Does the future of content lie out of our eyesight?

For several years now, with the dawn of new media and the fall of traditional print, we’ve been living through the era of the eyeball economy. The golden or dark era—depending on who you speak to—is defined by the fact that entire websites and business models can be run on a currency of clicks and impressions without any revenue generating scheme to speak of. If they focus all their efforts on creating amazing and hopefully viral content, the logic goes that the rest will take care of itself.

Throughout this era the assumption has been that if you can generate enough interest in your website, whether via quality content or generous amounts of clickbait, advertisers who are eager to reach your keen readership will provide the funds for you to continue to operate. The problem, of course, is that while websites and media companies have got better and better at drawing eyeballs to their content—and at knowing exactly how long those eyeballs view each piece of content—the amount of money that advertisers are willing to pay to reach those viewers has not increased accordingly. It’s hard to say why advertisers don’t see a print ad as equal in worth to a digital ad, but they certainly do not.

All of this means the eyeball economy is in something of a state of crisis. Writing for Media Briefing, Kevin Anderson likened “content” to any other economic commodity: “One of the few workable business models in this age of digital disruption has been to produce as much content as cheaply as possible. But flooding a glutted market only leads to a deflationary spiral until it becomes completely uneconomic to produce that commodity. It is a simple matter of economics, and it doesn’t matter whether that commodity is maize or media.”

So what’s an online economy to do?

Given the amount of innovation taking place in the tech world, it’s no surprise that there have been a bevy of other models introduced to replace the eyeball economy with varying success. Publications like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have erected paywalls for their users, asking the eyeballs to foot the bill for their operations in addition to meek advertisers. Others have turned to private funding or grants, getting one-time, lump sum payments to produce an issue, but this model does not provide the long-term stability that many publications need to create a strong editorial and brand identity.

Even as innovations like mobile and video promise to offset the revenue that can’t be raised by traditional forms of content, this doesn’t always happen, according to Adam Levy at Motley Fool, who says that “winning ad dollars is becoming more of a zero-sum game, and the winners appear to be the mobile-first digital advertisers like Facebook, Twitter, and Google.”

If the eyeball economy—and the reams of low-quality content that comes with it—is really dying, that might be a good thing in some ways. Many say that creating a financially sustainable business model to empower digital media that doesn’t rely on creating more content than newsrooms can feasibly handle is essential if quality journalism and media is to have a future. It might mean that we see a shift away from the Buzzfeed listicles and Unworthy headlines that have become synonymous with this era, as publishers no longer feel the pressure to drive meaningless clicks to appease their advertisers and get more funding.
What that alternative model is remains to be seen, it’s clear that the content-as-commodity model is soon going to reach its limits. It’s up to innovators, publishers, analysts and disrupters to invent what comes next—and for journalists and content creators to adapt accordingly.

What’s next for your content strategy? Let us know over on Twitter @UK2.

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