FORCED MARCH 2: How marketers can save traditional media – If only they would let us

By MEREDITH VAUGHAN/President of VJ and JOE HODAS/EVP Channels

What we love most about the shape of new media is how amorphous it is and how the new landscape of information delivery demands that marketers be ever adaptable, ever vigilant and ever aware that the rules will change constantly and consistently. Everything is new and exciting, until the next new and exciting thing comes along.

Agencies and marketers have responded by themselves becoming masters of reinvention, creating new ways to engage and reinvent how they communicate.

You’d think that our media partners would want to keep up with us. Not so much.

One of the most interesting outputs of the brave new world of media is how resistant some traditional media are to these constantly changing times. Most especially the newspaper industry. The name of the media itself is a not-so-subtle cue that perhaps they don’t really understand how news is consumed in 2012. newsPAPER. With digital readership rising, wouldn’t it make sense that such a consumer- and advertising-reliant industry think about rebranding?

Which leads to the next question – why won’t the traditional news outlets work more in partnership with the advertising agency world to better understand how consumers consume and how to be better stewards of news consumption? If information is at the core of why consumers interact with a newspaper, and it’s that interaction that drives advertising dollars, it would make sense that we should be collaborating on the evolution. All one has to do is look at how new media companies like Google and Facebook engage and work with agencies to see how poorly traditional media outlets are doing it. There are broad and deep benefits of shared information and brainpower there that can shape consumer engagement of today and tomorrow.

An interesting question to ponder in this environment of disconnect is how news delivery is now executed. When we read Ken Doctor’s quote about the newspaper industry being on a “forced march to digital,” one of the most interesting things that emerged from our internal discussions was understanding what news is deemed newsworthy in this environment. Is everyone a potential reporter?

With consumers as the new journalists, the evolution for traditional and digital news environments should be focused on becoming reference points for the custom build of meaningful (and shareable), personally curated “sections.” We further believe that no one news source can or should try to be the ultimate in news delivery, an issue highlighted by a recent renewed focus on a paywall environment. In some cases, premium tiers for exclusive content can work. But creating a closed environment for content that’s indistinguishable from information we can get elsewhere is insane.

It makes more sense for news sources that hope to keep pace with today’s consumers to:

Be happy with more specific and targeted engagements rather than broad engagements (i.e., get RID of circulation data and show depth and impact via the ability for consumer customization). Marketers are more concerned with impact than waste. Surely it is a partnership with agencies and clients to wean them off the CPM model, but, with no strong alternative taking hold…what is the impetus for change?

Acknowledge that consumers can (and do) legitimately report on news themselves. News outlets should be the credible source, more than the final say. Allow consumers to engage how they want to engage with the news – move beyond a comment section to a dialogue about impact, areas of interest and perspective. Comment sections are a bogus representation of consumer engagement and have devolved into a playground of trolls, populated with insults and non-related political and social rhetoric.

Listen. Both agencies and consumers are great resources for how to better engage in this environment. Real engagement requires deeper questions than “Who is our newspaper’s audience?” and gets to specifics about who is the audience for a given article, or even a given nugget of information. Once you know who your audience is, then you can begin to wonder where to find them and how they like to engage. Digital tools allow for some very precise targeting and data mining – there is no reason that newspapers shouldn’t avail themselves of those tools to better shape their content and subsequently their sales proposition to advertisers.

Reduce costs in the form of stripped down reporters/beats/subject matter experts in the newsroom is not the right way to offset the cost incurred by servicing the dwindling base of consumers who choose to read print (and only print…which is an even smaller subset). In fact, while cost-cutting is the common wisdom, it actually strips the newspaper of the true value it can have – people who are subject matter experts, who know how to write and who can create differentiated and compelling content.

Evolve from selling a product (e.g., we have a quarter page, a banner ad, a home page takeover), to selling a solution. Tech companies learned long ago about the idea of solution selling…and newspapers need to catch up. As Harvard Business School Professor Clayton M. Christensen suggested in a recent column about newspaper survival, traditional media must focus, as the best advertisers do, on the “job” consumers want done. Is that job something that will get them caught up on the day’s news in the time it takes to get their Starbucks? Or maybe it’s something entirely different. But that question must drive both the content and the delivery methods.

We get that these are but suggestions with a purposely simplistic and filtered view. Traditional media face tough business realities, even as our economy continues to improve. But those challenges become insurmountable if they continue to apply 20th-century thinking to a world where innovation has become the default. Every news source that falls to economic pressures makes us poorer. So, we invite agencies, advertisers and news sources to work together in figuring out how to turn the next corner. Collaboratively, we just might have a shot.

About the Series

The transformation of the newspaper industry not only affects readers and communities, it throws several wrenches into a tremendously successful advertising business model.

VJ has done extensive research and economic projections to examine where this is going. Our embedded philosophy – Truth Creates Opportunity™ – drove us to add some finer textures and clarity to issues that, for much of the industry, have remained vague, scary and undefined.

Exactly what does the evolving content infrastructure mean to agencies, their clients and consumers? We plan to spell that out in a series of white papers produced by our agency that will place these issues into meaningful and useful perspectives.

Read the whole series.

About Vladimir Jones

VJ is a full-service ad agency dedicated to one simple, powerful idea: Truth Creates Opportunity™. Good or bad, the truth of your brand is the truth of your customers and the culture in which they interact. To identify the truth takes insight, creativity, engagement, guts and metrics. Like all things worth finding, we pursue the truth with ravenous persistence. Once found, it is power. The power to connect. To influence. To inform. To humor. Incite. Engage. Convert. Like your mother always said, tell the truth and good things happen.