Speech to News:Rewired, June 2010

I spoke at the News:Rewired conference on June 26, 2010.

I'm still cogitating over what I heard from other speakers at this very well organised and focussed event, and will post on what I conclude later.
For the time being, here's the text of my speech, which a couple of Tweeters called brutal. If that's how it came across, I'm truly sorry: I was aiming for 'passionate.

I’ve three main points to make today:

They’re these:
  • In a niche, it’s not enough to be a journalist – you’ve got to be a business person too
  • In a niche business, it’s not enough just to provide information – you’ve got to do other stuff too, even if that’s selling your readers a credit card
  • A niche audience needs a niche approach – not a mass market one

Why are we talking about niche today? Why has this subject risen up the agenda – why this sudden interest in geographical niches – hyperlocal – and interest niches – business journalism in my case?

You’d think that beyond a few specialist magazines for stamp collectors and widget distributors, niche products for niche audiences didn’t even exist before that pesky internet came along to upset the mass-audience applecart.

But that’s wrong, in my view. Readers and viewers have always defined themselves in terms of their niche interests – it’s just we arrogant publishers and editors who have forced them into mass market buckets because, quite frankly, that approach was a lot more convenient and profitable for us.

I know best the regional press, of course, so please allow me to draw most of my parallels and observations from this world.

By lassoing together a hundred different interests under one roof, regional newspapers have spent years deluding themselves that, say, a readership of 100,000 represented a single, unified community that could be talked to as one. This led to some dangerous assumptions about advertising effectiveness and blinded many to the creeping decline of audiences in key segments.

But not all niches within this newspaper mix are equal.

Let me explain.

Most regional daily newspapers share their turf with at least one and often many more major football teams. Not always premiership of course, but significant enough within their own regions to drive a high level of interest which translates into healthy copy sales for the local paper.

The significance of football to local papers is immense. I would estimate that for some titles, readership interest in football – and often just one team – delivers more than 50% of their total audience.

Here’s the problem: most of those sports readers are interested only in sport. They’ll spend precious little time - if any - on the news and features pages of the newspaper, but that is precisely where most of the advertising is.

And when newspapers went online, the problem got worse, because readers followed Google searches to find their latest team news, rather than go via a title’s homepage.

So advertisers had to continue to pay to reach the total audience of a paper, but their message was by definition relevant to only a proportion of the readership, and was never in front of the rest of the audience anyway.

That growing realisation amongst media buyers of the redundancy of a significant slice of advertising spend has driven advertisers from print to digital, but also, significantly for us today, from mass to niche.

That’s why we’re here today, I would suggest. We’re going niche increasingly because that’s where the audience is, sure, but also because that’s where the financial model is too.

Having established that, I’d also suggest that we can’t talk  about journalistic approaches to serving niche audiences without also exploring  the media organisation’s total relationship with its audience – and I firmly include advertisers in that definition of audience.

If serving a niche, you have to abandon the old editorial – advertising divisions of traditional media. You’ve got to understand and relate to your audience in totality because it’s more likely that your reader and your advertiser is one and the same person. That’s the nature of a niche – it’s a concentration down onto a specific interest, whether it’s a hobby, a business interest or a tiny geographical area. Enthusiasts turn their hobbies into micro businesses, which they want to advertise. Businesses need to be so close to customers that they form united, not divided communities of interest. If you impose an outdated editorial – advertising divide onto the way you interact with them, you’ll do nothing but confuse them and miss opportunities to get even closer to them yourself.

Don’t forget that a niche by its very definition is limited in size. Once you’ve acquired the few hundred or couple of  thousand readers in your niche that are available and are ever likely to read your stuff, what next? Do you sit back and hope that just by writing about what they do, their attention and advertising will be secured forever?

My answer is no, because the ‘news’ part of your business is only that – a part. The number of new readers you’ll be able to reach is limited because a niche is finite – so to get more out of them you’ve got to be relevant to them across  more aspects of their lives.

Define your business as only a media business and you’re making pretty much the same mistake that so many newspapers continue to make. In their case, it’s defining themselves by their physical form and not their content.

But I’d go further also – because in business terms it’s never actually been about the content anyway – in print or online – it’s about the relationship with the community you build – it always has been and it always will.

When you are successfully delighting and engaging with a reader – perhaps luring them in with great content - you are turning a transaction into an acquaintance and then into a relationship. If you have a relationship, you’ve got a business. Anything else is just words and spaces – and is as unsustainable an endeavour as you’ll ever see.

And like all relationships, it takes attention and nurturing – and it takes variety. Take things for granted and you’ll wake up one morning to a Dear John letter.

Once you’ve attracted them to your content you should see what you can do to fulfil all their other needs too – whether or not it involves journalism. Hold events, create a club to give them a sense of belonging, help them interact online and sell stuff to each other, and negotiate partnerships with other businesses to get your brand on credit cards, hotel booking services and even T shirts. Other businesses are using new technological tools and social media to encroach into territory traditionally marked ‘media’ so why shouldn’t we take a piece of their action?

And to all of you who are saying “Sorry I’m just a journalist, I don’t sell advertising or organise events...” I say: tough: that’s just the way it will be from now on.

 We tried it the other way and it broke.

That artificial divide we created when we put the noisy people in a room marked ‘advertising’ and the studious types in another labelled ‘editorial’ was the biggest mistake newspapers and other media ever made. It allowed journalists to insulate themselves from the business they were in to the point of revelling in their detachment. I’ve worked with generations of hacks to whom the very idea of passing on a sales lead was regarded as a murderous betrayal of the memory of CP Scott. No wonder so many didn’t see the meltdown coming.

And to those who say: “I can’t sell advertising” I ask how many death knocks have you done?: Exactly, so don’t tell me you can’t sell a little ad space.

So I’ve argued my first two points: one, if you’re going to serve a niche, you’ve got to get out of your journalistic comfort zone and become a business person, and two, just giving the audience journalism alone won’t be enough in the long term.

For my third point about taking a niche approach, I’ll talk a little about what I’m doing now.

In February I launched the West Midlands website of a fast growing online bsiness called TheBusinessDesk.com. We write stories about businesses in three separate regions: Yorkshire, the North West and now my home ground. We publish them on our website and send our readers an email to tell them they’re there. Then we sell advertising on the site and on the emails. We’re creating a relationship through our journalism and in other ways too. For the record, we this week welcomed our 5,000th registered web user in the West Midlands, achieving our full year target in four and a half months. Across the three regions we have 40,000 registered users – comprising business owners, professionals and senior managers.

So we have a niche audience, but we also try to serve them in a niche way.

After all, why decide to service a niche only to talk to the reader in the same old way  - as if you’re still a broadcaster?

To clumsily turn a noun into a verb, you can ‘niche’ your approach too.

So for TheBusinessdesk.com, we know our audience isn’t cruising the net all the day, so why should we waste time and effort constantly updating our site on the off chance one of them might drop by?

Rather, we concentrate on the time of day that they’re most receptive – using the medium to which they’re most receptive.

Hence we send daily emails before 9am – that’s the time they’re gathering the information that helps them plan their day – and they’re used to email as a business communication tool, so that’s what we use. Sure, we tweet, Facebook and Linkin with the rest of them, but these are supporting actions to the main event – the daily email, which drives around 80% of our daily traffic.

And because of that  we refuse to play the cpm game or become complete SEO tarts. Why should we? The received wisdom is that advertisers only buy volume so you’ve got to price your inventory accordingly and round up every set of eyeballs on the planet. But this takes no account whatsoever of the quality of your audience – and in a niche quality and relevance are all you’ve got. Our advertisers are also the people we write about and the people who read our stuff, so with every contact me and my journalistic colleagues do three things: 1 we get a story, 2 We champion what we do and 3 We assess whether it’s worth someone coming back to talk to them about advertising.

At the centre of our niche operation, however, is our intelligence about our reader. I review every new registration daily if I possibly can.

I can see the companies and organisations people work for, and from that work out where they are in our region. If a key firm is under-represented, I’ll see what I can do to encourage more sign-ups. If I notice the name of someone I know on the sign-up list, I may phone and thank them for their support. I’ll check to ensure our sign-ups reflect the target audience we’re promising to deliver to our advertisers, so their role and level of seniority is important to us.

Similarly, we keep an hour-by-hour check on what stories are well read and which are not, and use the learning in the moment or in tomorrow’s editing decisions. As a small business, we hate waste – it could destroy us, so we’ll ruthlessly reject any activity that doesn’t give us a return in terms of audience attention and or revenue. There’s no more doing stuff just because it gives us a buzz journalistically. If we’ve spent time doing a wonderfully crafted feature on a certain subject but no-one reads it, we won’t do it again.

1 comment:

  1. I was probably one of those tweeters that called it brutal, but i did not mean that in a negative sense. I've been to event after event over the last couple of years and heard different people saying the same stuff about digital media again and again. But noone seemed to be doing anything.

    I think brutal (maybe "straight talking" would have been better, not as easy to squeeze into 140 characters though) talk is necessary, if only to shock people out of the assumption that talking about stuff equals action.