News aggregators like The Huffington Post and Google News recently came under fire from Dean Singleton, the chairman of Associated Press. He said that he was 'mad as hell' at what he saw as intellectual property theft. From Mr Singleton's point of view, social networking and search engines are killing the newspaper industry. He sees a future where people pay to log on to their content and other sites pay to link to their articles. Unfortunately for him this attitude is going to put him offside with a large portion of his potential market.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt recently told the Newspaper Association of America that newspapers were very close to committing suicide by alienating their online customers - the fastest growing segment. What's more, a recent study showed that the generation who grew up with Google and Facebook love news aggregators and free news. The study says:
Not only are teens not rushing to pay for content but they also struggle to envision in what realm they would need to pay for content.... Ask teens where they find news, and they typically say Yahoo!, Google, AOL or MSN.
Frankly, it sounds like newspapers are struggling to understand the opportunities and rules that govern the online world. There is a whole generation that has grown up with the concept of freemium economics. Try to charge them for something they have always had for free and you'll lose them altogether.
They need to remember that their main customers are advertisers.
Newspapers are in the business of collecting and delivering information. They have to be agnostic and flexible about the method of delivery if they are to avoid being trapped in outdated and inefficient channels. The old model of monetising this information is on the way out. Even the term "newspaper" is starting to sound like a relic. They need to remember that their main customers are advertisers. If they embrace the new mindset and employ direct marketing principles, there is a world of new commercial opportunities out there.
Here's what I think holds the most amount of promise:
1. More engaging advertising
One of the most difficult transitions for newspapers going online has been understanding how to sell digital advertising space. Banners are OK, but many of them are just annoying and get ignored.
Newsprint was a simple platform that advertisers could use to get a message out. Online newspapers need to create a new advertising platform. Develop a collection of tools that not only track users behaviour but allow advertisers to sell their products more easily.
Currently many advertisers create landing pages for banner ads. These pages pass on detailed information, get users to sign up or even make a sale.
If the digital arm of a newspaper were to develop easy to manage tools that allowed advertisers to perform these tasks, thus reducing the overall campaign cost and timeframe, advertisers would be over the moon.
Not so long ago we developed an online application for the Herald Sun's sponsorship of the Melbourne Marathon. This application, utilising RFID technology, allowed each and every runner to see a video of themselves. With a bit more development time we could have added targeted advertising to this type of application and created a platform that could be used for multiple events.
It is this type of thinking that advertisers are looking for.
2. Utilise the Twitternet
Micro-blogging is here to stay. Twitter is currently the market leader in this space, but who knows what will happen in the coming years. What's certain is that 2009 is going to see the tipping point for Twitter. Well worded headlines can easily drive traffic to the source of the news. Again, The New York Times is already doing this. At the time of writing, the Times has more than 500,000 followers and this number will keep rising.
There are huge opportunities here to increase overall traffic. Twitter lets people connect with ideas and information, and ideas and information are what news sources are all about.
3. Realise that the brand is a social centre
A newspaper is a brand with a customer base that identifies with it like any other brand. More than ever, newspapers need to remember that fact and learn to leverage it. Connecting with local communities and encouraging them to add content.
Currently, many online newspapers are concerned about moderating any user-generated content and create rules and dedicate resources to achieving that end. An alternative and much better approach is to get other members of that community to vote on comments or images. Sites like 'Digg' do this very well. If a user posts an abusive remark, it is very quickly voted out of the time line. Recently President Obama launched a website that did just that.
This influx of user-generated content can then be monetised. The Cincinnati Enquirer has a site that does this. CaptureCincinnati.com is a user-generated photo-sharing site. They have been selling a coffee table book and a DVD of this content and expect its popularity to continue to be strong. There could even be the possibility of users ordering photos to make a customised book through the site.
An online community based around a newspaper brand is a fruit ripe for the picking. You only have to look at the comments on any news site to see how eager the audience is to get involved.
Some websites get it right, but many don't. Personalisation on the web is huge and is only going to get bigger. Google has a product called 'iGoogle' that lets you personalise a page. Stuff.co.nz is a news site that lets you order some elements of the page. Underlying these examples is an understanding that the end user has specific interests that they want information about. News site are uniquely positioned to be able to deliver that information in a highly targeted way. If they focus on user experience, people will flock to their sites.
BBC.co.uk have made an admirable effort with their widgetised home page, taking more than a hint of inspiration from iGoogle. You can drag the sections around, customise them a little and add more from other areas of the site. However, it's only skin deep. The big leap will be developing this idea to a point where users have control over the whole experience, not just what they find on the home page.
5. Open up even more
APIs (application programming interfaces) are driving the progress of the web, and newspapers need to embrace them. APIs allow third party developers to connect to websites and deliver customised content. I know this sounds counter-intuitive but it is already being done. The New York Times Developer Network allows developers to create applications that deliver their content to the end user.
What the Times has realised, which many other news sources have failed to see, is that what they really have is an information platform - rather than an online newspaper, or even a website. Giving third-party developers access to this opens up opportunities to deliver advertisers messages in a more direct way, allowing them to increase the size and value of their user database and cut down the cost of developing their own applications by only partnering with developers that get the formula right.
6. Change the printed material
The news media industry is in transition; one day printed newspapers will be history. The industry needs to think very carefully about how it structures and delivers printed matter now and in the future. Design is paramount. The customer now has a choice. It's time to respect that choice.
I think this recent TED talk demonstrates the proposition very well.
Mark Cameron is the creative director and a partner at Working Three. He has been developing digital strategy for a range of clients for the last eight years. More articles from him are on the Working Three blog