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Why “publishing on the platforms used by your target audiences” is Table Stakes

The target audience has gone elsewhere and other platforms increasingly control distribution, which means it's now the responsibility of the newsroom to drive discoverability, reach and engagement.

Go to your audiences rather than expecting them to come to you. Take responsibility for distribution by publishing and promoting on the platforms used by each of your chosen target audiences. Do so in ways that serve their needs and interests in using each platform and take best advantage of the particular features and dynamics of the platform, ways that are platform optimal versus platform agnostic.

Why this is Table Stakes

a) The audience has gone elsewhere: attention, habit and reliance

Serving your target audiences demands having their attention, becoming a habit in their lives, and earning their reliance on you as their go-to source in important moments.

Up through the 1990s, legacy metro newsrooms could still claim all three – attention, habit and reliance – despite the coming of radio newscasts in the 1920s, the development of television news through the 1950s and 1960s and the emergence of the public internet in the mid-1990s. That is not the case anymore because of the rise and dominance of digital media, social networks, and mobile digital devices.

1. Attention has fractured and shifted to Facebook and others

Initially the web and digital media fractured audience attention by offering many instantly accessible places to go for news content and diversions covering every angle of audience interests – a nearly endless source of diversion of time and attention.

More recently, the rise of social media, principally Facebook, has concentrated audience attention in the distribution channel Facebook controls. By combining personal news of family, friends, acquaintances and affiliations with a stream of public news from a variety of favored sources, Facebook now commands a dominant share of attention and is a source of news for more than 60% of the public. This dominance translates locally: for example, toward the end of 2016, Facebook had more than five times the number of local unique visitors as Philly.

Audience attention to legacy newspapers is cut by both of these developments. The fracturing of attention reduces the time once spent on print content while social and mobile developments pulls attention away from metro’s digital content. The concentration of audience attention elsewhere (e.g. Facebook) leaves metros competing for even a few seconds of attention with everyone from mothers to global news sites to single topic sites. Indeed, because of these two forces metros can now claim only five minutes of digital attention per month per local resident.

2. Habits are set by the audience and not by you

Legacy newspapers once set the habits of readers through direct control of distribution, which determined when and where audiences received their news. Now audiences determine their own choices of when and where to consume news. They – not you – form their own habits, whether its reflexively reaching for their phone to check notifications any time there’s a few seconds of waiting in line or regularly checking in on Facebook late in the evening before bed.

Your newsroom now must earn its way into these new audience formed habits in three ways:

  • Be present where audiences are choosing to go.
  • Make audience’s experience with your content compelling, satisfying and “sticky” so that positive associations carry forward the next time they see your content (e.g., fast load times and well chosen “related content” selections).
  • Move your target audiences, on the strength and appeal of your content, to seek you out directly (e.g., using apps and bookmarking websites) or glad to receive content when pushed to them (e.g., reading newsletters and opening links).

Legacy metro news organizations still have local market advantages because of their established brands and remaining print audiences. This makes all three of the actions above easier to achieve than a local start-up. But these advantages will continue to erode for metros that have yet to have the Table Stakes required to be in the game of digital. For such lagging metros, the brand image drifts toward “they aren’t what they used to be.” Even loyal print subscribers can and do lose the reading habit and let the papers pile up. Or, drop subscriptions altogether when, for example, cost cutting measures leave content ‘thin.’ Meanwhile, too little brand awareness, content presence and engagement among millennial and younger generations allow rivals to compete on near equal ground.

3. Reliance on your content must be earned anew

“Check the paper” used to be a byword for people looking for breaking news, wanting to get the full story, and search for the right facts. Now “check the paper’ is mostly an anachronism heard in dated movies.

Yet an updated phrase of “check the [metro] news site” still happens – and can grow – when audiences have moments of immediate information need if and only if metros serve audiences in those moments the audience has these needs. Doing so necessitates metros that embrace digital’s speed of publishing and continuous updating.

Succeeding here builds on many of the best parts of what metros have done well in the past: quick mobilization, reporting skills, editorial judgment, deep knowledge of local sources and rich archives of material. These advantages are difficult for non-local news sources to replicate and new local rivals to develop.

These advantages get wasted, though, if metros fail to publish content where the audiences are. Your newsroom must take full advantage of search, news aggregators, social sites and alert services. Only by establishing your presence in the routine, day-to-day cycle of audiences’ news and information seeking do you get the chance – the opportunity – to redevelop and grow the audience’s reliance on what you do so well.

b) Other players increasingly control distribution

In the early years of web-based publishing, your newsroom mostly owned and controlled the digital platforms you used. This has changed. Other companies and players (with roots in technology rather than content) created new and different platforms that they – not you – own. This has shifted control of distribution in critical ways:

  • Search engines provide users easy access to their desired content from any source – diminishing audiences need to scan your home page
  • Social platforms built massive audiences grounded in interpersonal relationships and networks and enabling personal sharing of content as opposed to those social platforms providing content themselves
  • Aggregation algorithms generate personalized offerings of news as a direct service (Google News) and within feeds of social platforms (Facebook’s Trending and News Feed).
  • Mobile technology gives users nearly ubiquitous access to digital content and creating new user experiences.
  • Publishing templates provide faster page loading times and better integrate publishers’ content into non-publisher sites

These technology developments are user-centric – conceived, developed and constantly refined to meet user needs and create good user experiences. Through this user-centered, audience focus, major players have taken audience attention, habituation and reliance away from legacy media.

They have also taken control of much of the digital distribution playing field and now set the conditions and rules for publishers to play on those fields. And, they have redefined the minimum quality of experience users expect – even on the platforms that publishers still directly control. In his excellent “Stickier News,” for example, Matthew Hindman emphasizes the need for news sites to load much faster in order to meet user expectations.

c) Today’s metro newsroom must manage distribution

Distribution is now an essential function and responsibility of metro newsrooms because of the loss of audience attention, habituation and reliance and the shift in control of publishing platforms to technology companies. Circulation in the print world still matters for newspapers of course. But your newsroom and not the circulation folks must now master the strategic, dynamic and externally focused demands of audiences in the digital world.

Why? Well, one explanation ought to be obvious: in a digital world, content creation and publishing is inextricably intertwined with distribution itself. Yes, you can and should tap into the expertise of audience development and social media folks. But those experts cannot entirely ‘do it for’ others in the newsroom in the manner circulation does for print.

Squarely taking on this larger responsibility requires your newsroom to blend strategic choices (e.g. Table Stake #1’s requirement to choose targeted audiences) with operational excellence related to where and when to publish content. For example, publishing where the audience is cannot happen simply through “publishing everywhere” on every new platform that comes along. Instead, it demands you make managerial choices about which platforms to use – the ones you control as well as the ones controlled by others. And those choices must be grounded in criteria related to audience selection, brand aspirations, platform qualities, revenue possibilities, and considerations of costs and other scarce resources. In the case of others’ platforms, it also means assessing the terms, conditions, opportunities and trade-offs of publishing in their space and on their terms.

Nor does publishing strategically mean being “platform agnostic.” That’s an unfortunate phrase that, while okay in terms of opening up minds to many possibilities, closes those same minds to a key question: What does each different platform do well versus not well? Instead of platform agnostic, your newsroom must be platform optimal where content is shaped to best fit the unique characteristics of each chosen platform – where each platform is seen as unique instead of the same as another. Operationally, this requires continual experimentation to learn and then codify effective platform practices. In the case of platforms and technology controlled by others, this also means staying current on their evolving practices, requirements, features and opportunities and building them into your work routines (SEO, SMO, etc.).

Unlike the print era, there is not now nor likely will there be any final, fixed solution. Such simple and fixed distribution solutions are a thing of the past that existed for print metros but not for metro news organizations competing in an era of multi-platform publishing. Instead, distribution is a portfolio challenge. Your metro enterprise is now moving from one platform (that is, the newspaper as platform) to many platforms – to a portfolio of platforms. And, just as you might personally manage a portfolio of investments to achieve various risk and return objectives so to must your newsroom manage and optimize the mix of platforms according to your enterprise’s objectives regarding audience engagement, growth and yields from that engagement and growth compared to the costs and investment of staff time, skills and other resources. You have to manage the hard choices about whether and when to walk away from an underperforming platform, reinvest in platforms that show promise or do well and experiment with new ones.

This Table Stake #2 closely links to other Table Stakes. It grows out of Table Stake #1’s requirement to choose which audiences to serve and with what to meet their interests and needs. It also blends in with Table Stake #3’s requirement to produce and publish continuously to meet audience needs. It further supports your efforts to use Tables Stake #4 to funnel occasional users into habitual loyalists. All these Table Stakes advance when you publish on the platforms used by your targeted audiences.