I see three trends which will shape the development of media consumption in Ireland in 2009 and beyond. The first and most significant will be the continued growth in popularity of user-generated content. The second will be convergence; convergence of technologies, platforms and content.

The third, resulting from the first two, will be the shift in the dynamic which currently exists between consumers and media organisations in particular, with resulting challenges and opportunities for these organisations.

Continued growth in popularity of user-generated content

The past number of years has seen the explosion of the Web 2.0 phenomenon which is characterised by the emergence of technologies that enable with ease the generation of media content by individual web users. There is a marked shift in the publishing dynamic from “one to many” to “many to many” or indeed “peer to peer.”

Social technologies, websites and brands that did not exist in Ireland two years ago are now commonplace and part of our shared vocabulary. Bebo has over 1 million Irish subscribers and Facebook over 400,000. Words such as blog, podcast, wiki, RSS, YouTube, Skype, iTunes, Twitter, and Second Life have increasing resonance with more and more Irish people.

This new dynamic means that media organisations may no longer be the sole or primary sources of online content in the future. The new technologies enable both individuals and collaborative groups to create and publish the widest variety of media.

There are already over 4,000 bloggers in Ireland who are forming a new focal point for audiences with an appetite for news and opinion. Many bloggers are journalists, but many more are not. These individuals are becoming more widely recognised as news and opinion-makers. Micro-blogging facilities such as Twitter mean that this influence is even more pervasive and persistent.

User-generated content is not just words but increasingly other formats. Balcony TV, filmed from a Temple Bar balcony, was short-listed in 2008 for the prestigious Webby Awards. YouTube has over 100,000 videos tagged “Ireland” and made a star of Irish girl Sophie Merry for her “Groovy Dancing Girl” which has been viewed over 3.5 million times in just a few months.

comScore Research in the UK suggests that nine out of 10 web users watch videos online, with YouTube the most popular source followed in second place by the BBC.

Online video is complemented by podcasts from both traditional media organisations such as RTE, and others, mostly individuals. Popular music sharing website Last.fm now facilitates artists who want to create, upload and share original content.

Gaming technologies (N-Gage, X-box Live) enable the networking of gamers from throughout the World in real time.

A growing number of Web 2.0 websites are using their ability to gather large numbers of people together to achieve specific social aims. Avaaz.org raised over €1m in a short space of time in response to the Burmese crisis and generated 1.5 million petitions in support of the Dali Lama. The site had been in existence for less than 18 months.

Forrester research estimates that 9% of Europeans actually maintain a blog or publish web pages. But 18% are commenting and 49% are listening. While still only a relatively small number of users actually generate original content, social network technologies ensure that a much greater proportion of the population will continue to collect and share a wider variety and mix of content.

Convergence of technologies, platforms and content

The future will see a greater convergence of media types, applications and technologies. We are reaching a point where consumers of media are able to access and interact with any media application on any device.

Furthermore, mash-ups and web services mean that these applications will be multi-dimensional. For example, through an online news feature I could potentially watch a live on-the-spot news stream, map the location of the news report, find directions from my current GPS co-ordinates and even interact with the news reporter – all in real time.

The adoption of standardised and open platforms, in particular the Internet Protocol (IP), will ensure that content created for one channel can be easily and cost-effectively multi-purposed.

Through partnership and syndication, media organisations are increasingly likely to work together, pooling their competencies with a view to delivering more comprehensive multi-media services to consumers.

EMI and Channel 4 have recently teamed up to provide TV content through MSN’s instant messenger service. Messenger TV will provide greater interactivity to users and greater advertising opportunities for product and brand owners. Times Online is to link up with Sky News with a view to providing more complete multi-media news services in single locations.

Clear and exciting opportunities exist for leading Irish media organisations to collaborate more closely for mutual benefit and to provide evermore engaging and interactive multi-media experiences.

Increasingly, devices are converging, with a typical new mobile phone also containing a web browser, music player, digital camera, video camera, internet telephone, instant messaging, radio and video player. Mobility coupled with multi-media access is now a core part of a generation’s expectations from device manufactures and service providers.

Networked homes mean that we are consuming more media formats through different devices and often at the same time. According to Burst Media two thirds of us use a computer while also watching TV or listening to the radio (.pdf). Digital TV and radio services will further facilitate the convergence of media in our devices throughout our homes.

The introduction of free-to-consumer Internet-based  TV by national broadcaster RTÉ, with a service similar to the BBC’s iPlayer, will be one of the most significant media developments in 2009. The digitisation of vast amounts of quality content will provide consumers with unprecedented choice and control.

Internet TV coupled with a range of new devices will give consumers unprecedented access and mobility promoting universal access and equality. The interactivity that will be made possible via the digital platform will result in much deeper engagement with audiences than ever before.

Shifting dynamics between consumers and media organisations

The new types of media and technologies that we are increasingly incorporating into our everyday lives are beginning to impact on our expectations of how we interact with organisations. The dynamics are shifting and the balance of power is moving towards the individual. This presents new opportunities and challenges for organisations, in particular publishers and advertisers.

Barak Obama’s use of the Internet to broadcast his own messages and thus bypass the filters of traditional media represents a defining moment in the ongoing tussle between “the media” and “the political elite”. In years to come we will look back on the Obama presidential campaign and recognise it as catalyst for a new way of communicating with and engaging the masses.

A recent McKinsey report revealed that consumers are less concerned about quality when choosing their regular online news sources. A convenient news site that is more comprehensive, more timely and easier to use will be more likely to grow its audience than a site that is more focused on accuracy, depth and individual reporters’ reputations.

While this trend is worrying for quality-focused organisations, it does present a clear direction that organisations must now take if they are to capture time-pressed online audiences. Partnerships, mergers and syndication can all ensure that media sites can become destinations of choice while not compromising on quality.

Online media consumers are now more likely to look to peers to judge what content is relevant or important – a role that in the past was in the hands of a few. The democratisation of the media through reviews and ratings, and facilities such as those offered by Digg.com, Topix.com, Technorati or Del.icio.us, means more competition for traditional content creators.

However, this democratisation process does provide valuable and often instant feedback to publishers on the content that has most appeal to their audiences. In the past this was often only achievable through expensive research techniques.

It is predicted by the Internet Advertising Bureau in the UK that Internet advertising spend will surpass that of TV in 2009. We can expect a similar shift in marketing focus here also.

Broadcasters and publishers who actively pursue multi-platform strategies will be well positioned to realise the opportunities that are now emerging and ultimately recoup the investment being made in these new platforms.

Other revenue opportunities exist such as online partnerships, sponsorships and syndication. While these exist in offline platforms, digital can provide greater measurable return to both partners and advertisers.

In Conclusion

2009 will see the continuation of the trends that have emerged over the past months and years in media consumption in Ireland. Consumers will take a more proactive role in creating and influencing all types of content. They will access content in ways they have not done before and will expect publishers and businesses to be able to facilitate this.

The landscape will be continuously shifting and organisations that are positioned to respond appropriately, quickly and efficiently will be the most likely to capture audience attention.