Traditional media must “engage” or die

August 13th, 2009

Half the country’s 1,300 local newspapers will close between now and 2013, destroying 20,000 media jobs. There will be a decline of original content across the board that will have enormous consequences for democracy.

Its not that journalism, news and newspapers are redundant in this time of epochal change, but the people that run them are. Because they have failed to truly experiment, they have failed to ask themselves what is advertising in the 21st Century? Because that was the model supporting them. I meet the CEO of the Johnston Press in 2006 and implored him that, JP needed to do 2 things

1). Think hard about how to create more value for its readers and to invest in that

2). Think harder about how in achieving [1] they delivered greater value for their advertisers

This had to be done as a web/mobile – ergo ‘digital’ strategy. Unfortunately, this did not happen. And the net result is the parlous state of JP today. And frankly I think there is no going back. Which is in fact tragic, because it has significant ramifications.

And the government has also be complicit in its demise, as explained by Claire Enders

Local newspapers refused the suggestion that they should be regulated by Ofcom. Simultaneously, the government started withdrawing public sector advertising and the Royal Mail “eliminated distribution to homes”. The government believes the local press is read by people, middle-aged and older, who live local lives. They are not relevant to the government’s view of itself. Instead of helping local media to stay alive longer, the effect of government action has been to push them over the edge faster. We’re talking about a fourth estate that is facing the future with much fewer resources. The resources on the government side are overwhelming.

Perhaps, this is also why we see the growth of local councils producing their own newspapers

What nearly all traditional media boards have failed to grasp are a number of very important developments. I would say in fact that, there has been a catastrophic failure at board level, to truly engage with the business and marketing challenges presented in the early 21st Century. A VP of a large media company said to me that,

The problem was that we (the company) thought that the problem was technology, so we invested a great deal of money in inappropriate technology. What we failed to see was in fact a bigger and broader picture, as a consequence we are now hamstrung by the massive costs of those investments, twinned with dwindling revenues, with few, if any resources to combat the business environment we are now in. The CFO, hears a huge sucking sound on cashflow, with only a trickle coming back in revenues from ‘digital’. We listened to the wrong people, and now we are facing the consequences of our own myopia.

Its not that the decline of the mass media businesses could be completely averted, however, these companies could have been in a far better position to face a market place defined by what I call networked economics. Instead, these boards have attempted to squeeze more efficiency from the thinning value of their current business models. Though it would be a brave CEO to stand up and say, we are fucked, lets rethink our business model, for the simple reason that he – the CEO must talk up his or her business to the media, shareholders and analysts, and harvest the cash-flow for the quarterly numbers. The wholse-scale tragedy is eventually failure to act in a timely fashion means that the road crash at the end is that more; final and ugly – for everyone. Lost jobs, lost lives, and a big black-hole for institutional investors wondering how they will ever get their pension funds back.

The key points are:

[1] We live in a Read & Write culture

[2] We live in a participatory culture

[3] We live in a search economy and a semantic universe and refined data transforms how brands and people can find each other in more meaningful ways

[4] We live in the networked society Which also encompasses the glittering allure of the mobile society

This transformation Yochai Benkler argued is structural – challenging how businesses and markets will co-evolve over the oncoming decades.

[5] The networked society and the Read & Write culture dramatically alter the power relationships between society the media, and organisations.

“In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomised  but connected ‘up’ to Big Media, but not, across to each other, and now that authority is eroding”, says Journalism Professor Jay Rosen

[6] That communication technology is political

Communication power, says Manuel Castells is at the heart of the structure and dynamics of society. By which he means, who has and who wields that power, can transform society. Communication technology is at the very heart of this current transformation of society – because we are seeking meaningful communication with each other, something that traditional media has failed to grasp, or crassly deployed it via Pop Idol and the X-Factor. The reality is that there there are consequences to this evolution.

[7] That interruptive, display, and image advertising is the junk mail of the 21st Century.

[8] There is no online and offline, there is no analogue vs. digital there is only blended reality – the crisis comes when there is No connectivity. Business models must reflect that fact. This has implications for how organisations construct themselves.

[9] The language and therefore the literacy that defines this networked society is different to the straight line, siloed, industrial mass media, mass consumer language and literacy.

[10] Business value is defined by (a) being: life-enabling, life-simplifying and navigational (help me navigate through the complexity of my life), (b) business models are hybrid, (c) the 4C’s: commerce, culture, community, connectivity.

Spotify, World of warcfraft, Apple Apps, Cyworld, enabling mobile services like; Girlswalker or Help Networks in Japan , are all representative of the digital elixiar of networked economics. And all these business models represent the “augmentation of information” plus, the “augmentation of experience.”

Augmented reality

Augmented reality


Think about it like this, an ordnance survey map represents multiple layers of information, derived from various studies of an area. The map is valuable to me, as it enables me to navigate to various destinations or to take a number of critical decisions on my journey, whether by foot or otherwise. This is information is ‘augmented,’ and, its value is derived from the unique augmentation of that information. Traditional notions of what constitutes “value” are made redundant, mostly in the 10 points I have outlined. Free, was never going to work, because, media owners never understood that they were on a journey to a new type of society, that perceived value in a different way to them. Media owners failed to understand that the “furniture of advertising” must evolve from display and interruptive (useful in a broadcast mass media society) to an enabling service, in the intention economy, which also has regulatory ramifications.

Which brings me onto Engagement.

Companies have to embrace the idea of engagement – why? Because “what information consumes is rather obvious. It consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention …The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention”, wrote Herbert Simon. How do you as a media brand stay relevant in a fragmented, superglobal networked media eco-system? You have to deeply engage people, especially when we live in a a networked, participatory culture. Businesses need to become part of the fabric of peoples lives, the need for intimacy acheived through high relevancy is key. Blyk as a pioneer in mobile marketing has clearly demonstrated that intimacy is vital in the 21st Century.

Engagement – if the 20th Century was about straight line thinking around commerce, media and communications, the 21st Century will be about a no straight line approach defined as Engagement which creates deeper context and greater meaning.

Engagement is about connecting large or small communities to an idea/task/goal/passion that they want to be part of, and, that they want to share with their friends driven by a commercial or social agenda. Or, deliver information of such unique value, people are prepared to pay for it – like the FT. Or, deliver information that is so highly relevant and contextual and targeted that is starts to deliver response rates of 29%+

Engagement Communications also enables the creation of new business models that make more sense in a participatory culture of no straight lines.

Traditional media must learn to engage with this 10 point plan or they will die.

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