What really happened that caused traditional media to shrink so much over the past decade – and why are so many still struggling to come back?
That’s the subject of this presentation, which I’ve given several times over the past few years.
Two years out of college, as a young reporter for a business weekly in Upstate New York, I met the crusty old publisher of the Pacific Business News – a business journal in Honolulu. I didn’t like him much. I was idealistic and ready to change the world. I was living in the snow belt and learning how businesses work. I was reporting on Michael Milken (a Master of the Universe, the junk-bond king, deal-maker supreme) and leveraged buyouts. I was writing about how empires were made, how old cities were rebuilt, how capitalism made the world turn.
Knowing that, the question is: how often are you featuring the photo, name, needs or wants of your customers where everyone (or at least the person you’re catering to) can see them?
Alan Mutter, who calls himself the Newsosaur and whose opinions on the news business I deeply respect, points out that newspapers are now well into their sixth year of declines in advertising demand. In a recent blog post, he noted that annual newspaper sales hit $10.7 billion in 2006 – and now stand at $4.3 billion, about the same level as 1983. And they continue to drop.
While the drop in advertising isn’t new for newspapers, it hasn’t always been their No. 1 problem. Credit for that goes to the systemic and ongoing declines in circulation. Newspapers are simply less relevant across society than they once were.
But the dynamic behind shrinking advertising is different; it’s more like the experience of magazines – especially business-to-business – over the past decade.
I’ve written about the reasons behind the loss of advertising for magazines, and I’m not alone. The issue isn’t that advertising has ceased to work; I don’t believe that’s the case now, nor do I foresee the day when it is.
The issue is that other things now work better. And by other things, I really mean one other thing: social media.
First, more people are involved in social media than in any other media channel. If you lump together YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, Slideshare and the thousands of other social media websites, day-to-day participation is as broad as any other media channel.
Further, in most cases participation is free – even for the marketers, at the most basic level.
Further still, results are always measurable.
The equation is really simple: Marketers who are pulling back on their traditional advertising are merely following the lead of other marketers. And those who are not actively involved in social media are negligent. Marketers need to be where the people are, so they simply aren’t going to ignore a media channel that has so quickly attracted a large percentage of the world’s population.
I could predict that advertising revenues are going to continue their decline for newspapers, because consumer advertisers are now discovering what business-to-business advertisers learned several years ago: With social media, you can (and should) become your own publisher – developing an audience and serving it with meaningful, interesting and helpful content.
That doesn’t mean newspapers, magazines or any other type of print media are doomed. But newspapers of the future will be very different than they were just six years ago. The sooner they figure out how to unhitch their fortunes from advertising, the better off they’ll be.
In a recent workshop on social media for small business, one owner remarked that she didn’t want to start using Facebook for her business because she doesn’t want information about her personal life to be available to strangers online.
After an explanation that it’s now possible to keep business and personal lives separate on Facebook, I flippantly suggested that the era of privacy is over anyway.
Many people under the age of, say, 25, seem comfortable sharing every moment – for better or worse – with their extended network (often numbering in the thousands) of “friends.” And as that generation ages, our notion of privacy will become ever fainter and quainter. It will become a nostalgic memory, like retirement and puppet shows.
For example, I’ve just learned from CNET.com that the U.S. Department of Justice insists that e-mail messages should not enjoy the same protection as written correspondence or information about phone calls. The difference? Warrants are required when law enforcement officials want corporations to turn over your phone records or letters – but not necessarily e-mail. And DOJ wants to keep it that way.
Why? To make it easier to conduct fast criminal investigations of events that have either transpired our are about to transpire. I can see their point. I can also see why the main law covering such issues needs to be revisited; it was last updated in 1986, about 10 years before most people received their first e-mail.
But I hope the Justice Department softens its stance before privacy really is a thing of the past.
That’s 9.5 people-years per day spent on Facebook. I don’t know the source of his information and I haven’t bothered to look at how many people use it; I don’t know the average time spent per user. I don’t even know why this is meaningful.
But it amazes me nonetheless.
Just yesterday, a friend (that’s a lower-case, analog friend) told me how much he hates Facebook. He can’t believe how much time people spend there, he wishes he had never registered for it, and he resents the amount of attention it tries to demand from him.
With that said, he asked if I thought it would eventually fade away.
Social media is here to stay, I responded. While Facebook and Twitter may not always be the dominant portals, the notion of social networking that they represent will continue to evolve and embed itself into our communication – just as web browsing and e-mail have done.
Then this article, on Facebook’s acquisition of Friendfeed, crossed my desktop and my opinion evolved.
The most insidious aspect of Facebook is how it brings in new members. First, as I explained to my flesh-and-blood friend, every time someone sets up a new Facebook page, they get the opportunity to scour their own address book for potential Friends (digital, capital-F friends). And because Friends are the currency of Facebook — the more you have, the “wealthier” you are — most people accept this initial chance to let the social networking site into their personal data.
So Facebook searches your computer address book for people who are already registered with the site. I don’t know if it just looks for e-mail addresses or follows a more complex algorithm, but within seconds, it will identify every Facebook member you know and offer — with a single click — to ask them to Friend you. (It’s notable that Facebook has already created a legitimate verb in the word “friend”.)
Then Facebook makes a more extraordinary offer: It identifies everyone in your personal address book who isn’t registered at the site and offers — again, with one click — to let them know how much you’d like them to join Facebook with the purpose of becoming your online Friend.
Insidious and ingenious. For the new user, this is simply a shortcut to Facebook-style wealth — lots of Friends. For Facebook, this is the shortest route to ubiquity — which it could be argued has already been achieved.
So now, Facebook has acquired Friendfeed, which “enables you to discover and discuss the interesting stuff your friends find on the web.” This isn’t unique; Digg.com is better known and does essentially the same thing.
But here’s the key: Friendfeed lets you “Read and share however you want — from your email, your phone or even from Facebook. Publish your FriendFeed to your website or blog, or to services you already use, like Twitter.”
This isn’t unique to Friendfeed either. I’ve seen lists of social media sites that have 350 to 400+ sites listed, with new ones being entered daily. Try Googling “list of social media sites”. Most of them make it easy to publish on your blog, Facebook, Twitter and other leading sites.
What’s the point? Facebook is paying $50 million to buy a social media site that, as its primary function, collects more people — not just from the Web, but also from their phones.
This won’t surprise anyone who thinks strategically about social networking. But for anyone who wonders whether Facebook is going to fade away: It’s less likely every day.
If you doubt the potential of Twitter, Facebook and other social media, read this recent column by Nicholas Kristoff in the New York Times. The depth of meaning here is amazing. Twitter is an outlet for the voices of freedom in Iran; the ongoing human rights situation in China creates the impetus for incredible cyber innovation; and the United States could help, but doesn’t necessarily have to do anything except watch quietly.
Social media is not just the latest iteration of the Web; it’s already embedded in world-changing events.
At the time, he was talking about the fast advent of TV. But if you want to see the truth of his statement in action, you’re already in the right place: online.
There are at least dozens more kinds of electronic media where you can place your messages. I know people who market themselves online using all of the above media and more. But if you want to get people to pay attention to what you’re writing, you can’t just cut and paste your blog post onto Facebook and Twitter and Squidoo, etc.
In some cases, there are limitations such Twitter’s infamous 140-character limit. In all, there is the simple and unarguable feedback from the market. If you do it right, people will pay attention. If you do it wrong, they won’t.
Doing it right means integrating strengths, weaknesses and peculiarities of the medium into whatever it is that you’re writing, videotaping, podcasting, etc. If you want to give a lecture, don’t bother putting it on YouTube unless you have strong visuals to go with it. And don’t simply post the transcript of your lecture as a blog if you want anyone to say anything nice about it.
Today, as newspapers face their toughest economic environment ever, they’re trying to figure out how to get people to pay for content online. When I ask people about this, the usual response is that they aren’t sure they’d find an electronic newspaper to be worth reading, let alone paying for.
But they’re imposing their view of newspapers as a print medium on the coming reality of newspapers online.
To be sure, some publishers will make a mess of it. They’ll try to do exactly what they’re doing now — but without the paper costs. And they’ll fail.
Others will figure it out. The paper of the future may provide headlines to your cellphone in the morning, with updates all day. On a Smartphone, the headlines may link to the full story. You may have the choice whether you want to get one section (world news, for instance) in-depth, and another (perhaps sports) on only a cursory basis. The website might offer configuration and search tools, letting you scan for all articles containing a specific keyword, or filter out stories from the opposite side of town. It could give you Tweets as news breaks, video clips of big events, or full context about ongoing, longterm stories. It may led you contribute news in the form of short video and photos. You might be able to read it on a Kindle, on screen or hear it through your ipod. And somewhere in there, they’ll figure out how to not only collect a critical mass of paid subscribers, they’ll also figure out how to serve advertisers.
In other words, newspapers will survive. But they won’t look like they do today, and they won’t DO what they do today either, because they’ll come to us not just through the same old medium, but through a Dagwood sandwich of media.
So McLuhan’s old saw really is more important than ever. When he wrote it, he was dealing with print, TV and radio. Today, because the medium is the message, it means the message changes many times a day depending on where you happen to be when you choose to accept it.