What if you could wake up every morning smarter and more informed about global affairs with news dream media? What if you could wake up with new skills installed in your brain? There are 6 - 8 hours of our daily lives that media tech moguls haven't yet been able to reach - the time we spend asleep. But that may be changing soon...
So, Twitter is full of inane babble, right? Well, perhaps not. It can also be a source of inspiration, insight and learning if you want it to be. Here's six things I think we can learn from using Twitter:
1. Perception is Contagious. The people you surround yourself with affect your experience and perspectives. Your experience on Twitter is largely determined by the people that you follow - if you follow boring, prejudiced or self-absorbed people on Twitter, you’re probably not going to have a very enjoyable experience of it. However, if you following curious, interesting and insightful people, you’re likely to be surprised and delighted regularly.
2. It’s not all about you. Being selfish and cagey is a sure way to be ignored. The more interested you are in others, the more interested they’re likely to be in you. The most popular people on Twitter engage and respond to others, share the ideas of others, acknowledge others, and add value with their own ideas too.
3. Sharing is joyful. There’s a certain delight that comes from sharing an idea that you care about publicly. This is compounded for every person that acknowledges your idea and passes it along (in the form of “Retweets” usually). In the same vein, it’s amazing how willing people are to help out with ideas or resources in response to questions you might pose on Twitter (of course, in this case you’d probably need to have some active followers for this to work).
4. Everyone has a story. One of the most remarkable things about Twitter is the abundance of experiences and perspectives that people have. Just browsing what people are writing about at any given time, or around any given topic is often humbling and enlightening. For example, I loved sharing the experience of fans around South Africa of the World Cup opening ceremony and game - people in the stadium, at fanparks, at home alone (dancing!), or with family and friends.
5. A little humour goes a long way. An informal survey I conducted on Twitter revealed that the most popular tweets for South Africans are humorous one-liners. In response to even the most tense debate, helping people laugh is sure to win you friends and followers.
6. Mean what you say. Insincere expression of feelings - whether good or bad can come back in surprising ways. People have lost jobs, business contracts, friends and followers from saying things they didn’t mean on Twitter. I think this stems from a sense that complaining is a good way to build sympathy - it works if you’ve had a real experience but can really backfire if you’re making it up. Just because you’re saying it online, it doesn’t mean there aren’t real people or real consequences on the receiving end. On the other hand, flat praise or outright lies tend to be exposed online, and people tend not to follow those who they don’t trust.
Lastly, I'd say that ultimately Twitter is pretty meaningless if you're only using it to accumulate followers. The real value of it is in the relationships you develop and the ways in which you can get to know people, share experiences and resolve problems.
Online tools and resources that enable large-scale participation and media sharing such as Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia have been adopted into regular use by hundreds of millions of people in the last three years - perhaps because they enable people to collaborate, manage complexity and find information more efficiently than they would be able to without these tools. In South Africa and other emergent markets, mobile phones have been similarly used to not only enable one-to-one communications, but to enable learning, banking, networking, healthcare and access to news.
It is in this context of cheap, on-demand, real-time, and often social media access that newspapers are struggling to retain market share. Quite obviously, a new value proposition needs to be identified, given that the competitive landscape has changed along with consumer expectations.
In this post I will propose that the core value proposition of newspapers is intrinsically tied to what I see as the most pressing challenge of media consumers today: conserving time while maximizing reward.
We will look at three key themes that I believe will distinguish successful newspapers in the coming decade:
- Attention as an Asset
- Usability as a Differentiator
- Free and Fee
Attention as an Asset
The explosion in media types available, and of-course in the amount and variety of content, has created thousands or millions of niche media tastes. Media consumers today are faced with a mind-boggling array of content to choose from. Their challenge is not finding news and information, but finding news and information that fits their needs and lifestyles.
Most media consumers today are operating in a form of perpetual attention deficit: there is simply more content available to them than they could possibly attend to. So, people have books they’d love to read, but don’t; movies they’d love to watch, but don’t; newspapers they’d love to read, but don’t. The media that goes unattended to is not necessarily of an inferior quality, but somehow it doesn’t fit into the lifestyle of the person that misses it.
According to the polymath Nobel laureate, Herbert Simon:
in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it
The concept of an attention scarcity sits uncomfortably juxtaposed with the industrial model of news production. Information is intrinsically valuable in the industrial model because it is relatively scarce, exclusive and hierarchical. It makes sense then, to build empires around a particular access channel that is exclusive and popular - such as print. However, once information becomes freely available on the internet it may be easily accessed and shared by anyone who can operate a search engine and send an email. Thus, in sectors where information is abundant and available, the only ‘cost’ of information is the time and effort that it takes to engage with it.
The good news for the media in all of this is that businesses in virtually all consumer-facing sectors are facing a similar rise in competitors. They too operate in a marketplace driven by demand for thinly spread consumer attention. Media in general, being the purveyors of Attention, stand to benefit from this if they can effectively present advertising and other commercial content in a way that consumers appreciate and attend to.
In order to successfully adapt to this new economy, newspapers may need to start emphasising Attention, over Content. By this I mean that consumers will be drawn to news sources that are able to add value to the information in ways that enhance their experience of it - through having a more trustworthy brand, effective design, accessibility, community and engagement for example.
The quality of Attention is determined by the intensity of its focus. In other words, the more it excludes to concentrate on the matter at hand, the better its quality. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi observes that our nervous systems are only capable of processing 110 bytes of information per second. We therefore have a limited physiological capacity to process information. Concentrating on someone giving an average presentation, for example, consumes around 60 bytes of that capacity and it is what makes it difficult for one to concentrate on more than two voices at a time (Shannon, 1948)1.
Thus it follows that moving towards cheaper news prices (free in many cases) and more advertising may be adversely affecting the quality of reader’s attention. A lower quality of attention may translate into a lower quality of experience for the reader, and hence less likelihood of a repeat encounter with the offending news outlet.
Usability as a Differentiator
For many people, the ‘instinctive’ response in the face of all the variety of content available to them is to go faster, multitask, and spend more time engaging with media. Even the most casual observer would notice, for example, the compulsive engagement of smartphone users with their devices.
Newspapers may need to start focusing more on the holistic experience of news consumption in the context of their readers’ lifestyles. On a simple level, this may mean changing the ways news is laid out and written, as well as ensuring a seamless brand experience across other channels such as internet, mobile phones and e-readers.
Herbert Simon’s research (1996, 143-144) points out that designers of under-utilised information systems incorrectly represented their design problem as information scarcity rather than attention scarcity, and as a result they built systems that excelled at providing more and more information to people, when what was really needed were systems that excelled at filtering out unimportant or irrelevant information.
Simple ways of helping people to filter irrelevant information can be applied to print newspapers. For example, The Daily Maverick, a new online publication based in South Africa makes navigating it’s email newsletter simpler by formatting informative article abstracts into three useful sub-categories:
- “While you were sleeping” (news from the world that happened overnight);
- “Coming up today” (important events for the day ahead); and
- “In case you missed it” (the previous day’s news that missed the last publication deadline).
These categories would be different for publications with different readerships, but in this case they fit perfectly into The Daily Maverick’s value proposition to make their reader “the smartest person in the room” by equipping them with tidbits of news to spark conversation.
In his book, The Paradox of Choice, Professor Barry Schwartz asserts that “too many choices can paralyze people into inaction, and cause them to be dissatisfied with even good decisions”. To build on that idea, I would suggest that strong brands help reduce the cognitive dissonance that media consumers may experience when faced with the overwhelming variety of content from various outlets. To illustrate this, I would cite Apple as a brand that has so effectively distinguished it’s brand that to many people their choice of which laptop to buy may amount simple to “do I want a Macbook or Macbook Pro” (as an Apple fan, that was certainly my experience).
Free and Fee
Few people would argue that newspapers shouldn’t operate online. The online news channel, along with online advertising and payments continue to grow even as print readership and advertising revenues decline.
However, in the online environment content is abundant. When faced with the choice of marginally better content for a fee, or good-enough content for free, they tend to choose the free content.
Much news content online is serendipitously encountered - consumers haven’t gone out looking for it specifically, but have been referred to it by a peer or encountered it via a Search Engine. It is difficult to get people to pull out their credit cards to read an article they have encountered by chance and with cursory interest.
In the case of serendipitous encounters with news, it would be a mistake to hide content behind a password protected “walled garden”. The main argument against this is perhaps that Google and other search engines will not index password protected content, so a significant channel of new readership will be foregone.
On the other hand, the challenge with completely free content is that it tends to rely on more advertising and advertorials. The problem with this is two-fold: firstly, it may lower the quality of the reader’s experience, and secondly, it may begin to infringe on editorial and journalistic independence.
There have been alternate calls for newspapers to go free or to continue charging fees, whether in print or online. I would argue for a blended approach, often called Freemium pricing.
Freemium pricing works with two basic pricing levels: free and premium. Free content is used to attract attention and showcase the product. Premium content is exclusive and may offer greater access, functionality, or a better quality of experience.
In the context of the Attention Economy, we would assert that all the newspaper’s content should be freely available online, since content is no longer a distinctive value proposition for newspapers. However, consumers should be charged for features that enhance their experience of the content - for example, to remove adverts, to receive the print edition, the mobile application, or even the email newsletter.
Consumers of free news may have lower expectations of free content and may make advertising viable. However, serious news consumers would be willing to pay for a better quality reading experience. A blanket approach to either make content free or paid for is shortsighted and limiting.
I would assert that media consumption is not only driven by the quality of content, but also the quality of the experience in engaging with the content. Increasingly, considerations such as branding, integration with social-communities, personalisation and elegance need to be integrated into the core value proposition of newspapers.
News content should be free and easy to share, but a small percentage of users who are prepared to pay for a better quality experience of the content may ensure the continued viability and freedom of the press.
(This piece was originally written with Elaine Rumboll for the World Association of Newspapers' project "Charting the Course for Newspaper Companies,” a compilation of visions for the future of newspaper companies)
Over 4000 blogs were nominated in this year's awards, and over 25 000 people voted.
I also scored some free goodies with the award, including:
- A subscription to the Sunday Times (I still love reading the newspaper in print as a special treat, so this is a super prize for me);
- A subscription to Encyclomedia (a PR match-making tool that helps local businesses get press releases out to the right journalists);
- A Quirk E-Marketing text-book (I've got one already so will give it to someone in need).
- 12 SA Blog Awards branded Kika-sacks (I'll use one of them next time I hit the beach and give the rest away with reckless abandon); and
- "Black Bottle" whisky.
I'll cover three basic ways.
The most obvious answer is that you can make your money back from advertising. However, quality journalism and production is not cheap, so it is quite difficult to make sufficient profit from advertising and affiliate revenue alone if you're relying on original content to bring in your readers. Archived content can, however, provide bonus revenue from people coming across old content that you may already have recovered your costs on.
2. E-Commerce and Affiliate Revenue
A number of publications, such as Backpackers.com are using e-commerce to fund their publications (in addition to advertising). You can also get commissions from related products and services that you recommend via your site (some publications have ethical issues with this, as it can be seen to bias the writing toward the particular products/companies that affiliations have been set up with).
Some companies, such as MarketingProfs, give away some of their articles for free but charge for full access to all their articles. Others, like Trendwatching, give their content away for free, but charge a premium for high-quality summaries and live presentations of it. There are many ways to apply freemium - for example, you can give free access for a limited time only, or free digital access to drive print subsriptions or attendance at events. Andrew Chen has devised a useful little spreadsheet to help you evaluate the viability of freemium for your product or service.
Chris Anderson has identified four types of free that can work in business, an article worth checking out. I've reproduced his visual summary below:
Lastly, you may find that giving your content away for free doesn't work for you. The fact is, that despite the overwhelming amounts of free content available online today, it's still time consuming to find the best knowledge and information that you can trust and use. People, like me, are still prepared to pay a little extra for access to well researched and produced information. Walter Isaacson wrote an insightful piece about the need to charge for content in this week's Time magazine (which is, ironically, available for free HERE)
Oh, and by the way... Creative Commons is not all about content creators giving content away for free. Yes, you can sell your own Creative Commons licensed work, while limiting others from doing the same. Creative Commons licenses allow others to share your work, while giving you credit for what you've done. They can only sell it if you have allowed for commercial use of it.
The seven mass media in order of their introduction are:
1 - Print (books, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, etc) from the late 1400s
2 - Recordings (records, tapes, cassettes, cartridges, CD's, DVD's) from the late 1800s
3 - Cinema from about 1900
4 - Radio from about 1910
5 - Television from about 1950
6 - Internet from about 1990
7 - Mobile phones from about 2000
There's fascinating stories about these all along the way, but we're going to focus on Internet and Mobile.
The internet was the first "inherent threat" mass media channel. Inherent threat means that the internet could challenge any previous media and cannibalize it - for example, print articles can be read online, tv shows viewed online, radio shows listened to etc. Additionally, the internet introduced three powerful concepts:
1. It was the first interactive media,
2. It offers search, and
3. It enables social networking
Mobile wasn't born as a "Mass Media" until Radiolinja (in Finland) launched the first downloadable content to mobile phones - the downloadable ring tone - in the Autumn of 1998. This started the shift of mobile from telecommunications to media.
Ahonen points out that there are seven features that distinguish mobile from all the other media:
1. Mobile is the first personal mass media
2. Mobile is permanently carried
3. Mobile is always-on
4. Mobile has a built-in payment mechanism
5. Mobile is available at the point of creative inspiration
6. Mobile has the most accurate audience measurement
7. Mobile captures the social context of media consumption
Many may claim that the internet offers some of the benefits (personal, payment, audience accuracy and social context). However, as Ahonen states:
The internet is only semi-personal such as shared computers at internet cafes, home and the office, and the ability for example of employers to read content consumed by employees. The internet in its native form cannot handle money or payments, and requires work-arounds such as Paypal accounts and using credit cards. On mobile payments can be enabled on the click, such as with downloading ring tones.
The Systems View blog explores some of the unique dimensions of Web and Mobile in more detail.
Mobile is also often referred to as the "fourth screen", the first three being Cinema, Television and PC. Nokia sums it up quite nicely in this advert: