(This post is from notes I made in May 2009. Things have changed since then but a truly open asset architecture is yet to become a reality, so I believe it is still relevant.)
The rise of user generated content has been embraced by many brands. Companies view user reviews, original content and ratings as a key tool in demonstrating a connection and a willingness to listen to consumers. The user as an active constructive, collaborative, creative parent is a cornerstone of a web 2.0 philosophy. While brands have been willing to allow users to contribute and have their say on their branded sites, resulting in a richer more informative user experience which profits the brands, the relationship has predominantly been one way. Brands take user generated content are less willing to give content away.
Of course brands are aware that users will copy text, images and video content from their sites, but few actively encourage or facilitate this process. In the case of newspapers, an already endangered species, the tendency to protect assets has been strong. The traditional logic has been that while today’s news is the most important driver of users to your site it is in fact the stockpile of archive material which is the site’s real goldmine. These content rich sites stockpile stories at an astounding rate. The ability for users to trace stories back, read previously published related material and get sucked into the rich archive is a key element in the stickyness of newspaper sites. It follows then that media sites have attempted to protect the archive.
Since the days of Ted Nelson’s visionary Xanadu project attempts have been made to find ways for content generators to protect or profit from the distribution of their assets. In some cases subscription models have been used to try and offer some protection and in the case of paid subscriptions an attempt to capitalize on the content. Few paid models have survived, and many users find the need to login to read an article a minor annoyance.
So what are they to do? One way would be to take the “if you can’t beat them join them” approach. This may be how one could initially see the Guardian’s Open Platform initiative (http://tinyurl.com/gopen) and the New York Times article API( http://tinyurl.com/NYTopen ) . But these examples go much further than simply a defeatist stance.
By making more than 1,000,000 tagged and categoried articles available and the content API which provides a method of accessing the content, the Guardian is taking a bold step. They are not just saying, you are going to do it anyway, so we do not mind you taking our stuff. The Guardian is actively facilitating and encouraging users to come and benefit from the archive, to see the Guardian as a rich seem of trusted content which they can use to their own benefit. The Guardian is tapping into the innovation and creativity of its reader base. They are able to develop innovative ways of repurposing and alternative views on the content.
So far, the number of examples showcased by the Guardian is small but there are some interesting examples. One topical use is the MP expenses visualiser using data from the open platform data store and manyeyes as a display mechanism. (http://tinyurl.com/pkhhjz) The Guardian profits form the reuse of its content in terms of reinforcing its brand image as a trusted source of impartial accurate information. The distribution of its content in this form ties distant readers and creative consumers back to the brand. Time will tell, but it would appear to be a much more effective and beneficial approach than attempting to impose traditional payment models.
I expect more newspaper and media organizations to follow these examples. But I also think other brands should also adopt similar approaches. Brands will benefit if they adopt what I call an Open Asset Architecture. This makes it easy for users, brand fans, advocates and, yes even detractors to use a brand’s assets. A brand does not need to develop a full API, but it should stop trying to obstruct users in making use of images, videos, and copy from their sites.
Brands benefit by demonstrating an openness and willingness to fully engage with consumers and by at least having a chance to improve the way their brands are presented on third party sites. An automotive fan will produce a site which better reflects on the brand if they allow them to make use of their high quality images and videos. The same fan is likely to feel better about your brand because you have supported rather than try to hinder their efforts. Use this activity to spread the reach of the brand in a way which is more likely to be at least closer to your desired brand expression.
Depending on how you implement an Open Asset Architecture you can merely open the doors to you content, provide additional content – such as approved but unused photo shoot images, or go as far as to provide tools which make content recycling easy and which attempt to keep track of where your content is being reused.”