A recent Nieman Journalism Lab post by industry analyst and Newsonomics author Ken Doctor inspired GigaOM contributor Matthew Ingram to posit that the future of mass media depends on the ability of traditional media companies to embrace the power of "small things." Actually, it's Doctor that makes that assertion, with Ingr
am expanding on Doctor's news-centric take to include all types of print publishers.
For those who have been following my work over the years, the argument that big results come from thinking small may sound familiar. microMARKETING encouraged brand marketers to make this very same shift. And at the time (I can't believe my book is nearly two years old!) I encouraged them to do so by eschewing traditional media's big boys in favor of brand-as-publisher strategies that would empower them to be the media and engage their audiences directly, and by forging relationships with consumer content creators (in the book, micromavens) who were already building their own micro-media empires and gathering audiences of their own. Granted, at the time it was de rigueur for anyone waving the social media flag to foretell the death of old media -- even so, one of microMARKETING's dirty secrets is that it isn't really a social media book. It's an integrated marketing communications book masquerading as a social media book; and even if I didn't say it often enough back then we all know that the path to the best results lies not in trading-in the old in favor of the new, but in finding newly compelling ways to combine the right channels to have greater im
pact than ever before.
Nonetheless, the overriding message in microMARKETING was simple: that brands and their agencies could no longer rely on the easy option. The "one big thing" (whether it's a Super Bowl spot, full page ad in the Times, a Yahoo! homepage takeover, or even a big bet on some shiny new social media juggernaut) to deliver the kinds of returns they expected, and would instead need to be agile, experimental, innovative, and intelligent in combining many, many small things that - in the right combination - would result in truly impressive big results over time.
Fast forward to today... Doctor and Ingram are essentially arguing that thinking and acting small aren't just the keys to the future of marketing, but also the keys to the future of the media business that has since its inception been supported largely by marketers. While their analysis focuses on the hardest hit of the traditional media channels (print in general, and to a large extent newspaper) their thinking applies equally well to broadcasters and even the now-struggling first generation web portals. Even if broadcasters have been qui
cker to adapt than their ink-on-paper brethren, I'm not convinced that any of the big television players are hitting the ball out of the park, and radio companies are still struggling. (The latest in Arbitron's decade-plus-long series of digital media surveys - a series I oversaw when I headed Arbitron New Media around the turn of the century - still goads radio broadcasters to improve their approach to multichannel integration. Just like we did more than ten years ago.)
So why so slow to change?
The media business struggles from two fundamental problems. And two paths to evolution.
- The first is a matter of business model. Media companies are - for the most part - looking to replace two massive but dwindling revenue models (subscriptions and advertising) with two shockingly similar revenue models (paywalls and advertising), in an age when consumer media consumption patterns are in a state of constant flux and brand advertising choices are virtually unlimited. The problem is that the loss of traditional dollars generally exceeds the digital dimes these two models are capable of adding to the top line. The solution? More sources for the digital dimes. Rather than attempt to replicate the familiar old models that no longer resonate so well, media companies need to diversify their models to create a wider variety of (mostly) smaller revenue streams that, all together, will drive stability if not growth and also evolve their businesses into entirely new areas. Doctor prescribes a handful of innovative moves - from moving upstream from advertising to marketing and becoming a service provider to other media companies, to ramping up custom publishing and making the move from disrupted to disruptor by entering the fast-growing ebook market. If he can envision a half-dozen new models in the span of a blog post, surely a seasoned media pro can envision dozens from in the trenches. Therein lies problem #2.
- Problem #2 is a matter of business culture. Having spend decades (if not centuries) becoming overwhelmingly successful by being really really good at one or two things (capturing massive audiences for walled garden content, and collecting insertion orders from brands looking to advertise to those massive audiences0, it is now difficult for media companies to adjust to the new-found need to get really really good at now just two, but 20 or even 200 things. While there are certainly exception to the rule and I know for a fact there are some very smart and innovating outliers chipping away from within even the most traditional media giants, the rule stands that media cultures aren't generally built for agility, random experimentation, rapid and radical innovation, or gutsy start-up style disruption. To be frank, these things remain challenges for most marketer cultures as well. Don't even get me started on most agencies... Sure, innovation happens but, as Ingram points out in his GigaOM post, "many of these still feel like afterthoughts or side projects rather than a coordinated plan of attack on multiple fronts. The ones that are trying the hardest always seem to be the digital natives, or the ones with the gun to their head." We don't need bolted-on matching luggage. We need true multichannel innovation. And to get there traditional-first media companies will need to adopt a new digital-first mindset that drives new business and monetization strategies, incubates new digitally-minded talent within the organization or brings new talent in from the outside, and spawns businesses-within-the-business at a staggering rate. And all of this, of course, requires not only the creation of an innovation culture but also the development of a proper company-wide innovation capability spanning people, process, technology, partnerships and ultimately new measures for performance.
Thinking small is no small change. But that doesn't mean it's not possible. It is. And the significant effort and even more significant level of discomfort are more than outweighed by the strength of the foundation you'll build for the future of your business. To quote Ken Doctor, "Overall, it’s much better to move into the future with a half-dozen revenue streams — even if some are now just trickles — to stick with only two big-but-slowing ones. It should be more lucrative than selling the same old things. And maybe more fun, too."
I agree. How about you?