The ultimate CMS?

In late October, Hurricane Sandy caused flooding and widespread power outages in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, among other places. The storm knocked out servers for media web sites that included Gawker, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post.

Unable to resurrect its site for almost a week, Gawker Media published a version of its blogs on Tumblr, the fast-growing multimedia web platform. According to a report by Charlie Warzel at Adweek, that brief alliance has some Gawker fans hoping the company will use Tumblr on a permanent basis.

Warzel writes that Tumblr offers “reliability, terrific tools and monetization potential”, a combination that makes the platform “the ultimate CMS” (content management system). On this front, I think he might have gone a bit far.

On a practical level, “reliability” is not the strongest argument. Even the largest and most web-savvy firms have had outages, both on their own and as host environments. Tumblr stayed up while many other sites did not, but its relative reliability could be matched by better planning on the part of its competitors.

Tumblr does offer a pretty good set of cross-media authoring tools. These tools have further lowered barriers to entry for anyone interested in publishing content on the web.

That anyone can use to Tumblr to create a personal or a professional presence is a big part of its appeal. Ease of use has contributed to Tumblr’s popularity, making it among the ten most heavily trafficked sites in the United States.

I think that pining for Gawker (or any other branded presence) to set up shop on Tumblr reveals a fervent hope for a return to gatekeeper media. Here, the advocates are mainly folks who favor ad-supported media, which has a hard time figuring out how to monetize audiences that aren’t built and sold by the millions.

That is to say, it has a hard time trying to monetize the web.

Two generations ago, there were just three television networks, a well-known set of national magazines and no Internet. Monetizing media was Mad Men easy.

Each time traffic for a given web presence – a platform – grows to a size that rivals what networks and national magazines once offered, we hear a call to standardize the content and figure out the ad model. “Cat gifs and porn” can take you only so far, they say.

I understand this. It’s much easier to deal with an overarching platform – CBS Television, TIME magazine, the Saturday Evening Post – than it is to figure out how to market at a small scale. But the web isn’t a community of millions; it’s millions of communities, even inside a platform like Tumblr.

It’s hard to keep track of millions of communities, unless you start with the idea that you’re not going to bundle them. That’s part of the power of Google.

No one buys “Google”; they buy access to ad hoc communities defined by the searches people perform and the e-mail they send (among other activities).  For its part, Google invested in understanding what users are doing so that it can effectively serve them in the moment.

There is an ultimate CMS: the internet. It’s just messy. It was built that way. Trying to use the web in ways that emulate gatekeeper media is a mistake.

Rather, advertisers and media buying services should take a page from Google and Facebook: get out of the decision business. Focus instead on building an infrastructure that captures and can automatically act on information that matches advertiser-specific criteria.

The more that this infrastructure feels lightweight, open and network savvy, the greater the chance that the communities you want to reach will opt in. We can get there if we stop trying to aggregate demand and start figuring out ways to disaggregate supply.

An additional note: This post focuses on ad-supported media applications, but disaggregating supply could be a useful metaphor in book publishing, as well. As covered in “The opportunity in abundance”, the prevailing book industry supply chain is under significant pressure. In a subsequent post I’ll see what I can do to apply the metaphor to book publishing.

Brian O'Leary

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.