Search shifts power to readers

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Important change sneaks up on you. It doesn't announce itself or arrive with flashing lights and marching bands. Like a wave at the shore, it often appears like just another wave. And then it keeps growing until it sweeps you away.

The rise of search on the Internet is a tsunami. Search has changed the dynamics of media more in the past five years than they have changed in the previous 500.

This change is so significant because it transfers power from publishers to readers. Media businesses as we know them behave according to the economics of the Industrial Age: mass media for an age of mass consumption. Reaching a large audience required a large investment in production and delivery. Readers needed to turn to media companies for information and entertainment. Advertisers needed to work through media companies to reach potential buyers. This was, and to some extent still is, a good business.

But three technologies are undercutting the economies of scale in the media business: effective search; low-cost and user-generated content; and automated ad networks. These technologies transform people from passive readers to active participants in the media business.

Effective search undercuts the advantage of media brands. Readers now can find content based on its relevance, not the established presence of the publishing company. Much of the content discovered still will come from traditional publishers, but an increasing portion will come from individuals and small publishers who use newer tools including blogs and content tagging. And though many self-publishers do it for love, not money, they have learned to welcome the extra income they get from AdSense, Overture or Advertising.com.

Niche publishing won't supersede the authority of the New York Times or Washington Post for front-page news any time soon. However, it will expand the range of topics that get covered and the range of opinions that get heard.

We are moving from a one-to-many broadcasting model toward a many-to-many conversation, and therein lies the opportunity for innovative marketers: to speak to interested consumers in context by joining the conversation, without annoying them.

Google has distributed readers' attention broadly. Hundreds of thousands of small Web sites created by individuals, small companies and even marketers are building communities of people interested in the topics that they cover; readers who really want to be on that site. Big sites and big media help you achieve broad reach, but smaller, more focused sites have stronger bonds to their readers and can provide a great environment for marketers with relevant products.

Marketing in the age of mass media is about intrusion and blasting your way into the consciousness of people who aren't really interested in your offer. In this age of intent-driven media, readers approach media looking for solutions. They express their intentions by their searches and their navigation. Intelligent, helpful information from retailers and vendors can be an important part of the solutions that readers find. Marketers need to shift from selling their product to helping customers buy their product. It's a subtle but important distinction.

Publishers need to shift from building walls that separate types of content to creating interesting spaces that integrate content, commerce and community based on the readers' interests and needs.

Readers want and expect to be in control. They won't tolerate being finessed or manhandled. Readers have decided that media are changing. They didn't ask our permission because they didn't need to. As marketers and publishers, we can't stop the waves of change or even aim them somewhere else. We can only decide how we will respond to them. For innovative marketers, change creates new ways to talk with consumers.

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