I can’t recall who said it, but someone I follow on LinkedIn recently posted a comment that said, “content is king, but reach is the kingdom.”
This is a good way of summing up why, for content creators, the end of net neutrality represents what may turn out to be their transformation from autonomous rulers into a form of digital serfdom.
If you haven’t been following this story -- and it may not have been immediately clear why you should -- the U.S. Federal Communications Commission recently decided to repeal some rules established by the previous Obama administration that prevented service providers from prioritizing or charging for traffic to certain sites over others. This is one of the worst-case scenarios, according to The Verge:
Many internet providers now own content companies (see Comcast and NBCUniversal), and they may seek to advantage their own content in order to get more eyes on it, ultimately making it more valuable. . . If during the early days of Netflix, you were free to stream your phone carrier’s movie service instead, we might not have the transformational TV and movie company it’s turned into today.
Rather than shed tears over the next Netflix, however, it’s individual content creators -- the kind the marketing industry prefers to call influencers -- who may have the most at stake.
Just read the story on TubeFilter that gathered up online comments from a slew of YouTubers and other social media stars and you’ll get a good sense of the anger and worries over having their reach limited by an ISP or other third party.
In fact, a coalition of creative talent tried to band together to make their voices heard before the historic vote. Their initiative, dubbed Creators For Net Neutrality, included a series of bullet that framed what’s at stake in pretty blunt terms:
“You make your living online. If they start charging sites like YouTube and Twitch, your income will likely decrease. When the services you use get charged fast lane fees, it’s money out of your pocket,” the coalition’s talking points document reads. “You will lose viewers if it is hard for them to watch your videos.”
Now that net neutrality rules have been repealed, those creators face some difficult decisions. Vox Media’s Polygot interviewed Greg Millar, co-host of Kinda Funny, a popular show on YouTube and Twitch, for his take.
“If we have to pay more for the internet, then we have to look at a better package for our subscribers,” Miller said. “We need to look at what our new operating cost is, how that affects revenue. There’s a lot to consider.”
At the moment, of course, nothing has necessarily changed. The throttling or over-charing for access to content is still more a potential threat than reality. Creators like Miller are basically going to have to brainstorm all the “what if” scenarios before them.
This is the big one: What if the reach creators once had to help brands deliver a message was somehow constrained?
Creators who rely on brands to underwrite their efforts might get dumped, but that’s not the only option. If their content is good, and aligns with the sponsor’s brand in a meaningful way, that brand might be willing to help support access to it. The idea of paid media, after all, is nothing new to brands. They are accustomed to using their wallets to drive awareness and reach.
That, of course, could mean a far different compensation structure between brands and creators, with brands arguably having the upper hand. Some creators might opt out entirely and look for ways to monetize what they do. As Miller suggested, this could include some kind of paid subscription of their own, making them look much more like traditional publishers -- with all the challenges those business models bring.
This is all assuming ISPs believe they can offer a great customer experience by offering a less affordable or more complex way of delivering content online. That’s a big if, one that will take a way to be resolved. Maybe enough time for some of the creators to get even more creative about how they work around them.
Shane Schick is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine. He tells stories about technology, marketing, innovation, fashion and more at ShaneSchick.com.
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