Role of audiences in corporate strategy will determine publisher success in decade ahead


II the past month, INMA has released two reports I authored:

What ties the two reports together is the raging discussion at most newspapers today about the role of audiences in corporate strategy.

Audiences are atomising. Instead of one big homogenous audience for general-interest content delivered in print form, technology is opening up new options for content sources and style while simultaneously creating new ways to access that content.

The result is a mad dash to understand the new audience segments and maximise the new value formula of “audience + content + platform.”

This would be happening regardless of today’s recession. Yet the recession – and subsequent acceleration of key advertising categories to the internet – has intensified the need to monetise content outside the traditional publisher model. And the only way to do this is to understand the value formula, dissect audience and content, and redistribute in a way where money can be made outside the print bundle.

What opened my eyes in the course of researching the reports was the two clearly opposite directions publishers and digital theorists are going on this road to value creation.

The publisher route above is rooted in the original sin of giving away all content online – a sin that can’t be taken back. For years, they accepted that the bigger the digital audience, the higher likelihood that a business model would congregate around it. Yes, digital extended the print audience. But the combination of low-value, brand-fickle eyeballs and the economics of abundance that never allowed an advertising model to emerge pushed publishers to thinking anew about their business models.

The digital theorist route remains consistent: grow the biggest audience you can by giving away your content and encourage audiences to read your content that would otherwise not know your brand – a strategy that will grow your influence and which should one day attract a business model. Surf the nature of the internet to its logical conclusion. Don’t fight it.

The argument hinges on your view of the audience.

What publishers are beginning to understand from the advertising community is that while there is a role for mass media, the emerging value proposition is about other attributes of an audience: level of engagement, passion, buying power. The more chiseled the audience, no matter the size, the higher CPM that can be charged. A hodgepodge audience has value, but less so as advertisers can aim their messages at finely tuned eyeballs and better measure return on investment.

Publishers acknowledge the Age of Abundance and are attempting to carve a sphere of scarcity from it. Maybe it’s real scarcity, maybe it’s the perception of scarcity. Yet they need that scarcity to either charge advertisers or charge consumers. Scarcity comes from segmentation, which comes from an intense understanding of the audiences the publisher wants to serve.

What’s missing so far is an organisational structure to manage and monetise these audiences, an over-arching vision that brings these audiences together under a news brand, and a marketing message to define the brand across audiences and platforms.

At INMA, we believe we can take a leadership role in answering these questions in the year ahead. Our plans include the launch of an audience development blog, summits on audience development in Europe and North America, and a report updating the industry on these discussions.

How we view audiences will be critical to the newsmedia industry’s success this decade.

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