We are all living through the long reboot of the traditional media and news business. Being in the midst of the change makes it difficult to recognize on a daily basis exactly where the broad media world (publishers of news and information via broadcast, print and digital channels and platforms) will end up any time soon. It's too easy to shake our heads at the apparent resistance of the newspaper industry to change while the business disintegrates. While there may be resistance (there is in every established business), there are plenty of smart people inside that industry exploring answers. Just look at what the Knight Foundation is funding in terms of media experiments.
Communicators need to change, too
Marketing and communications specialists are no different. There are plenty of forward thinking innovators just as there are plenty of folks relying on past models to carry them through. To be ready for change and to willing to make that change, we need to recognize the implications of how media is changing to understand how we might adapt and take advantage of that change. Ross Dawson had a useful article creating the Future of Media. I wanted to look at what these things mean for communications professionals who work on behalf of clients/brands.
Here are 5 trends and their respective implications for communicators:
Outsourcing to content networks
This past week, Demand Media made news with its planned $125m IPO. They provide content and social infrastructure applications via their own content sites and partners sites like the San Francisco Chronicle. Their manifesto reveals the principles drive a new media company:
- Start each day by listening to the customer
- Make content that is unequivocally useful
- Build superior web experiences
- Invest heavily in our professional freelancer community
- Focus on the economics
- Never rest
They are doing what established media companies find so difficult - scaling content development via a network of freelancers, balancing community and content, and delivering value as defined by the user. There are others in this space. Examiner.com maintains a network of hyperlocal writers creating news distributed through their Web site in a scalable model. Even Huffington Post is praised for its mix of community and scaled content from a network of writers.
Implication: If a percentage of content on the San Francisco Chronicle comes from Demand Media, who should communications pros be pitching stories to? How can they connect relevant brands with niche writers? It's going to take a more thorough indexing of individual writers - sometimes within networks - and its going to take a new approach to the working with a combined paid and earned model.
Maintaining a database of the hundreds of thousands of citizen journalists out there is a Herculean task, never mind building relationships with them. In the Long Tail world we rely on business like Demand Media and Examiner (and Huffington Post and BlogHer) to aggregate them. Sometimes they are also the branded portal (e.g. Huffington Post), sometimes they are the unseen guts of other media properties (e.g. Demand Media). Communications professionals will need to think in terms of a blended paid/earned model to get access to these experts. Each of these businesses see themselves as gateways to their writers and discourage communicators from reaching them directly (or more aptly, the effort of reaching out to them directly doesn't match the return). Communicators need to think more creatively about combining paid media and earned media that deliver a value all the way down the chain to the consumer/customer/public.
Scaling via consumer generated media
Most media properties have incorporated some degree of consumer generated media. Whether it is CNN's iReport or the New York Times, media properties have embraced consumer generated media as a supplement to their main editorial and as a way to reward engagement with their content (if my content is featured there, I will promote it).
Implication: As the best writing continues to be curated and aggregated by those who have reach, brands need to refine their approach to influencer outreach. They need to get to the writers before they are aggregated. A two-tier effort can help optimize coverage for a brand. The first tier is very close, personal relationships with the top 10, 20 or even 50 high-reach and relevance writers (influencers). The second tier is less intensive and includes a longer list of relevant influencers who may want to stay connected with what the brand is doing. This is the evolution of media relations and not a new concept.
Our News Feed is in Facebook (and Facebook mobile)
There's a reason, Mark Zuckerberg calls the feature in Facebook 'News Feed.' More and more people rely on the updates from their social graph - all of their friends, colleagues, influencers - as they appear in their social network updates. How many times has Twitter been cited over the past 2-3 years as the channel for breaking news? Well, all of that gets funneled through the Facebook News Feed. If my friend "likes" or shares a story from the New York Times, it shows up in my News Feed and I may click through to the story. If my friend "likes" or shares a story from TheFordStory.com (client), it shows up in my News Feed and I may click through to the story.
Implication: Social networks make us all curators on behalf of our extended 'friends.' Brands can be content creators and/or media publishers themselves by following Demand Media's principles of listening to what their customers want to know about and publishing that. So, first, let's start behaving like the best content creators and publishers out there. Then, lets get that content into the hands of people who want it - where they want it. By developing an approach to "social grassroots" brands can develop an authentic following (one based on delivering true value not corporate messages) via social networks and earn a place in the News Feed of customers and prospects. A third and final point, part of making the most relevant and useful content is formating it for delivery the way we all consume content. Make it work on mobile devices and you will up your reach considerably. According to Pew, "33% of cell phone owners now access news on their cell phones."
Our news on-demand is in Google
When we want to know about something - news or information - we go to Google or whatever major search engine serves our market.
Implication: While "universal search" in Google displays true "news" content under that header, it does so on the same page that all the other results appear on - thus universal search. Consumers may distinguish between what the New York Times has to say about a product recall, but they may also be interested in what the company says about it. Brands must take up the challenge to be prolific content creators and be expert at multimedia search engine optimization. This must start with what we call "Consumer intent modeling" or the simple process of paying attention to what people are searching for to match their needs better with our content. We need to work hard to have our content show up on the first two pages of Google search results for the terms consumers find relevant. That's how they find news and information they are looking for.
The coming renaissance of professional journalists
I grew up admiring journalists like Tom Wicker and David Halberstam. They played a role that I valued. While the headlines around news and media is dominated by shrinking newsrooms and troubled business models, I believe that overlooks a coming renaissance for quality journalism. Yes, the kind of stuff I would pay for.
Implication: Traditional 'earned media,' where a communicator connects the needs of the audience, the journalist and the brand and does so without hyperbole or spin, is not going away. Just as there will be a premium of great journalism, there will be a premium on great communicators willing to earn their way into stories through relevance and value more than anything else.