3 lessons media companies can learn from an airport

The same day two charming United States flight mates engaged in a war between a seat blocking, illegal knee defender gadget, and a flung cup of water on a United Airlines flight, I myself lounged comfortably in Delta Air Lines’ glorious Concourse G at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.

Sippin’ a microbrew. Eatin’ salty French fries. Perusin’ the iPad menu for a second course, soft industrial light shining down.

Techno music pulsed lightly. A gleaming marketplace offered made-to-order hot food, cold salads, baked goods, and sparkling, interactive dispensers of soda pop.

Hundreds of iPads in every seating area invited travelers to log onto Facebook, Twitter, and personal e-mail accounts, surf the Internet, and order food and drinks delivered to their seats in 15 minutes or less.

The vibe was modern, prosperous, chill.

In other words, not like an airport.

What lessons, my friends, can we news media folk take away from the award-winning MSP?

Here are three ideas to consider, if we want to be less like newspapers:

  1. Clean up your act.

    Terminal G looks like a destination relaxation hub with its gourmet French eats, a raw bar, and modern Japanese restaurant. Carpets are clean, white tile flooring is polished to a high shine.

    What do some of our news boxes look like? Crack houses, at least some of them do. Others resemble dirty old television sets, maybe upgraded with primary colors in the 1990s.

    Our customers shouldn’t be afraid to touch news racks without Latex gloves.

    What about our mobile sites? Are they clean and intuitive? Do they feature attractively designed advertisements with e-commerce if a customer wants to impulsively buy those high-end Panama booties she saw in a Nordstrom advertisement there?

    Or, instead, as one hipster shared in a digital focus group I sat in on, “It makes me want to poke my eyes out with forks.”

    How about a content audit … remember those? Many critical topics deserve inches and inches of copy.

    But not all topics are critical, and could be better served in several tightly written paragraphs, with “want to know more?” links online. Or served with a photo on social media, done and done.

    And: Try reading your headlines out loud. Who talks like that?

  2. Don’t let your customers – or your staff – go hungry.

    Air travelers might want a full meal at a stunning restaurant. Or they might want three buttery soft pretzels and an equal number of beers at a clean bar with killer, comfortable high-back chairs.

    The point is, travelers like choices. So do our customers.

    Are they hungry for big-format photos in an attractive slideshow instead of one photo selected by an editor, paired with long columns of copy? Can they find the way to the “food” in our newspapers and digital sites, or do we make that as hard as finding an exit in a casino?

    There is good reason to hire highly skilled designers to help reconsider long-held assumptions about what makes a compelling print section or a niche tablet offering. When was the last time your top editor or marketing executive or publisher met one-on-one with staffers to hear what small things our companies could do to make work life better?

    Arianna Huffington, though at first scoffed at by certain employees, installed staff nap rooms at Huffington Post offices. How difficult would it be to provide a giant bucket of ice and soda pop to every department every Friday afternoon during the summer, or an entire kitchen stocked with all kinds of tasty treats as is done at Google headquarters?

  3. Change up the way you think about what your business is.

    The best media companies know they’re not only in the business of news and information; they are also in the people business. People call us, and they want us to care about them and whatever it is they’re seeking.

    I remember reading a study years ago comparing newspaper culture to that of the military and hospitals. Have we run as fast as we can from that truth? Or do we answer our phones in the manner of a notoriously arrogant male friend of mine, back in student newspapering days: “Speak.”

From the top on down, we must empower our staff to find solutions for our readers, our Web subscribers, our walk-in customers, our advertising clients. If we don’t, someone else will be glad to give better value and treatment to our loyal customers, in ways that could be surprisingly simple and easy to implement.

About Kathleen Coleman

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