This past Friday, I learned that authorities had apprehended the second suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing via Boston.com’s Live Blog, which aggregated tweets and short updates from reporters, police, and citizens into a single, curated stream. Watching and waiting for the Live Blog to update every three to five minutes made me feel more connected to this news event than any I’ve ever witnessed. I liken it to listening on the radio to a tight playoff baseball game, where the account of every pitch and every at bat can carry enormous weight, and where the uncertainty of the outcome can give even healthy partisans a sense of what a heart attack must feel like.
I’ve watched similar events unfold on television, too. The news of Osama Bin Laden’s death comes to mind. What I remember most about the reporting that followed is staring at an empty podium in the White House and listening to a disembodied news anchor fill the air with what seemed like 15 minutes of “we expect the President to appear at any moment.” I felt suspense and anticipation, but the broadcast’s extended lifeless view dampened that response and had me reaching for my TV remote.
Reflecting on these experiences reminds me of two things. First, video does not always trump all media for power and impact. Boston.com’s live blog achieved something only a newsroom producer with multiple cameras, locations, and even news outlets could experience: information from multiple perspectives and authors, curated to deliver a stream of insights in real time. Second, thank goodness we have professional journalists on the ground in places like Boston.
I share this story because it carries insights relevant especially to traditional print media, which is seeing precipitous drops in revenue as a result of the competition from digital and mobile outlets and 24 hour broadcast news. Combined with an institutional inertia that makes change difficult in any organization that has gone from being a leader to an underdog, and it’s no wonder the industry is suffering.
All that aside, I look at traditional print media and I see assets and opportunity. The competitive threats are real, but companies and institutions willing to shake free of they way things were to embrace the way things are and could be have an opportunity to vault back to the lead. Here are five ideas on how a traditional media company can thrive in a digital and mobile age from someone who has lived through upheaval in gaming – the collapse of PC games and the rise of consoles, such as PlayStation – and mobile phones – the rise of smartphones and the erosion of feature phones.
- Focus: I see a trend in the softening of ratings at networks and the weakening of the American auto industry. Both were established generations ago to offer something for everyone. Forty years ago, that could work because of a dearth of competition. Today, though, there are companies that have built expertise and audiences within narrowly defined categories. Successful ones, such as Food Network, CNBC, and BMW, have peeled customers away from one-stop-shop offerings. The lesson: find a competitive sweet spot that you can own, make money doing, and enjoy, and stop doing anything else. The days of trying to do it all are numbered.
- Unleash your assets: traditional media companies employ professional writers, editors and photographers. They know how and when to substantiate a fact, as well as how to properly communicate mere speculation. They are accustomed to working under deadlines and to high standards of quality. That’s valuable, regardless of the delivery vehicle or channel. By comparison, most citizen journalism falls short in every respect, reminding us there is still a place for professionals if only they can adapt.
- Embrace data: Traditional media companies tend to have sophisticated research divisions that know everything about their consumers, from which magazine cover they prefer to when they plan to buy their next car. Surely they can use that data to determine what their consumers want to read and watch, when, on what device, and at what price.
- Build complementary content delivery vehicles: Content demand varies by device, so why not vary content supply by device, too? Shorter-form stories belong on smartphones. Longer-form are perfect for tablets, laptops, and print editions. Newsletters and writer blogs go somewhere in between. Serving up the same stuff for every screen is a lowest common denominator strategy that is likely to disappoint readers using one or more form factors, so don’t go there.
- Attract and measure your captive audience across platforms: Your traditional media company almost certainly relies on advertising revenues, so improve the value of your audience by ensuring you’re measuring it across platforms, channels, and devices. Are you encouraging users to register by offering something in return? Are you capturing log-ins when they visit you on the web and download and use your app? Are you including ways for your audience to engage you online even while they are consuming content off-line with things like QR codes and “text to” calls to action? Companies like Google and Facebook recognize that the money advertisers spend on digital and mobile marketing still lags behind more traditional media, such as TV. To change that they are seeking to increase the value of their inventory and their audience, the latter by measuring as much of it as possible. Do the same.
Your media company likely has spent decades building an audience. Dedicating yourself to improving its value by offering focused, professionally built content that is tailored to specific channels and backed by ubiquitous engagement and measurement across platforms will ensure not only survival, but also a chance to return to leadership.