Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Media execs see user generated content as threat

A study released this week by Accenture indicates that media entertainment executives see user generated material as one of the biggest threats to traditional media.

57% of those who responded to the poll said user generated material as one of the top three challenges facing their industry. That content includes videos, podcasts, blogs, and photography.

Historically there have been a few forms of communication: interpersonal, small group, and mass media. Mass media basically means what it sounds like -- communication distributed to a wide audience. The message is defined to some extent by the medium, be it print, broadcast, or now the internet.

In the past, one of the defining characteristics of mass media was the high barriers to entry. If you wanted to disseminate your message to a large audience you needed access to a printing press or broadcast tower. The high costs and heavy regulation kept most people out of the game.

The internet has broken down many of those barriers. When the web was new, people talked about how having a personal homepage would be a way to communicate with the world. The truth is only a handful of people were ever likely to visit your homepage, and they were probably related to you. Odds are that this is also true of your personal blog today unless you've become recognized as an expert on one topic or another or you've done quite a bit of self-promotion.

But something interesting has happened in the last few years. New companies have arisen that have helped internet users find some of the best and most interesting content online. YouTube does more than give people a forum for uploading silly videos. It lets people find the best silly and serious videos easily. Digg, Netscape, Reddit, Newsvine Stumbleupon, and similar sites let users find news that matters most to those who share their interests.

And all of these services are based on the premise of linking outward. Millions of people visit YouTube, Digg, and other sites every day, bringing in plenty of money. But most of the content they want to see does not belong to these sites. YouTube hosts video, but Digg doesn't even do that. It just provides a forum for discussion and links to external information.

So here's the thing. Yes, user-generated content like blogs, videos, podcasts and the like do pose a threat to traditional media. We don't have just three choices on our television dial anymore, and we don't have to visit the New York Times website for news online. But that's not to say that the major media companies can't benefit from these new technologies -- the same way new media companies are doing.

Create a space for users to share content on your site. Create a space where it's just as safe to link out as to link inward. Give people a reason to spend time on your website. And create genuinely engaging content that people want to access. That way you'll be getting plenty of links back to your material. If you don't want people uploading your video clips to YouTube without permission, fine. Create your own YouTube channel and upload selected clips yourself.

The Accenture study does indicate that 70% of the media executives studied say they do expect to make money off of user-generated content within three years. But that's not something that's going to happen overnight. They'll need to embrace the changing media dynamic today.

From a news perspective, there are many ways mainstream news sources could be using user generated content. We saw a good example this week, with news outlets relying on cellphone video and blog postings by Virginia Tech students. This isn't a case of the amateur replacing the professional. We still rely on journalists to process massive amounts of information and summarize and analyze it for us. But where citizen reporters are willing to step up and help tell the story they become much more than interview subjects, they become co-producers of the story.
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