising would succeed as well.

Mass Media Takes a Hit

Mass media sells two things: trust (to content consumers) and attention (to advertisers.) Although content consumers were never willing to pay for the fully-burdened cost of trust, advertisers were willing to pay a premium for access to them, thus a successful business model was born. Mass media sold subsidized trust to audiences, advertisers paid a premium for the attention of those audiences, and marketers and PR folks delivered their messages through trusted sources.

Everything worked well while the business barrier-to-entry remained high. As long as access to mass audiences required printing presses, transmitters,  radio towers, studios, satellite vans, etc., the business model worked fine. But that’s when all hell broke loose.

Publishing platforms like blogs, podcasts, online video, and Facebook became accessible to the masses. Collaboration technologies such as wikis and user forums allowed mass collaboration. Twitter allowed people to communicate in real-time while location-based services such as Foursquare allowed proprietors to match one’s physical physical location with location-based needs. And lastly, Google allowed anyone searching for this content to find it instantly.

And thus began a downward spiral. Mass media lost audience (attention inventory) to a strange new competitor: anyone who uses these new publishing technologies. Think about it. For every minute that I spend reading a blog, visiting my daughter’s Facebook page, or listening to my favorite indie podcast, that’s one less minute of my attention that mass media can sell to an advertiser.

Something’s Gotta Give

Mass media companies are in the business of selling trust and attention. With trust waning and attention fragmenting, they’ve started to panic.

For example, last December, Rupert Murdoch wrote a piece in the WSJ called Journalism and Freedom. In it, he said:

From the beginning, newspapers have prospered for one reason: the trust that comes from representing their readers’ interests and giving them the news that’s important to them.

He continues…

A business model that relies primarily on online advertising cannot sustain newspapers over the long term.

And then he wraps up…

Quality content is not free. In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.


Mr. Murdoch understands that he sells trust and that attention can no longer subsidize its heavy cost. But rather than trying to realign the cost of trust, he wants to start selling something new? He wants to sell information? Really? We’ve NEVER paid for information distributed by mass media; we’ve only paid for subsidized trust. So why should we start now?

Snap Out of It!

Successful marketing, public relations and advertising agencies have ridden on the coat-tails of a monopolistic business model for decades. Unfortunately, the gravy train has left the station. The mass media has lost its way and until they find their new model, the downstream cottage industries of marketing, PR, and advertising are likely to suffer.

Therefore, the sooner communications professionals realize that the glory days of mass media are over, the sooner they can can start developing the skills necessary to ween themselves off of a broken business model. One way to do that is to help customers build their own audiences, rather than renting them from someone else.

Filed under: Social Media


Absolutely on the money in terms of explaining the macro forces affecting the distribution and consumption of information and opinion.

However, there is still a “cost” of seeking out the wealth of internet information that is available in terms of search time, dead end web surfing, and google frustration. Also there is a convenience factor in having a tangible piece of paper (newspaper, magazine, book, etc) that is not subject to the vagaries of cyberspace. Nonetheless, the trend is clear especially for a younger generation not so wedded to old habits as baby boomers and their 30 something kids.

Mike Natelson
October 8, 2010

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