The level of interest in advertising and media circles is no surprise given their industry prominence and investments in digital. What is a surprise is how strongly people reacted to its contents, some even casting it a seminal moment for the industry.
Much of the reaction to date focuses on deep-seated cultural issues and institutional inertia, in reality common challenges media, marketers and agency people face making change happen.
After an in-depth read, I was actually struck by something different – more how deeply the one-two punch of social media and mobile has destroyed illusions incumbent practices are viable to win.
The New York Times is a powerful symbol and reference in this regard. We’re talking about an institution with a renowned R&D lab and remarkable run of innovations in story experimentation, interactive storytelling and delivery.
The data proves content innovation is only one part of the equation. Discovery (packaging and distributing its journalism), promotion (generating PR for its content), and connection (creating a two-way relationship with readers to improve loyalty) will drive their future.
Stated in no uncertain terms, coming from a content company with the stature of the Times, this is pretty telling stuff.
They’re not alone in figuring it out.
Getting social engagement right is among the most material challenges to winning in digital. Every media company leader, marketer and content producer should look closely at lessons from their investigative work. We’re all invested – for better or worse – in a new content, attention and engagement game.
Some relevant take-aways that illustrate challenges at hand:
In digital, current competition destroys past categorization.
The New York Times lists competitors ranging from traditional media institutions, such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, to social networks and publishing platforms like LinkedIn and Medium, as well as content aggregators like Flipboard.
The report caught fire following BuzzFeed’s lead, one of media’s most socially-savvy operators. Ironically, BuzzFeed was also mentioned in the report as one of their competitors. The Times is losing share to an unprecedented range of companies — most notably those mastering audience engagement. The list of competitors defies categorization – even the very nature of competition.
Engagement requires fundamentally new practices.
Almost a third of the report documents the widening gap between their news practices and readers’ socially-minded behaviors. Page One remained the fulcrum of its operation, despite only thirty percent of readers actually visiting the Times‘ home page.
The fallacy in home page focus combined with a belief in the power of content alone was cited as a fundamental flaw. “Because we are journalists we tend to look at our competitors through the lens of content rather than strategy. Buzzfeed, Huffington Post and USA Today are succeeding because of their sophisticated social, search and community building tools and strategies, often in spite of their content.”
Publishers of all stripes will evolve audience-building practices and supporting content management systems to compete more broadly for attention. In context of creative experiments like Snowfall, this seems like lo-fi innovation material. But as BuzzFeed and Huffington Post show, innovating in engagement pays off.
Earning attention via mobile requires winning in social.
It’s clear that the Times views mobile as the key to the future. To win in mobile you must master social.
The Times readily acknowledges the flaws in its current social initiatives — namely, that its Twitter account is run by the newsroom, while its Facebook page is managed by the business. Keeping all its promotional tools in silos has inhibited its ability to help its journalists find and build a base of loyal readers, increasingly who are reading and spreading content on mobile.
The report says that the newspaper is empowering its reporters and editors to promote their own work on social media and become more fluent in analyzing data that can reveal what resonates with readers.
They won’t make a successful transition if, structurally, journalists don’t have access to platforms and tools they need.
Winning in social requires relevant circulation.
The Times produces more than 300 URLs every day. Due to the volume, as well as topic relevance driving visibility via social media and personalized news feeds, people often miss potentially valuable content.
A more reader-centric approach in packaging and surfacing content offers opportunity to generate additional reach for their work. The Times understands the potential of its archives, but is struggling to properly activate and recirculate it through proper tagging and curating.
For any publisher, especially the Times, an engagement-driven strategy allows teams to easily discover, repurpose and recirculate topical content in which they’ve already invested.
Socializing stories requires diverse promotion specialties.
New roles being added won’t focus on creating new journalism, the report says. Rather, they’ll focus on getting more out of journalism the Times has already produced.
The structure takes a page out from competitors’ discovery and distribution tactics. It includes an expert to focus on ways to boost a story on search though headlines, links and other tactics. A social editor decides which platforms are best for the story and finds influential people to spread the word. A PR lead reaches out through phone calls and emails to other media outlets. A data analyst evaluates the the impact of the promotion.
The approach recognizes all media is really social media, and that all of it is interconnected.
Challenges with gaining mindshare and a loyal following in such a fluid environment is not unique to legacy publishers. Anyone working in digital media will struggle to capture and maintain attention. It requires constant experimentation, iteration, and continued refocus to build engagement capabilities into content operations.
If you’re serious about making it happen it also warrants candid, and potentially humbling, self-assessment to get it right.