10 hurdles as ‘old media’ dream of digital success

It is 10 years since US learning luminary Marc Prensky wrote his seminal work about “digital natives” (those born digital) and “digital immigrants” (the rest of us). He might, of course, have been addressing the challenges of traditional media companies as they struggle in a world of hyperactive digital natives. Here are my 10 Thoughts for immigrants…

  1. They must wholeheartedly embrace the 3Cs:  ContentCommunity and Commerce, in order to compete with ’new’ rivals. Retailers, for example, will increasingly grow ecommerce traffic with editorial content and community interaction. Traditional media, correspondingly, must exploit ecommerce alongside their ‘home skills’ of content and community – in competition or partnership with retailers. “Media is Retail, and Retail is Media”. Net a Porter and ASOS are pointing the way, but the churning of women’s media, in those markets, has only just begun.
  2. They must develop “platform neutrality” – and versatility. But each of their chosen platforms needs to be competitive (in style, content and functionality) with customers’ other media experiences. That will variously include video, interactivity and ecommerce – some threateningly new digital skills.
  3. They must be able  pre-emptively to prove their value to picky readers/ users and advertisers alike, whether or not they are currently paying. It should be assumed that ‘flat’ banner advertising will eventually be heavily discounted, in favour of ‘payment by results’. Maximising effectiveness and ‘value’ from the start will, ultimately, create more levers for media profit. Some publishers still see online and mobile digital platforms as new distribution vehicles for existing content and audiences. They are wrong.
  4. They must offer customers maximum flexibility and transparency on pricing. Competitors will eventually cut through any ‘bundling’ of services. Simple ‘all-you-can-eat’ pricing can be a big online winner: ask Bloomberg.
  5. They must heed the traditional lessons of hard copy to maximise their advantages in the digital space. That means an implied service “guarantee” of the extent of the service, to whom it is targeted, what sources it seeks to complement or substitute, and “frequency”. Exclusive data should be maxed up – whether or not it is behind a paywall.
  6. They must focus on the real value of information and entertainment. News (however interesting) seldom counts as ‘high value’ content, and will, therefore, not be an enduring competitive barrier. That may come only from clearly exclusive content, ‘special’ data, distinctive contributors, and original photography, video and creativity.
  7. They must recognise the reality of competitive information sources, by contrast with a hard copy world in which traditional media have sought to colonise their readers. Web users have all the choices and know it. “Unselfish” links to useful independent sites will enhance not threaten the authority of the host website.
  8. They must realise that personality and people (names, faces and views) are as vital to digital media as they are to newspapers and magazines. Offline and online media alike benefit from attitude, personality, a sense of humour and interactivity with readers/users.
  9. They know that branding is vital. However, traditional media should resist the temptation to use an established hard copy brand ‘as is’ for a web site with quite different content. There is a strong case for new digital brands. Digital media needs to be distinctive, with the development of content and functionality driven by its own eco-system, not that of a long-in-the-tooth magazine or newspaper. However, in the jungle of the web, it is vital to promote the provenance of a digital service. This is much more than an imprint and recognises the major role of ‘search’ in delivering unfamiliar, new web users.
  10. They have no pre-ordained right to a digital future, however illustrious their hard copy past. Some media providers have content and a traditional market position that can turbo-charge an online future – if they are able to capture it. But few digital ‘immigrant’ companies will be able to prosper without cannibalising traditional operations – before the ‘natives’ beat them to it. Traditional publishers find themselves competing tormentingly with the world’s largest tech companies and also the smallest, smartest start-ups. They will need to share in partnerships, joint ventures and alliances variously with retailers, broadcasters, digital providers, and new-wave companies. Not an easy change of mindset for some media monoliths of the last century. They have to forget the cosy talk of ‘migration’ from print, get thick with ‘digital natives’, and get radical.  Or else.
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