Personal Agents or ‘How to reach your audience of one’ ‘ Gary Hayes 2004

Imagine a world where any type of media you want is available at anytime. Not just limited to on-demand TV, Film or music, but life experiences ‘ education, self-awareness, community, immersive reality, multi-player games and the obligatory shopping. Now imagine you can have consistent versions of all of this wherever you are – on your large home screen, your lean forward PC or your multitude of mobile devices. In this universe of on-demand everything you will have to choose personally relevant content from billions of items and services. There is so much available with so little time to find it. What you don’t know you don’t know, so how will you find ‘what you want’ and more importantly, how do you ‘know’ what you want?

In this world where the mass market has vanished, agents representing your interests travel the physical and virtual media world to hunt down what it ‘knows’ you want and need. These agents ‘with your permission’, use everything they know about you to get the best for you – not just on what you have experienced already but in cross-related areas such as your food menu preferences, emotional and intelligence quotients, favourite travel destinations, friends likes and dislikes, local events, browsing habits, your talents and so on. In the 1960’s an advertiser could reach 85% of US females with a spot aired on three of the main network stations ‘ today you would need to run the same add on 150 channels to reach the same audience. This has become a world where scheduled, lowest common denominator programming is dead and people really trust their agents – where content needs to find ‘you’ rather than everyone having to browse a hundred thousand disconnected portals or use crude search engines which only go a fraction of the way there.

How do we get from this world to that world? Three key things are missing ‘ 1) ‘consumer trust’ in the distribution chain with the agents made available to them 2) highly ‘tagged and targeted content’ and 3) Protection and monetization of that content. The current rich media industry needs to wake up and plug these holes, be willing to take some risks and move things along at a much faster rate.

Using the early personalized models already developed by the likes of Amazon, AskJeeves or myYahoo for narrowband the TV and Film Industry on IPTV and broadband networks should at first consider more mature usability personalization – where the interface to content is customized for each particular user. Some people do not like navigating through ten levels of menus to get to their instructional fly-fishing video ‘ make it much easier and natural for them and allow each individual to tailor how they get to their content. We need to move quickly on standardizing the user interface – do we really expect everyone to learn how to use a hundred different electronic content guides? Imagine if every car you got into had wildly different controls, people would find it safer not to use them. In the UK interactive TV interfaces took 4-5 years to become moderately standardized across broadcasters and network providers. In this new world we only have about the same time to develop standardized interfaces across all high bandwidth, on-demand systems ‘ for example Jupiter research in Sept 04 says CD’s will have another 5 years of dominance before MOD (music on demand) takes over.

Then there is the content itself which has still a long way to go to be properly formatted and tagged for niche markets, metadata becomes more important than the content itself – in the real on-demand future ‘a’ niche market will be John Smith of 14 Acacia Road. Akimbo who recently launched the first IP TV system on broadband in the US use the phrase ‘your wish on demand’ ‘ to be truly usable the wish=’what your agent finds’. As the cost of transporting video over the internet has gone from $30 per gigabyte to $1 per GB we really are moving forward to a point where the network bottlenecks are a thing of the past. In three years time transporting content will be down to 10c per GB and so on. But in terms of personalizing and prospectively, via agents, making this easy-to-transport content available to the viewer we need to be very, very careful. Just because the person watched a movie about ‘time travel’ does not mean they want to watch another ten movies about the same subject ‘ time to move into second gear on this one. Various production metadata standards must be adopted to make personalization truly ubiquitous and interoperable. AAF, MXF are standards that allow meta tags to be added during production which flows into the editing and post-production process. Aligning this to emerging consumer facing standards such as MPEG7 will allow content to carry descriptions about itself from camera on location to viewer in the home. It is then up to the industry to provide meaningful tools to find that content.

One of the biggest challenges still since the mid-90s is how content producers can build and release into the broadband superhighway, protected content that will send back millions of micro payments as the content moves freely around from portal to portal and viewer to viewer. In a world where every encryption is made to be broken will it happen. ITunes and NDS have built robust models in music downloads and satellite distribution respectively, but many have failed. Although micromarketing and micro payments are still in their infancy companies like Grey Interactive are pioneering push models that work through principles of engagement and emotional relevance, particularly purchasing emotions. Trust is built up through experience. If someone recommends something to you and it is awful, what do you honestly feel about their next recommendation? If you hired an agent to find you a house and all they brought back was cars what would you do? Targeting and recommendation agents do not have the luxury of making many more mistakes or the whole business model of the future of advertising and suggested pay-per-play content is broken. Akimbo are launching the first IP enabled Set Top based service onto the market. With 200 hours of storage and the ability to schedule downloads of your favourite programs it makes PVR’s seem out-dated in one technological leap. Whether the content is stored locally or on local or remote servers is partly irrelevant though if the consumer is still faced with too much irrelevant choice.

A big hurdle to overcome as we move towards anything, anytime, is that of existing ‘spam fatigue’. As email spam turns into vmail spam and with all content delivered through one or two big on-demand pipes into peoples lives’ we need to plan hard to retain trust. We do not want a world where your ‘home server’ clogs up every day with 200 unsolicited audio and video adverts. We still have time to make sure we get it right and do not alienate everyone if standards across the production to consumer chain are allowed to take root. Targeted advertising and content is still very crude using fragmented demographical systems that haven’t evolved much since the 70s. In a world of media dating ‘ matching viewers to media, you cannot find your perfect match with a ‘picture and a paragraph’ as one dating site says in it adverts. Production value and quality will be paramount and just because we can send ten TV trailers or excerpts to everyone’s home server or ECG listing doesn’t mean they will come ‘ indeed the noise will be far more intense than the current internet. We know when people ‘can’ skip adverts they do ‘ 40% of TiVo users skip ‘all’ ads and 94% skip most – people in the new world will delete them off their home servers because they are ‘not’ relevant to them and because they can.

Effective personalization comes from the user feeling they are receiving highly relevant content, available when they want it. There are tremendous opportunities for many sectors of the media industry who are willing to consider the true value of trusted personalization and giving the viewer much more of a tailored experience. There are still those in the industry who say that most viewers will simply watch what they are given ‘ we will continue to make reality more extreme and risky, deliver movies that are more violent and pornographic, ‘just look at the ratings…advertisers are bashing down our doors’ ‘ is this the case. The television bureau of advertising in the states said that TV advertising in 2005 will be flat, no increase. Compare that with InteractiveTV Advertising which will increase to $2.6 billion in 2006 (according to eMarketer). With the advent of IPTV over broadband networks the landscape is going to change very quickly, advertising and programs themselves will need to evolve into attractive packages of content, heavily branded, meta tagged with relevance for larger sections of the highly fragmented audience.

Even public service TV companies such as the BBC in the UK are allowing more and more extreme levels of personalization on their internet and interactive TV platforms. The BBC are a broadcaster, paid by the public license fee to throw good content back at them with varying levels of accountability, indeed some ‘old school’ producers had the attitude that anything they made would be good for the viewers. Now things are very different, the viewers can make up their own minds ‘ launching very soon will be the Interactive Media Player ‘The BBC will make its services available when and where people want them, with a new generation of BBC on-demand services…We intend now to extend this service to television. The BBC Interactive Media Player (iMP) will enable people to watch BBC television programmes at their own convenience”. With nPers (nearly personalized services) such as the BBC’s Interactive TV Olympics reaching a record 6.1 million digital interactive viewers we are entering an age where TV has to not just about choice but about experience. Any production, whether low budget internet film or multi million film has to allow customization in the way it is consumed. A key to making content personal is to allow the viewers to learn things about themselves. Some of the BBC’s most successful Interactive TV is based around quizzes that test your IQ, perception or emotional intelligence such as Test the Nation. Viewers also want community and the obligatory ‘I matter’ factor ‘ but go beyond the superficial ‘ displaying a list of viewer’s names doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.

There are a vast array of ‘homemade’ short film sites like iFilm or FilmClix appearing on the internet, as the US and Europe move quickly towards 1/3 of the population on broadband true democratization of distribution is upon us ‘ worldwide. The BBC had great success with the community production services on the Kingston broadband platform allowing viewers to make local news reports or tell moving stories about their lives. Let’s work together to make sure that eCommerce, video banner ads and business to business solutions are not the only major players again. We are truly moving into a world where DVD meets gaming meets high production value media and compelling, engaging, personalized content & experiences must prevail.

Posted by Gary Hayes © 2004