Five prophecies for the future of content

River’s Alex Marks reflects on the growing trend towards paying for access – renting products rather than owning them – and what effect this will have on digital content in the future

Alex Marks
Alex Marks, River

I love writing about the future. It’s the one way I get to say whatever I like and you are only allowed to disagree with me in the mildest fashion. This is because you are not Doctor Who.

So, I predict that in 10 years’ time, we will be able to invite holograms of our dead relatives to dinner and converse with them as if they we really there. Don’t believe me? Then watch the first episode of the latest TV series of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and think again.

River logo

While I remain unconvinced of my own prophetic powers, there is one trend that is growing and has sort of slipped under the radar a bit. It exists and is arguably nascent but it’s worth considering the implications.

I’m not going to invent a name for it – that can be someone else’s legacy and generally I’m not a big fan of mixing words. Chillax, anyone? In fact I think most people who do this are complete ‘funts’ so I won’t be drawn on it.

It’s the tension between ownership and renting and appears to be a growing trend. Given limitless access to almost limitless varieties of limitless brands of essentially the same thing, humans are starting to go for the experience a product offers rather than the product itself. In addition, you have a western economy in broad stagnation, and in the face of diminishing global resources a heightened awareness of the importance of sustainability.

Experience is starting to trump ownership and its impact can be felt everywhere from music to automotives.

River logo
Future content will be personalised and delivered to the consumer where they want it. It will need to be new and interesting and invite interaction

Quarter-inch hole

As Theodore Levitt, the American economist so prudently put it: “People don’t want to but a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” 

There is evidence that this is happening everywhere. Although ownership remains the de facto position for many, there is a growing minority who are choosing access and some brands have been quick to respond.

Volkswagen is the latest car manufacturer to launch a car-sharing programme. Its Quicar programme will include 200 fuel-efficient VW Golf BlueMotion vehicles at 50 locations throughout Hanover in Germany. The programme will operate as a traditional carsharing programme, similar to Zipcar. And before you think that VW is just being a typical ‘green’ brand, consider that BMW among others operates DriveNow in Germany and San Francisco. Peugeot operates Mu in seven countries in Europe. Daimler operates car2go in parts of the US, Canada and Europe.

These small operations are pointing to more of a shift in long-term strategy than just a flavour of the month. Car manufacturers are recognising the potential in a market that is forecast to have 5.5 million participants by 2016 in Europe alone.

So what does this mean for another previously slow-moving behemoth: content?

‘I’ll never get rid of my record player’ we cried as CDs took over. Er, we did. I love my CD collection, yes, but how much has it grown in the last five years, really? No, we rent our music now. Our browsing is done online and our CDs remain a largely unused museum piece to impress visitors with. Books are starting to go the same way.

Let our children lead the way

River Dare mag

There’s a video on YouTube of a two-year-old girl playing with a magazine. The narrative states that to her it’s an iPad that doesn’t work. As the proud owner of a number of small children I can verify this to be true. My three-year-old does a considerable amount of his creative play on a screen and my 10-year-old took an e-reader on holiday with him. I started a Daily Mailesque rant against this progress for a brief moment then let it lie. It’s actually OK, and as someone once sang badly, ‘Our children are the future, let them lead the way’… or something like that.

So, if paying for access and relentless technological progress are the future, here are some thoughts around the future of content.

Before you ask, I figured that ‘measurement’ should be taken for granted.

1. Paper will become a premium format

Device-based content consumption will become the norm so anything created or indeed written on paper will command a higher price and be held in greater esteem by the holder. Humans still need to covet.

2. Digital content will be personalised

This has been said for years and easy to say now but with improving content managing system capabilities, publishers will deliver the content we want rather than what we never read or look at, while tempting us with something new to keep us interested. Retailers have been doing it with their stock control for years.

3. ‘Paid for’ will grow. Free won’t cease

The whole ‘free vs paid’ debate will continue. Neither will die. Neither will reign supreme. The market has been out of balance and that is what is unsustainable. There is only a finite amount of ad revenue. Ultimately, consumers will be more willing to pay for content if it is exactly the content they want. Brands and publishers alike are going to have to package their content accordingly if they are to let it generate appropriate revenues.

4. Content that does more

Should we keep creating more and more content? No, instead we will create content that does more. It won’t be enough to write an article, take a picture, post a whitepaper. Content will need to invite contribution, capture data, be portable, be shareable, allow purchase and more.

5. Even more devices

Forget the mobile, the tablet, the PSP, or even the ‘phablet’. Cloud computing and storage, ubiquitous WiFi and 4G connectivity means that ‘whatever’ becomes the new ‘wherever’. Your car, watch, glasses, fridge, oven, all become devices all with their own functionality and utility. Your shopping trolley and point-of-sale material will provide interactivity to the shopper and a wealth of data to the retailer. All become channels for content.

So major changes abound and many of us are already right in the middle of it. Makes me think about that haggard old cliché, ‘content is king’. I think we’ll need to be more specific in the future.

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