Can Hulu Come in the Open Skies?

by Rakesh Raman 

While these new hybrid services – Web-on-TV, TV-on-Web, Radio-on-Web, etc. – are proliferating, they’re giving a new definition to the Internet. In fact, the fundamental nature of the Internet that allows it to be ubiquitous, defying all geographical demarcations, is being challenged.  

Take Hulu.com, for example. Hulu is an online video service that offers TV shows and movies at Hulu.com. It was founded in 2007 by NBC Universal and News Corp.

When you try to access it from, say, New Delhi, India (I live here), it only shows you its homepage, and then displays a regret message like this:

Sorry, currently our video library can only be streamed from within the United States.

Hulu is committed to making its content available worldwide. To do so, we must work through a number of legal and business issues, including obtaining international streaming rights. Know that we are working to make this happen and will continue to do so. Given the international background of the Hulu team, we have both a professional and personal interest in bringing Hulu to a global audience.

If you’d like, please leave us your email address and the region in which you live, and we will email you when our videos are available in your area.

Another example: It calls itself Pandora Internet Radio. But when you try it on the Internet – from, say, India – it won’t sing, saying:

Dear Pandora Visitor,

We are deeply, deeply sorry to say that due to licensing constraints, we can no longer allow access to Pandora for listeners located outside of the U.S. We will continue to work diligently to realize the vision of a truly global Pandora, but for the time being we are required to restrict its use. We are very sad to have to do this, but there is no other alternative. 

This is, in fact, another type of censorship that restricts content availability across the Internet space. Countries like China, North Korea, Iran, and about a dozen more – labeled as Enemies of the Internet – don’t allow free Internet use because of their closed cultures and political systems. And most ban unlawful content that can instigate anti-national or subversive activities in those nations. 

However, countries like India and U.S.A. are among the biggest democracies, which are supposed to show respect for free expression and speech. And online services like Hulu and Pandora would carry only entertainment content that can be consumed by all. Then why should they be shackled? 

Internet is Internet. There’s nothing like local Internet. So any online information service on the Internet should be freely available everywhere. If it’s available in a local area only, then it’s not based on Internet. Then it’s being delivered on a dedicated network, which can’t be termed as Internet.

Though proxy websites and other means are there to access banned and close-door websites and bypass such restrictions. But there’s no point using Internet like a thief.

So, will the proponents of open and free cyber space pitch in to help keep Internet qualities intact, and enable services like Hulu and Pandora to fly in the open skies?

Rakesh Raman is the managing editor of My Techbox Online.

This article first appeared in My Techbox Online, at http://www.mytechboxonline.com/mtodcon/dcon-rrhulu-12.html

 Can social networks make money?

by Rakesh Raman

When they’re labeled as “social,” why do you want social networks to turn commercial? But marketers will leave no stone unturned to milk every Internet surfer who enters a social network—even inadvertently. But success is miles away. Why? Because the online social networking properties don’t have any underlying business model.

Today, the Big 2—MySpace and Facebook—together have over 100 million global users, but their ad revenues are pathetically low. Web market researcher eMarketer estimates that US advertisers will spend $755 million on MySpace and $265 million on Facebook this year. Dozens of other social networks in the world will get only tiny slivers. Even in the entire US market that holds maximum potential, social network ad spending is expected to stay low and eMarketer estimates that it would reach $2.6 billion by 2012 from this year’s projection of $1.4 billion.

True, the overall online ad market itself is too sluggish—just $30 billion or 6% of the global ad spending. But social networks that could succeed in quickly attracting millions of consumers have so far failed to translate online population to profits. So their share in the online ad business is just 4%, assuming that they’re earning a little over $1 billion at present.

Why this drought? Mainly because marketers thought that ad revenues will be directly proportional to the number of eyeballs. That may be true in certain consumer categories, but not for gullible youngsters on whom most social hangouts are dependent. But either by choice or under some compulsion, marketers have been ignoring consumers’ behavior while selling ads on social networks.

When these consumers visit social networking sites, they’re least interested in displayed ads. They’re basically part of online social utilities because they’re offered free. And as they want to be quickly in touch with their remote counterparts, they just don’t want to be distracted by any kind of ads. Plus, most of them are not logging in regularly; they’re inactive. The active ones keep hopping from webpage to webpage, without caring for advertisers’ messages. Clearly, if social networks are about such a chaotic scramble, number of members with them can’t be the right indication to judge a site’s popularity.

As marketers have been turning a blind eye to these factors, the fiscal results are lackluster. But now commercial pressures are forcing vendors to transform and refurbish these virtual networks to face the harsh market reality. Traditional sites are fast adopting new tech platforms to chase consumers with ads. Thus starts the Social Networking 2.0 era.

Mobile social networks are among the emerging trends. Nielsen Mobile, says that the UK leads Europe in mobile social networking. Its findings reveal that in the UK, nearly 810,000 mobile subscribers (or 1.7% of all mobile subscribers in the country) visited social networking websites every month on their mobile phones in the first quarter of 2008. That reach percentage was twice as high as it was in other major European markets—though similar to the US, where 1.6% of all mobile subscribers (4.1 million in all) accessed social networks with their phones in December 2007.

Obviously, mobile players are aggressive. Nimbuzz, a mobile communications company, has started offering an application to provide mobile users in the UK with free calls, chat, etc. Covering 23 social networks, including Facebook and MySpace, the solution is for free mobile VoIP calling, conference calling, instant messaging, chat and group chat. Likewise, targeting European customers, T-Mobile and Nokia have recently decided to promote new Internet services and personal social communities on mobile devices.

These efforts aim to extract some bucks from financially dormant social networks, which are otherwise facing existential crisis. Will marketers succeed?

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at
http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Can-social-networks-make-money/312841/0

Voices in the virtual world

by Rakesh Raman

Blogs, short for “web log”, are best defined in a non-geeky way. After all, blogs are about you and me, and other voices of free expression. Blogs have turned the web from a “read only” to “read and write” experience for the people, of the people, and by the people. And these people number in the millions. “Mushrooming” is an understatement for the proliferation of blogs. They’re multiplying at a rate that will put the speed of light to shame.

Today, there are dozens of free blog-hosting sites. Then there are hundreds of thousands of corporate, media and general organisational sites with their own blogs. No wonder, the ratio of websites to blogs is at least 1:2. By this estimate, there should be around 300 million active and inactive blogs—created by professionals and amateurs alike. And they carry millions of posts written every day on all conceivable topics: love, life, food, friends, travel, technology, you name it.

One of the main objectives of blogs is to meet the increasing information demand through user generated content (UGC), which is what powers the current Web 2.0 era. Social networking and content-sharing sites like Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, and YouTube follow UGC principles. Even traditional media sites have been unable to resist blogs. On one side, they run their own blogs to supplement their conventional editorial content. On the other, they are sourcing content from specialised blogs run by external professionals.

Blogburst claims that it places blogs on nearly 100 leading news and media sites, including USA Today, FoxNews and even Thomson Reuters (its new name after its acquisition by The Thomson Corp), which has nearly 20 blogs of its own on its site. Plus, Reuters features content from independent blogs on specialised fields like technology and entertainment, where drivel is abundant and genuine understanding scarce. The scramble for quality may already have begun, but like the MacBook Air, evidence of this is still hovering thinly above the ground.

Corporates, not to be left behind the curve, have adopted blogs as tools to supplement their conventional communiqués on new launches. For example, the blog section on IBM’s site is called IBMers’ blogs, and these cover simple lifestyle trends to complex technologies. GE runs GE Global research blog to discuss hot issues like “imagination market technology” and “information markets”, covering virtual financial market games used to predict anything from election outcomes to box office performance of movies. Oracle, meanwhile, has its own executive blogs as also those from independent bloggers discussing Oracle solutions.

The corporate sector is keen on blogs for other purposes too. A recent study done by TechWeb, a tech business information supplier, reveals that the percentage of business technology decision makers using blogs for work information has gone up from 37% in 2007 to 64% this year. The survey covered 550 IT heads and top corporate executives like CEOs, COOs and CFOs.

Yet, all is not hunky-dory in the blogosphere. As blogging is done in an utterly freewheeling style, it sometimes lacks discipline. For example, the Internet is abuzz with a recent case in which Richard Frenkel, a Cisco IP director, offended a few attorneys on the Patent Troll Tracker blog. He and Cisco face defamation allegations. Earlier, Mark Jen, a Google employee, blogged so freely about life at the search company that it was acutely embarrassed. Jen had to quit the job. Cautious Thomson Reuters won’t take responsibility for blog content on its site, as the disclaimers say.

There are millions of bloggers, so you can’t expect all of them to follow accepted norms of communication. But these voices in the virtual world are getting louder by the day. Surely, there will always be the good, bad and ugly among blogs. But, you know, we have to live with the pleasures and perils of the new information world driven by Web 2.0.

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at
http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Voices-in-the-virtual-world/301642/0

Go viral if you dare

by Rakesh Raman

Surfer’s pain, marketer’s pride! Viral fever is causing much misery in cyberspace. Marketers, you see, believe that nothing beats “viral marketing”, especially online viral videos. You can reach out to millions of global consumers by spending just some chump change. More and more companies around the world are taking to the idea.

Viral videos are small ad-like movie clips created by vendors and uploaded on free video-sharing sites like YouTube, ViralVideos, MTV’s Spike and a host of others. The videos could be for anything—to sell MacBook Air via a parody or to propagate Obama’s views on race and politics. And yeah, it could even be the latest mango chutney being churned out in the neighbourhood. This “viral infection” is also spread via mobile phone-based video sharing by consumers who create or receive such clips on their handsets.

The term is derived from a computer virus, which “infects” electronic gadgets. In business, however, as proposed by Seth Godin in a famous book on the subject, viral marketing is what conventional “word-of-mouth” used to be—only, this is electronic. It’s word-of-mouse.

The assumption is that consumers are ever ready to share, at the click of a button, something interesting they’ve come across with at least five others. To turn this to one’s commercial advantage, specialists are busy creating viral promotional video clips. With YouTube around, spreading it is as easy as a mouse click.

Some of the biggest brands have been snared by the bug. Take BMW, for instance. It made a series of short 10-minute films under The Hire to subtly promote its cars. Featuring a hired driver played by Hollywood star Clive Owen, they became so popular online that viewers couldn’t resist sharing the links with others. One of these films, Star, with Owen and Madonna, has been seen some 122,000 times since it hit YouTube early last year.

Moviemakers, too, are trying to leverage viral marketing. For example, Saw IV, a thriller released late last year and hosted on YouTube, maintained its No 1 rank continuously for several days (and till April 2, 2008, had scored 1,248,861 views) on ViralVideos’ rankings.

Marketers such as Reebok, Intel and Microsoft are using viral videos, too. The primary advantage of viral videos is that they are “pulled” ads. Unlike “pushed” TV commercials, these are non-intrusive, and it is immediately clear whether consumers are willing to watch these ads. However, there is no established correlation yet between the number of viral video viewers and a brand’s equity or sales. It’s also likely that people watch viral videos only for their low-cost entertainment value. Most of those who liked the BMW videos would never be able to afford those cars, even if they remember the brand fondly.

The Indian scene, as usual, is dismal. Marketers are not too excited by viral campaigns because out of nearly 45 million Internet users here, less than 10% have true broadband connectivity, a prerequisite to receive viral video clips. Global targeting remains rare.

Overseas, viral advertising has been the stuff of hot experimentation even before the Apple 1984 remake in YouTube featuring Clinton. Since then, the sense of shakeup in the online ad world has been sharper and more severe. It has become hard for marketers to ignore this mode of brand propagation. Also, at a time when TV ads trigger urges to hit the remote, pop-up ads online are being blocked by surfer-friendly websites, and mobile phone intrusions are a major irritation for consumers, viral video advertising can usher in a new wave of ad campaigns that swirl around Web 2.0 opportunities. Campaigns that are endorsed by and spread around by consumers themselves have always been the most powerful. So keep surfing the viral waves.

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at
http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Go-viral-if-you-dare/296796/0

Clueless in cyberspace

by Rakesh Raman

For all the ballyhooing, the online media market in India remains in deep hibernation. Agreed, data can be misleading at times, but in the case of Indian web properties, the conclusion is clear. Today, there are over 150 million online sites in the world, catering to some one billion surfers. Of this, an estimated 100,000 content and corporate sites are run from India. None of them figures in the global top slots. According to the Web info tracker Alexa, an Amazon.com company, none is in the top 100, though local versions of international properties like Yahoo, Google and Orkut hog the limelight. And estimates suggest that over 90% of all global Internet ad revenues (estimated at $30 billion, which is a 6% share of the global ad pie for 2007) go to these 100 sites, which are mostly news services or user-generated content sites (including social networks). The top 50 sites, according to Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers , bagged about 90% of the online ad money in the second half of last year. And during this period, the top 10 sites got a staggering 70% of the money.

All others seem to be cyber-posters. Are Indian online properties really so weak? Let’s see. Out of nearly 50 million net surfers in India, an estimated 80% are young adults prone to the charms of Orkut, MySpace, YouTube, Facebook and so on, ignoring local sites such as Bigadda and ApnaCircle. Since their reading habits are poor, news sites in India do not attract and retain many. The average time spent by users on an India-centric news site is less than 10 minutes a day. Most “readers” do little other than glance at the homepage. So, that’s the trouble. A small and superficial online crowd.

But who cares? Advertisers and media companies like living in a fool’s paradise so long as there’s a dotcom attached. Big advertisers earmark a small part of their budgets for online ads without following any tangible return-on-investment rules. And as media companies’ targets are so low, they are satisfied with whatever comes their way without putting in much of an effort. Result: total online ad revenues have languished at just 4% (while print and TV get 40% each) of the country’s ad spend, now estimated at over Rs 16,000 crore.

Will things improve? Yes, if online players care to understand consumer behaviour. Today, the most widely used ad forms are banner graphics and text ads, like sponsored links on content sites and search engines. Most advertisers go by the number of page views to check a site’s popularity before releasing banner or text ads. These ad banners are like hoardings that stare at commuters.

But a glance at a roadside signboard can’t be construed as a sale. Likewise, surfers are not surfing for ads. Typically, they’re headed somewhere, and don’t like barricades and interruptions (bandwidth hogs, least of all). This is why ad payment norms such as cost-per-click (CPC), cost-per-millennium (CPM for 1,000 clicks), cost-per-period (CPP) and even cost-per-lead (CPL) are fast losing their relevance.

For direct impact of online ads on sales, pricing models based on cost-per-order (CPO) and cost-per-sale (CPS) are fast gaining importance. However, most websites lack the sort of compelling content that can attract and retain eyeballs. This would mean a better interface between advertisers and content companies. Overseas, this has actually started happening. Google, for example, agreed to pay over $3 billion for the digital ad firm DoubleClick. Likewise, Microsoft took over online marketing player aQuantive Inc for $6 billion. And a few days back, the ad agency Publicis joined hands with Google to seek the latter’s Web analytic support for cyberspace marketing.

Strategic resilience is essential. Only then does an online property have a chance of emerging from obscurity to global fame.

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at
http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Clueless-in-cyberspace/269836/0

Trust and tribulation online

by Rakesh Raman

Can you visualise a market in which marketers sit idle and consumers peddle their products to fellow consumers? Sounds cock-eyed, but it might happen. The way social networking is spreading its tentacles in the web world, consumers are likely to buy more of what others recommend. At least that’s what most e-commerce proponents believe.

There are already plenty of online sites that encourage users to write reviews on different items for others to know their pains or pleasures. And this is gaining gigabytes in cyberspace. Consumer-to-consumer (C2C) marketing is now called social commerce. A recent study done by the Net usage measurement company comScore and media research firm Kelsey analysed the impact of consumer-generated reviews on the price consumers were willing to pay for services delivered offline. The study, based on a survey of over 2,000 US Internet users, revealed that consumers were willing to pay at least 20% more for services receiving an “excellent” or “5-star” rating than for the same service receiving a “good” or “4-star” rating. The survey covered services such as restaurants, hotels and travel. And one-fourth of users preferred to check online reviews before buying a service offered offline.

Okay, all this may be true in the case of services. But what about, say, consumer durables like fridges, game consoles, cellphones and laptops? The social marketing model here looks hazy. Few would shell out capital simply on the word-of-mouse of fellow Net users, most of whom are too naïve to offer reliable advice on the features of, say, a tech gadget. This is especially true for a developing market like India, with most users interested only in basic product features.

Take mobiles, for instance. As most use their phones for plain voice calls or SMS, they will hardly be interested in knowing more from others. Consumer reviews can be helpful if people want additional information on the usage of mobile data services, which are complex, expensive and understood by only a few who actually use them in India. Likewise, user comments on wireless Internet connectivity, wi-fi, on laptops can be useful, but its usage too is scarce. There’s hardly any community of advanced consumers who want to share information with other remote users.

Basic product features are common to almost all brands in every product category. So, price becomes the purchase determinant. And user comments on pricing are irrelevant because prices are typically fixed and available on vendors’ sites.

All this leads us to a market paradigm of increasing commoditisation, where user-generated product reviews are redundant to most. If you plan to buy a laptop, for instance, a sketchy user comment like “its display is not very good” is not going to influence your purchase decision. Can a few comments by a handful of users matter? Another factor that renders user-generated reviews useless is marketers’ tricks. There’s always the likelihood that some vendors write such online reviews themselves under vague identities in their own products’ favour just to hoodwink potential buyers. So, if trust other consumers they must, consumers should depend only on those they know, and with whom direct interaction is actually possible. Also, an expert’s advice could be helpful—say, an editor’s reviews that appear on a trustworthy media website. In any case, random user reviews carried on assorted websites will only mislead buyers. And this user-generated data can never substitute the findings of systematic consumer market research on different parameters for different product categories.

Marketers would, of course, leave no stone unturned in creating online user communities around their offerings. Enhanced user involvement simply spells more sales. And social commerce offers a cost-effective marketing tool to attract more consumers and solicit consumer feedback for methodical analysis. However, if applied in a freewheeling fashion —as it’s currently happening—social commerce would confuse more consumers than it’d enthuse.

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at
http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Trust-and-tribulation-online/257427/0

Waiting for the click trick

by Rakesh Raman

Most media companies hate to hear that the online ad market is not picking up steam. Alas, that’s true. A microscopic analysis of the market indicates that despite hype and euphoria, the online media business has been a pretty humdrum affair. And the tardy pace at which the global market is moving is visible in India, too. Let’s see what figures say. In the current year, with a meagre 6% share, web advertising is expected to fetch only $30 billion globally for online properties. On the other hand, the share of print ads will be a good 40%, while TV will get 38% of the estimated global ad spend of about $450 billion. This proportion also holds true for the tiny Indian ad market of about $4 billion.

Worse, no rosy picture is about to pop up. ZenithOptimedia predicts that online ads worldwide will see a 28% jump this year, while the market for other ad forms will grow only at 3.7%. However, the percentage growth will always be higher on a smaller revenue base. The researcher also forecasts that web ad spend will grow to $43 billion by 2009. It will still be under a tenth of the total pie.

So, has the dotcom promise failed to live up to its hype? The answer lies in the market polarisation that is happening. According to the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers, in the US, for example, the top 50 sites (of the nearly 150 million sites online) collected over 90% of the online ad revenue in the first half of the current year. Likewise, in India, the top few media groups continue to grab most of the business.

Some media companies tow fragmented brand strategy, creating niche vehicles for even the tiniest market segment. It’s hard for them to create sufficient content to attract surfers, so instead of minute-by-minute updates, they become daily, weekly or sometimes even monthly bulletin boards, and surfers trail off. Then there are consolidated properties or portals that cover everything from bread to Bollywood and cricket to computers.

Only those niche products can hope to survive that have a very strong value proposition—like matrimonial or job sites. Plus, simple reproduction of print content for online carriage merely serves as an outreach tool. Moving from pulp to digital form needs special treatment to make content stickier for online readers who are mostly in a hurry. Though specialised information search sites like Google and Yahoo attract millions of visitors and hence advertisers, few Indian companies have had the technological wizardry for such innovation.

Understanding consumer behaviour is also important for online media companies. Visitors who come to scout for a match on a matrimonial site, for example, would not be too eager to click on a shirt brand’s ad window to compare prices or whatever. If they do, it could be a slip of the mouse. How often does an ‘X’ corner lead you to the brand’s site instead of erasing the very ad that’s blocking your view? This explains why orthodox metrics based on display space/period and clickthroughs (yes, your mis-click actually pays somebody some cash) are turning obsolete.

Nielsen//NetRatings has suggested the time spent on the site by a visitor as an important parameter for advertisers to gauge a site’s popularity. But even this is a flawed measurement tool. The upshot is that the online media doesn’t seem to have a reliable popularity measurement mechanism (the equivalent of circulation or readership numbers).

Moreover, most advertisers see a distinct advantage in traditional media. Print ads are comprehensive at a single, clear glance. But online ads are digitally convoluted, if not irritants (as pop-ups are). Video ads have bandwidth constraints. So the message is simple: the Internet may be gaining critical mass, but its commercial future is still iffy, at least by way of ad support.

Any new revenue ideas?

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at
http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Waiting-for-the-click-trick/245955/0

Living your second life

by Rakesh Raman

When some IBM sales people met in Second Life recently to interact with their customers, they were neither on to their next incarnation, nor in some mystical trance of alternate consciousness. They were merely part of a new business centre that IBM had created in a virtual world called Second Life, which, developed by California-based Linden Lab, exists only in cyberspace. To become a “resident”, you must adopt a virtual “avatar” for yourself, and when you interact with others via your computer, you do so with others who have done likewise.

Spotting opportunity, Big Blue has created an entire office, with different zones for reception, client briefing and conferencing, akin to a real-life office. It even has a live business networking facility in cyberspace. And IBM is not alone on the virtual planet. There many companies using the social networking model for business activities. They include Adidas, ING, Penguin, Philips, Reebok, Vodafone and BBC. They are being helped by a new breed of immersive space service providers like Rivers Run Red or The Electric Sheep Company to establish their virtual presence and brand promotions to attract global consumers. And IBM quotes market research firm Gartner to reveal that by the end of 2011, 80% of active Internet users and Fortune 500 companies will have an alternate life, but not necessarily a Second Life. There are other similar online spaces, like There, Active Worlds, and the adult site Red Light Center.

As businesses flock to these virtual sites, Reuters has formed a Second Life News Center that reports exclusively on happenings in this new “metaverse”. It covers topics as diverse as discussions on brand methodology, expositions on jewellery design and the music and psychology of cyberspace. Bringing it close to the real business world, Second Life has even issued a currency: Linden dollar (L$) and Reuters regularly reports its exchange rate against the US dollar. On September 19, for instance, one US dollar was equivalent to 268L$, while US$1,150,777 was spent in a 24-hour period that day in Second Life.

So, what is all the hubbub about? As the Net continues to shatter boundaries between the real and cyber worlds, marketers believe that the shift towards virtual marketplaces is going to redefine the business models of companies that are targeting global consumers. Virtual business, or v-business, is the future. Since most companies are trying to trim physical assets, workers and overheads associated with the corporeal world, they would find virtual businesses more attractive. Plus, the business potential is huge, as vendors would be targeting over a billion Internet users worldwide who are already exploring new online ways of shopping conveniently.

Marketers in the 3-D virtual world can respond quickly to demand by conducting lifelike product demos, awareness campaigns, customer meets, and even actual sales in a trendy online space. The visual impact here tends to be more appealing than traditional interactive options like chat or conferencing, and so companies can even hold employee training sessions, quarterly sales meetings and everything else cost effectively.

However, it may not be feasible for most companies that use traditional Internet business models to immediately switch over to virtual markets because of fresh investment and technology migration issues. In any case, as most companies are marking their presence by hiring private virtual islands, “real estate” costs on sites like Second Life are rising. On the other hand, lack of high-speed broadband connectivity (a must to be able to operate effectively in a virtual marketplace) in many consumer markets could prove to be another dampener. There could also be some inter-operability glitches for front-end users who work on traditional proprietary systems, as the preferred backend technologies for virtual site operators are expected to be based on open standards.

Still, marketers must not worry. These could just be the teething troubles associated with any paradigm shift. Eventually, such new forms of collaboration, communications and commerce will help marketers address fresh demand on a global scale. And virtual business models may ultimately turn today’s bit players into real global powerhouses.

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at
http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Living-your-second-life/228289/0

Releasing Soon: Movie 2.0

by Rakesh Raman

You’d agree: for most of its existence, the Internet has been an underexploited medium. Especially in the corporate realm. Corporate websites tried plainly to sell products and services. Though touted as an interactive medium, the Net mostly helped companies tell only their side of the story without giving web surfers much say—beyond tick-the-box options—in “interactions”.

In showbiz, too, movie vendors have used the medium for pre-release promos, trailers, reviews, DVD sales and the like. Movies are also being offered for online viewing. In 2005, under a massive “virtual cinema” digitisation project, for example, the Steven Spielberg Jewish Film Archive at Jerersalem’s Hebrew University used a website to offer over 300 movies to the online consumer. Most such initiatives are based on selling “what vendors have” and not “what consumers demand”. The flow of information, willy-nilly, has mostly been one-sided—from content provider to the consumer. How different is this from a corporate site?

But things are changing fast, thanks to Web 2.0. The new buzz is social networking—services like YouTube, MySpace, LinkedIn and Facebook are proving to be the better mousetrap that the old web couldn’t create. User-generated content is the new action spot. Surfers’ personal blogs, comments, product reviews, personal profiles and even video clips, these are making for the information cross-fertilisation that was envisioned by the medium’s new frontier pioneers. YouTube, a video repository created by users—with clips ranging from the tedious to the astounding—has already had major impact.

And thus emerges the new business paradigm for movie makers. They can identify audio-visual talent available online and outsource parts of a film’s raw footage to people in different global locales. This could save on travel bills and logistical overheads, while creating a prototype Net-collaboration production model.

Think about it. If complex software projects are globally executed, why not film production? Filmmakers could buy reusable content components available online for one-time use from their original creators. It will save production costs. Bollywood producers, who make about 1,000 flicks a year, many of them on shoestring budgets, should be pleased. Moreover, Web 2.0 promises enhanced interactivity, and filmmakers could even get creative inputs from far-flung places. Get some of the audience involved, and this can usher in a paradigm shift in the film production and distribution business.

Filmmakers can skim reviews and requirements off the Net. If, for example, online cine enthusiasts are veering towards a special new type of treatment for a certain genre, movie makers can gain from these early leads long before they hit the big screen. This could reduce risk, spur innovation and sense demand.

This does not mean singing or dancing to the beat of online opinion. Good cinema must always be the filmmaker’s own art. But embracing Web 2.0 could help enhance the craft of showbiz. As it is, production timelines are being crunched to cut the lag-to-market.

As Internet penetration deepens, movie vendors can emulate such software distribution models as software-as-a-service (SaaS) to offer movie-as-a-service (MaaS) on a pay-per-use basis. Advanced mobile devices are another outlet. Take, for instance, PocketMovies, a site that delivers movies anytime, anywhere. It claims that in a four-month period starting April 2007, there were nearly 25,000 downloads of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. Since the cost of movie-hosting on a site is negligible, vendors can keep it for months and years for more users to download. With multiple sites in the fray, film distribution costs will tumble, even as access expands.

So, here lies a big Web-led opportunity. The Indian film fraternity must start thinking of cyberspace as an ally that can change the rules of the game, and to its own favour—provided they are early adopters.

This article first appeared in The Financial Express, at http://www.financialexpress.com/news/Releasing-soon-Movie-2.0/217894/0


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