Sunday, 30 November 2008
Brand loyalty: get 'em while they're young
Once upon a time, before the internet took off, people would tend to stick with just one newspaper which they felt best represented their views. Buying six or seven newspapers would be too impractical (travelling by tube barely allows for reading one without poking fellow commuters in the eye with it). That way, newspapers built up a loyal readership who bought into the brand and its values.
But now that the internet has opened the media up to competition in the form of blogs, forums and other news platforms, readers have so much choice in where to get their news. They can pick and choose from articles from all the newspapers without having to commit to one. It has become more about reading articles or particular sections rather than a newspaper as a whole. The Telegraph’s Shane Richmond said that when people bought the newspaper, it didn’t matter if they read one article or all of them because they’d already paid for it. But on the web, just reading one article means big problems for newspapers.
For Richmond, the future of the web could mean more fragmentation. So how can newspapers retain their readers? The key is to try even harder to cement brand loyalty. Patience Wheatcroft, former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, noted that “Increasingly important in the multichannel world is the brand. People have to know who to trust. Old established brands equal strong relationships and that is what it is all about.”
Brands are the edge which newspapers have over citizen journalists, bloggers etc, but it is becoming increasingly hard to maintain. After all, when people can pick and choose from a plethora of news outlets, why just stick to one? Of course getting news from different sources can only be a good thing, offering as it does a range of views so you can make a more informed decision. But even though people like to diversify their news intake, there is usually one media platform they tend to trust over others, and the trick for newspapers is be that platform. One way of doing this is to not just be a provider of news, but of community as well.
That is the thinking behind My Telegraph, which is, as Richmond says, "an experiment in brand loyalty." My Telegraph gives Telegraph readers an online space to share their views with fellow users, and helps establish an online community.
As I’ve said, in this age of fragmentation, brand loyalty is what gives newspapers an edge over citizen journalists and less-established news outlets. Rupert Murdoch’s take on it is that "Readers want what they've always wanted: a source they can trust. That has always been the role of great newspapers in the past. And that role will make newspapers great in the future."
To compete today, you can't offer the old one-size-fits-all approach to news. The challenge is to use a newspaper's brand while allowing readers to personalise the news for themselves and then deliver it in the ways that they want."
In other words, a newspaper shouldn’t try to be all things to all people. That can never work because you can’t please everyone, and in the end, you will probably disappoint the loyal followers by trying to change its identity. The key, it seems to me, is to stick to your brand and then cultivate it by allowing readers to make it their own. That way, you’re not just offering news but a place to discuss it with other readers as well as the opportunity to truly personalise it by hosting your blog there. Above all, it's about being a dependable source which readers can rely on, and in this fragmented market, a little stability in this sometimes disorientatingly dispersed web is a precious commodity.
Image from Edumetrics.org
Thursday, 13 November 2008
Scary words there from Antony Mayfield, Vice President of iCrossing, but of course very true. Recently, Clarence Mitchell, spokesman for the McCanns, declared that "The latter day lynch mob has gone digital" and when you consider how many online users there are, that's a heck of a large mob out there. 1.4 billion of them, to be precise. If just a fraction of online users are galvanised into action, the outcome can potentially be devastating. A case in point is Eason Jordan, whose comment about the number of journalists being killed in Iraq enraged bloggers who went on to create a blogswarm that ended in his resignation.
The blogosphere can be a very powerful beast that can turn on someone with the slightest provocation, and sometimes not even that. It's something to bear in mind as journalists continue forward into this world of interacting with 'those formerly known as the audience', because the 'audience' know how to bite back. Take Richard Cohen's recent experiences with readers who didn't exactly share the opinions he put forward in his articles.
As he said, "It seemed that most of my correspondents had been egged on to write me by various blogs. In response, they smartly assembled into a digital lynch mob and went roaring after me.
"It marks the end of a silly pretense about interactive media: We give you our e-mail addresses and then, in theory, we have this nice chat. Forget about it. Not only is e-mail too often a kind of epistolary spitball, but there's no way I can even read the 3,506 e-mails now backed up in my queue -- seven more since I started writing this column."
So how much should journalists open themselves up to interacting online with its readers? Although webpages like the BBC's Have Your Say offer the public a chance to air their views on news stories and often allows for intelligent debate and feedback, it also exposes the journalist to insults and spiteful comments, the kind that people would rarely have the guts to say to someone's face.
But then again, now that the floodgates are open and journalists are expected to encourage feedback, asking how far this interactivity should go is kind of redundant because readers now expect, demand even, to be able to answer back. And trolling is an inevitable by-product of engaging with the audience. As The Guardian’s Emily Bell commented, "Complaint becomes a participation sport in a digital world, where totals are electronically tallied and regularly updated. Most importantly, by participating, the public expects to influence the outcome of events."
The outcome was certainly influenced in the Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross/Andrew Sachs scenario, but there, it was the media that were almost solely to blame. By whipping the digital mob into a frenzy, newspapers like the Daily Mail and the Sun turned the original two complaints into over 37,000 in the space of two weeks, most baying for a resignation. The digital mob cannot be tamed, only sometimes influenced, and in this instance the media created a monster no one could control.
After all, as Bell says, "Technology is amoral and the connectivity which helps a civil rights movement can equally be the platform for a lynch mob. There is no implicit democracy in interactivism - the most organised and connected, the most vociferous and offended can tip the balance."
Stanley Baldwin once said that journalists enjoyed "Power without responsibility - the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages." But power just got a lot more powerful and a lot more unwieldy. The digital mob can be swayed and manoeuvred, but it can also turn around and bite the media in the bum. The media need to be even more conscientious in practising responsible journalism to avoid causing hysteria or lynch-mobbing, and they also must learn how to handle harsh criticism from its readers.
Interactivity is a great thing in some senses, but it comes at a price. Not everything the community says is going to be insightful, engaging, or even civil - some will be downright vindictive. But now that we’ve opened ourselves up to online public engagement, there’s only one thing for it – to grow tougher skins.
Image from The Simpsons, courtesy of Fox Broadcasting Company
This one particularly foxed me. The second word seems to be 'indorsing' but what on earth is the first? 'Edeardo'?
Finally, after about the 11th go (I’m nothing if not persistent!) I finally managed to type the word correctly, but the whole exercise was so unbelievably irritating that I think I might just stick to email instead.
But it’s nice to know I’m not alone in my frustration. As Matt Mullenweg, who runs Wordpress.com, told Tim Anderson in the Guardian, "Captcha is the bane of the internet. I can't figure them out myself half the time!" In their efforts to beat the spammers, who now use increasingly sophisicated software to crack captchas, the designers are blocking the genuine users too.
Captcha stands for Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart (catchy title). But the obvious snag of course is that spammers can just work them out themselves or, according to Anderson, just pay room fulls of people to crack captchas. There’s no real way round it. But websites should try to strike a better balance to avoid blocking real users as well as spammers. Otherwise, I reckon this will just put off users who might then go elsewhere.
My Space apparently had quite a few problems with their captchas, as the video below parodies (it goes on a little too long in my opinion, but worth a look):
Wednesday, 12 November 2008
Whereas SEO is the kid who shouts to get attention, links are the popular kid who everyone wants to be friends with. And the more people linking to your blog, then the more networks you are a part of and the more traffic that will come your way.
As Jeff Jarvis has explained, "Links are the currency of the new media economy.
"Online, content is valueless if no one sees it: content that isn't linked is the tree that fell in the forest no one heard (or turned into print)."
Links are the new currency, and seeing as actual currency doesn’t seem to hold any weight online these days (see the New York Times’ failure to make money from charging people to access its content – people simply won’t pay when they can get news for free), links are the main lingua franca.
Since the blogosphere took off, the link network has exploded and as you can see from the diagram below showing the vast number of links that now exist, conversations are pinging all over the globe. The challenge for newspapers is how to get people linking to them and tap into the conversation.
As Adam Tinworth said, some newspapers and magazines have isolated themselves from the link network by only allowing subscribers access to their content. The vast number of internet users dwarfs the number of subscribers, and publications are losing out by not tapping into the online conversation. By making content more accessible and having people link to them, they are driving traffic towards their content, thereby bumping up their advertising revenue.
This is exactly the lesson the New York Times learnt to its cost. As Jeff Jarvis commented in the Guardian, by putting content behind a pay barrier, “It took the paper's best-known writers out of the conversation and reduced their influence worldwide. Worse, it diluted the paper's Googlejuice by shutting off search and bloggers' links to much of its content.” No one was linking to any of the articles because they weren’t freely available.
But on the other hand, abolishing subscription-only content is closing off a source of revenue when money is so crucial in these hard times. Where else is the money going to come from? Advertising? As Carolyn McCall said at the Society of Editors Conference in Bristol last weekend, 20 per cent of advertising is shared by all media companies in the UK, compared with Google, who takes 40 per cent alone. And as all the media platforms are fighting over advertising, that doesn’t leave a lot to go round.
So how else can the media make money out of the internet? This is the multi-million dollar question right now, and if I had the answer, I would probably be sitting in a plush penthouse office somewhere...
For now, though, media outlets should focus on getting their content as widely read as possible. Users now only arrive at a destination either through it coming up in search (SEO) or because someone has recommended it to them (links), and these are two of the most powerful tools in which media companies can generate readership.
A final quote from Jeff Jarvis: “We in media must open ourselves to the public in every way possible. Tearing down walls - pay, registration, archive, or just obtuse navigation - is only the start of it.”
Forget stocks and shares, it's time to start investing in links.