The traditional media industry has lost its monopoly on the mass production and distribution of content. At the same time, companies and marketers have leapt on the opportunity to become publishers themselves – generally about themselves – often leading to swathes of content looking for an audience. The art of pleasing, and of reaching, the audience is one which needs to be relearned.
In his 1979 book about the post war US media, “The Powers That Be”, the brilliant journalist and historian, David Halberstam, detailed the history of some of the titans of US media – The New York Times, CBS, Time Incorporated and The Washington Post. The stories of publishers setting political agendas; of editors and journalists desperate to produce high quality papers and programmes; of failing business models, all seem oddly familiar – and that in a world where TV was the insurgent, not the internet, social media or mobile technology. Halberstam acknowledges the political agendas of the various media owners – impossible not to with characters such as Harry Luce at Time, or Kyle Palmer, who controlled California politics from a seat at the LA Times. These are not all independent or apolitical media; but what they never are is dull or irrelevant or lacking voice. On the topics which mattered, they made themselves heard.
That is what content is all about – making it stand out. And what all of these great publishers had was an eye for the audience and how their material would be received and the reaction it would provoke. To use the contemporary marketing term – engagement.
For a corporate entering the publishing world, the challenge is the same as for a commercial publisher – what does the audience actually value? Will providing it be of benefit to me as a publisher? And how do I make sure they get to see it in numbers large enough to justify the production cost, and opportunity cost of other marketing activities?
Deciding what audiences actually value is an extraordinarily difficult proposition. The media industry will embark on a price war, or move to a free to read model, at the drop of a hat, thereby telling the world that their content is not worth what they were previously trying to charge. Or the race to the bottom in terms of content quality, or sheer political bias – globally, media will try just about anything to keep its audience, even occasionally venturing up-market. And there is no doubt that audiences enjoy titillation, entertainment, voyeurism and instant news update – but there is less evidence that they are still willing to pay for it, or that they have loyalty to the provider. This is the problem for the media industry – and it is the challenge for the corporate publisher if they are to see value out of their story telling or thought leadership activity.
Assuming that most corporates want to enter politics through the boardroom rather than as part of marketing strategies; and that titillation is a rung too low, it is difficult to see companies getting involved in the free for all of commercial publishing. But there are at least two areas where there are signs of audience interest – genuine pieces of thought leadership, and invitations to respond on social media and elsewhere.
Rather like high end print media, which does appear to be winning the battle for the audience`s wallet, high quality thought leadership actually has something to say, and says it well. The audience sees value in it – maybe it has a directly actionable recommendation or insight, or it is the kind of piece that journalists wish they had thought of themselves, or more likely these days wish their editors had allowed them the time to write. But it is not a rehash of common knowledge, or a statement of the obvious and uninteresting. It is original and interesting and leads the audience somewhere. And occasionally, it can take a risk and say something controversial, or make a stand on something the company believes in. But make it interesting and make it relevant to the audience.
The second way in which I see the media world setting an agenda for corporate publishers is in encouraging response. Halberstam tells of a painstaking editor handwriting three hundred letters responding to readers angry at a decision to drop a favourite cartoon strip (well past its sell by date according to Halberstam). But modern media has become actually rather adept at provoking a response and using some of the very threats to its existence – the internet and social media – to widen its audience and deepen its interaction with them. So just as twitter competes head on with instant news media, it is a great spreader of original content produced by all sorts of different media companies. And Facebook has turned into a forum where genuinely substantive conversations can be had with audiences around big topics. At The Economist Intelligence Unit, we recently hosted an online debate sponsored by Standard Chartered on the topic “CSR has nothing to do with Charity”. Rather like the letters page of a newspaper, or a TV viewer`s forum, both the web debate and a bespoke facebook page became active centres of debate and comment. People want to get involved and to have their voices heard. They are not just complaining about beloved cartoons disappearing – they are adding to the work produced by the media company.
Of course, company and media events and conferences have always played a similar role, allowing for the audience to get closer to the idea formers and leaders. But even here the format has had to change to represent the relationship between media, content and audience – and to allow the audience much greater participation. It is impossible to imagine now, or at least anywhere outside the North Korean politburo, the kind of conference where the audience is inflicted with a series of one way presentations or keynotes, without the chance for their voice to be heard. Yet this is what a lot of corporate publishing amounts to – efforts to be heard, but not to listen. Or it is not designed for the format – what works and becomes viral on facebook is very different to what excites in longer form. But as the media has found, listening and responding is a worthwhile exercise, and so is making content fit the platform.
This of course assumes that corporate publishers have learned another lesson – the need to invest in audience. For media, of course, circulation is both a source of revenue and the chance to sell advertising, so a double reason to invest in it. For corporate publishers, the challenge is to think beyond the existing audience and to work out which audience is next to please. But getting to those who don`t know you, or who are not actively interested in you, is a very different proposition to managing existing relationships – convening a new audience or bringing the brand to those who don`t know you, or who do know you but aren`t yet in a relationship with you, is a different skillset to satisfying and renewing your existing audience. Just ask any circulation manager.
For corporate publishers, it is not just a question of pleasing the audience. It is a matter of building the audience, of spending enough on amplification and on creating content which will work over a series of platforms because you can be sure that your audience is not all in the same place or on the same device. And while I would be the last person to suggest that corporates take business advice on running their companies from the media model, there are valuable lessons to be learned in both what constitutes good content and where to put it. See, media is relevant.