Content is King

Leveraging digital content requires new thinking.

The digital media revolution often seems to be centered on the badly managed migration of traditional entertainment to the Net. Theres plenty of drama in the music and video wars, but thats not where the enterprise opportunity lies. The same technologies can create new customer relationships, develop new supply chain alliances, and use cost-effective computing and networking tools to give enterprise offerings new presence at the points where they can have the most effect.

At the ContentWorld conference earlier this month in Los Angeles, I saw several perspectives on new medias opportunities. The least compelling were those that followed the "horseless carriage" model: taking a familiar experience and trying to transplant it into a different environment. What got my attention, and what should engage yours as well, were approaches that break down current retail experiences and supply chain interactions into their key components and look for ways to either eliminate friction or introduce new function.

When I talk about a horseless- carriage model, Im thinking of early auto- mobiles that shared stylistic flourishes with the horse-drawn wagons of the time. It took a while to develop a new idea of what a car should look like, with new form flowing from new function: Automobiles needed windshields to protect a drivers eyes from bugs, not mud shields to protect riders from dirt thrown up by hooves.

In the same way, Ive seen elaborate concepts for virtual movie theaters that have virtual lobbies with virtual ice cream sellers or virtual town squares with virtual hangouts populated by virtual party goers. These novelties will be short-lived. Entertainment is an experience, not a product, and people quickly become impatient with irrelevant decoration. When I want to listen to music, why would I want to waste bandwidth on an animation of a spinning CD surrounded by animations of vibrating speakers, as I saw in one of the ContentWorld demos?

Information consumes attention, as Release 1.0 tech newsletter writer Esther Dyson reminds us, and I want to guard the resource of my attention more zealously than any other. Its something that once spent, I can never replace.

But in retail spaces, digital media can dramatically expand the options available for delivering value to customers. Any customer who walks in the door has made an investment in getting there. The customers mere presence says things about qualification and readiness to buy any number of related products and services. We should be building on that level of interest to make the visit more valuable to the customer, without making it any more expensive—in fact, making it less so—for the venue.

For example, observed IBM Vice President for Digital Media Warren Hart when we spoke after his ContentWorld keynote speech, bank executives in Japan have realized that a branch is more than a place where customers come to get cash. Its a valuable point of contact with consumers who are highly likely, merely by virtue of having active bank accounts, to be prospects for insurance, loans and other financial services.

Its proving highly cost-effective, said Hart, to put plasma displays in bank branch lobby kiosks that offer, not repurposed TV commercials, but "net new content," as Hart put it: informative material that can generate interest in any number of products and services, not limited to those that are offered by the bank. The customer getting a home loan, after all, is almost by definition a prospect for new furniture or home improvement supplies. Why not let a home loan applicant know about sales at the local department stores—especially if the stores will share the cost of the system?

Hart also observed that traditional retailers are using advanced media tools to show customers, for example, what a sofa will look like in any of several thousand possible fabrics or how various fabrics and paint colors will look in their rooms. Texture mapping and other techniques, developed for tasks such as wrapping a realistic-looking dinosaur skin around a computer-animated T. rex, move readily to the floor of a furniture store.

"Plan, create, manage, distribute and transact," said Hart. "Those are key verbs." Bear them in mind, and youll transform digital media from mere eye candy to a smorgasbord of strategic value.

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Technology Editor Peter Coffee can be contacted at [email protected]