The four horsemen of Digital Media

Understanding the challenges affecting digital media as a marketing platform introduces some new creative challenges. What we are seeing is very solvable, and they are triggering the start of a much more diverse and interesting time for marketing and advertising.

There are four main challenges disturbing the effect of marketing investments on digital media [DM]. Understanding their abilities, and why they are doing a much better job than DM on doing what DM originally did gives insight into what DM needs to offer in order to regain its value. (Sorry about all the DM’s :o)


The important thing is not to copy these abilities, because that would not be bettering digital media, it would be destroying it. We need to find the solutions within the context of the existing value creation of the digital media body. And this is where it introduces some great creative challenges for strategists and creatives.

The four horsemen in this case can seem very threatening; on the other hand, sometimes innovation needs to be forced by inescapable realities.

The Four Horsemen:

    1. Earned media. We are increasingly seeing earned media outperform paid media and becoming the main driver of traffic to marketing initiatives

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    2. Middle men. Media needs to build down the barriers between brands and participants online, today the artificial divide media offers are lessening the value compared to brands own initiatives.

    3. New behaviors. Increased accessibility to tools and technology not only boosts media consumption, but also changes how the use integrates into our daily lives

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    . Advertising models tailored for a more traditional media consumption looses effectiveness.

    4. Brands as competitors. The competition is no longer between digital media channels with similar products; it’s between media channels and the brands own initiatives.

Looking at the larger picture there are already two visible solutions:


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    . Media channels need to offer arenas where brands with shared values can build direct relations with the participants through offering deliberate and relevant value over time.

    2. Exploring and understanding Media’s new role in online activities – defined by its abilities. And build products that fit better to this part of the online marketing eco-system, or create a new role all together.

Lets look at the horsemen, where are the opportunities?

    1. Earned Media, this is simple. Earned media is earned, which means it finds and links to stuff that is valuable. (In effect this isn’t relevant to any advertising campaign that people don’t want to share. On the other hand…). If the advertising is valuable, then the media channel needs to offer the space for where the content resides. If brands build stuff on media channels that earned media links back to, you create a win-win situation. Simple :o)

    2. Middle Men, a bit more complex. Media needs to get out of the way. At the same time they need their presence as they are dependent on not becoming invisible themselves. This creates a situation where brands and media need to collaborate. We already know that both brands and media channels are value providers, and it is the interfaces where they create shared value we are looking for. Media opens to such a collaborative opportunity through its development of arenas specially tailored to niche interest and niche brands.

    3. New behaviors. Increased accessibility to information-, media-, and social technology first changes our tools, then our behaviors. What we are seeing now are people not only changing how much time they spend with media channels, but also how they use them. The jury is out on this one as the changes in behavior have just started, but both Transmedia, synchronized media activities across platforms and content enrichment through participation carries some very promising and clever inspiration.

    4. Brands are the new competitors. As brands can create their own media channels and direct relations arenas, the need to use media as a vehicle for messaging decreases. This means that the competition for marketing dollars is not exclusively between the media channels but between the media channels and the brands own initiatives. What media needs to do is both understand how they can facilitate and increase the value of these arenas, by offering a new property tailored to each brands initiative. Top of mind this might be “free” traffic, but better and more unique values will be more connected to synergies gained from shared values.

Summarizing this into seven simple bullet points, digital media needs to do the following:

    1. Start seeing themselves as value providers, not content providers
    2. Understand that advertising moves from just being messaging to becoming something useful and valuable.
    3. Start selling long-term initiatives, helping brands build direct relations with people, and connect with them over time.
    4. Produce content that is stealable and multipliable.
    5. Build a portfolio of unique values – not unique content or formats.
    6. Offer clear values as a part of a marketing eco-system, facilitate larger parts of this system.
    7. And finally, offer brands marketing abilities that they are unable to offer themselves.


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  1. September 13

    Hey Helge, I love your thoughts, articles and presentations. As usual this one comes with great analytical strength. But one question: Don’t you think the metaphor of the four horsemen is a little bit too strong…ummm…visual? ;-)

  2. September 13

    Hi Gerald
    Thanks for your comments and remark.

    I agree with you, to be honest I was a bit uncertain if it would be to much. I seldom think stuff is black or white, but I wanted to test out how the popularity of the post would play out if I put it in there.

    As people say, you got to try stuff, and fail, to learn. So this is me trying out a very strong metaphor. :o)

    Your feedback is an important thermometer to how will be received.

    Thanks for responding. :o)


  3. September 14

    No doubt. I like your analysis. And as I am extremely in favour of an apocalypse soon to come, I also like the four horseman metaphor (though it’s a bit strong).

    It’s a pleasure to read your posts.

  4. September 14

    Hey Helge,
    Recently I wrote about the sublimation of brand engagement from display / broadcast to servicing / utility / conversation.

    Particularly I talked about how this ladders up with how modernism transitioned to post-modernsim.

    I didn’t really flesh out the details of the challenges that lead to these conclusions, you’ve clearly done a far better job here. That said, in terms of how media and information is leveraged, especially with the challenges you’ve described, mirroring display with modernism, and utility with post-modernism feels particularly apt.

    Let me know what your thoughts are.


  5. […] business model for online media is no longer sustainable. I have previously pointed to both the external and internal challenges to the online display advertising format. None of this is news to media […]

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