Why “Poor Richard” was anything but


Dr. Benjamin Franklin was a British, then American, scientist, political theorist, philosopher, postmaster, musician, inventor, statesman, revolutionary, and diplomat. He was also a writer, newspaper editor, and successful publisher.

One of Franklin’s most successful publishing efforts was a annual pamphlet, entitled “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” which was published from 1732 to 1758. This very popular product included seasonal weather predictions, household hints, puzzles, jokes, recipes, and aphorisms.

“Haste makes waste,” “Love your neighbour; yet don’t pull down the hedge,” and “To lengthen thy life, lessen thy meals,” are examples that still hold true.

Franklin published his annual pamphlet for 25 years, and it was a financial success. It was so because it gave his customers — his audience — what they wanted.

The reason I have indulged in this bit of American history is that I have been reading from the pages of local newspaper Web sites, as well as their Twitter and Facebook posts. And I am finding many similarities between these modern publications and the more than 250-year-old Almanack.

The content appears strikingly similar: bits of news, clever wordplay, extracts from other sources, advice, and recipes.

Because digital distribution of newspaper content provides instant feedback, we don’t have to guess what people want. We see what they choose.

And what we have discovered is they want concise tidbits of information and entertainment. Short reads, gossip, and titillating headlines create the clicks that, when accumulated, become an audience.

In many ways, editors are following a new rule of marketing in creating products for customers, rather than creating customers for products.

Benjamin Franklin was able to monetise his content by selling his annual publication.

And there’s the problem. In the news media business, we can’t just create products that people want; we must create products for which people are prepared to pay.

Advertising-supported businesses have prospered over the years because of two factors:

  1. They generated large and attractive audiences for advertisers.

  2. Supply and demand regulated the price of that advertising.

Now those formerly giant audiences, per media outlet, have decreased, lowering their value. At the same time, supply has exploded and margins imploded. It is a deadly combination for those in the media business.

Media companies are struggling to find a business model to replace the one they have enjoyed for many years. And I cannot offer a new one here.

There is no question that people still enjoy the “almanac” style of presenting information. Just check your LinkedIN page or Twitter feed. You’ll find a large number of posts with inspirational quotes, lists, pics, and links to other links.

But you will find very little original, insightful, compelling, thoughtful, or provocative content. This is the consequence of the empowering force of the Internet, where everyone is a publisher, but very few are quality content creators.

As marketers, we have a real opportunity and a real challenge. We work in organisations filled with reporters, researchers, writers, editors, photographers, illustrators, and designers who create quality original products.

And audiences do value those products. After all, that’s why everyone links to them. That is our opportunity.

Our challenge is to convert that content into profit. And that means spending less time chasing easy, but less valuable, clicks and more time reminding people why they need what we create. That is not easy. But not unprecedented.

Marketers have been able to sell bottled water to customers who currently have water available on tap in their homes. They have convinced them their bottled product is superior in quality, purity, and portability.

Marketers have been able to sell subscription television to those who already have “free” TV channels in their homes. They have convinced them that their product is superior in quality, selection, and flexibility.

Marketers have been able to sell branded watches for thousands of dollars to those who can own a watch that does the same thing for less than $5. They have convinced them their product is superior in quality, longevity, and prestige.

We need to apply this thinking to our products and stop giving people what they want and start selling them what they will value.

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