Friday, December 4, 2009

The Biggest Mistake Media Companies Make Online

Yesterday, Media Industry News asked me three questions, one of which I shared with my Tweeps: What is the biggest mistake media companies make online? Nearly two dozen people weighed in with their own answers--and almost all of those responses are very good. Yet, I have my own take on this question that differs from most of the answers I received.

For all the talk about the importance of digital media, most traditional brands boast cultures, people, and processes that protect their dying assets (ie. print) at the expense of what is growing (ie. digital). There are a lot of reasons for this, and some of them are good ones. Print still brings in the vast majority of revenue. It somehow feeds in a more satisfying way the ego of editors and writers. And because the most resources are always devoted to the print product, the digital side remains a stepchild to the so-called main act--even when that act is unprofitable and dying.

As John Gardner once observed, most of the things that prevent the renewal of an organization can be found in the mind. It's not a matter of new ideas. "There is usually no shortage of new ideas," wrote Gardner in Self-Renewal. "The problem is to get a hearing for them. And that means breaking through the crusty rigidity and stubborn complacency of the status quo." Yet the rules, customs, and procedures in organizations always favor the past. That's why culture trumps strategy all the time. The cultural cues are that print (the past) is more important than digital (the future).

No traditional media player has a web-first culture, yet that is exactly what is needed to make an online operation really successful. It's another reason why newcomers have all the advantages in this game, and incumbents will never really get it. Sure, there are a lot of other mistakes media companies make online. But they aren't as fatal as the culture problem which leads to the protection of a high cost structure to support a dying medium and the refusal to embrace radical transformation.

My Tweeps offered up plenty of valid criticisms of traditional media's approach to digital.  I tend to think that Mike Duda, Michael Bigley and Chris Hardwick (see directly below) get closest to the truth. But that culture problem is a deal breaker. Others weigh in :
  • That online began as a stepchild and core people still are hanging on to the economics of "old" media and not embracing the reality or the opportunity of the web. @MikeDuda.
  • Media companies want their old business model to work online. It won't. They are failing. Pretty simple. From @michaelbigley.
  • Giving away product for free is biggest mistake. How can that ever be an effective business model? From @cjhardwick.
  • They focus too much on hits to the detriment of usability, e.g. having to click 20x to see the "Top 20" whatever. Usually abort after 3. From @ddudgeon
  • Failure to engage the audience as peers in real conversations the way people really talk to each other. (Failure to be real.) From @jterrito.
  • Shoveling stories from the paper to the screen and not considering the capability of the Web to tell a more complete story. From @annatauzin.
  • An us/them approach vs a community approach. From @littlebrownpen.
  • Not listening to what's being said in social media channels. Simply carrying broadcast mentality to a new channel. From @xybrewer.
  • Portals like My Yahoo offer customization. All others dump everything on us then expect us to sort it out - daily. No time for it. From @winequester.
  • Putting their content behind paywalls and not exposing it to search engines--and failure to take risks. From @jaybryant.
  • Poor reader targeting; trying to be everything to everyone; de-valuing their content by making all of it available for free. From @jeffschmitt.
  • They want to make rules, but they're immigrants to an existing community with existing standards. When in Rome..., etc. From @trymaster
  • Tweeting every headline they run. If I wanted RSS, I'd use RSS! From @lorakolodny.
  • The wholesale sacrifice of narrative in the name of being the first to break news. From @jpolicastro.
  • Using Facebook & Twitter but not using social media tools to reach their audiences in new, more effective ways. From @CPry
  • The single biggest mistake: not engaging audience enough. From @alexlcohen.
  • Not engaging their readers. Pursuing a monologue rather than a conversation. Which is the exact opposite of what you created at! From @GeriRosman.


  1. John,

    The biggest mistake is not recognizing that digital media fills the void in traditional media. It is impossible for direct marketers, newspapers, magazines, newsrooms, and all other one-way communicators to have real relationships with the people they serve. This has always given retailers an advantage over direct markers and gives newcomers an advantage over traditional media.

    While ignoring (or abhorring) digital media is a mistake, eliminating (or excluding) traditional is equally dangerous. The way we communicate is evolving. Some people want print media while others want digital. Some want to listen, while others want to exchange thoughts. Companies that want a sustainable business model will include all in their strategy.

    Traditional media companies have a distinct advantage over digital newcomers. They have brand awareness, historical data, established infrastructure, and customer loyalty. Digital media provides the tools to change one-way messaging into two-way communication. It's a shame that so few are using their good foundation to build a great business.

  2. Debra, thank you for a very thoughtful and substantive perspective. I agree that traditional media companies have brand awareness and customer loyalty on their side. But brand value and customer loyalty for media has been rapidly eroding since the peak year in 2000. There was a time when almost all media brands had so much value that they could have been leveraged to great advantage in the digital space. In many cases, brand equity has diminished to the point where it will not be able to make enough of a difference. So we agree that it is indeed a shame that so few brands are using or have used their "good foundation to build" great businesses.

  3. Mark Zuckerberg is onto something - and Loic Le Meur also gets it. I wrote about it here ("On the Web is Freedom 2, Publishing 0"):

    :) nmw

  4. Please do, though, notice the "community" strain that connects several of these comments.

    The "existing standards" to which I refer (the Rome where this all is happening) involve the very concept of community on the web. If it has escaped anybody's notice, please be aware that community is paramount on the web.

    Thus I see @jterrito, @littlebrownpen, @xybrewer, me, @CPry, @alexlcohen and @GeriRosman as all basically saying the same thing. I don't know @MikeDuda, so I can only say that to my reading, this community approach is "the reality and opportunity" to which he refers.

    Clearly I disagree with @cjhardwick and @jeffschmitt say. And, again, note that it is a minority view at least on this page. I agree that publishing for 'free' is "a problem". I just don't think it's "the problem".

    And I totally get how the whole Google thing makes people's brains short-circuit. What Goog does is deeply, deeply counterintuitive to traditional media. But also highly profitable.

    I reject out-of-hand the assertion that Google is profiting from others' content. Rather, I say that Google profits from connecting users to content. It is a service that most web publishers appreciate greatly. Google, unlike any other search engine ever, goes to great pains to deliver the least-skewed results possible. Google is constantly on the hunt for people who game their system. That's why they succeed.

    There is a direct connection between Google's user-centric, community-oriented approach and their financial success. And Jarvis is right - do what Google would do.

    (For the record, y'all should know that this blog is built on the Blogger platform, provided for free by Google.)

    I don't envy the pain the papes are going through, and all media for that matter. But it's hard to be sympathetic when we - the existing web community - have been offering this same advice for, Jeezum, a decade now. At some point, these new-coming media companies have to admit that we, also, are grown ups.

    I leave you with a single link - also to test how your blog handles html tags - that everybody who takes this issue seriously must follow: Cluetrain. Read it, love it, live it.

    Thanks for the provocative post, and best luck with your new venture.

  5. John,

    Excellent post. While you appear to be focusing on traditonal print media, you could easily replace all your references to print with 'broadcast' and their stubborn desire to hang on to analog to the detriment of digital. I've seen first-hand the lack of 'web-first' cultures and what that does to the digital side.


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