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The New York Times: All's Fair in Love and Marketing
Posted on May 22nd 2014
BuzzFeed released an internal memo from the New York Times titled “Innovation” (you can read it in full and in color on Scribd). I have done a cursory read and have come up with a number of quick takeaways for you that you can start implementing today:
Digital first, traditional optional – while digital is not as fire-and-forget as story-writing is, it’s entirely more sticky. It can actually deliver on the promises of both hypertext and the world wide web, which is the ability for content to be more than self-referential.
It can easily offer history, context, and related content — things that most mainstream media stories are terrible at. There’s a real opportunity to turn a scoop into a narrative:
… package was well-executed and memorable, but some of our more digitally focused competitors got more traffic from the story than we did. If we had more of a digital-first approach, we would have developed in advance an hour-by-hour plan to expand our package of related content in order to keep readers on our site longer, and attract new ones. We should have been thinking as hard about ‘second hour’ stories as we do about ‘second day’ stories. (p. 84)
Mobile isn’t the future, it’s the present — the mobile web and mobile apps are no longer the dinghies that people use when they’re away from their yacht, their web browser on their PC. Now, it’s everything.
So, it’s not just a place to dump headlines and restrict engagement. Everything needs to be accessible on mobile devices — and not merely tablets, but also on small-form smart phones — including comments, audio, video, chats, and conferences:
Instead of running mobile on autopilot, we need to view the platform as an experience that demands its own quality control and creativity. (p. 87)
Timing is everything — tweets perform best in the morning, at noon, around three, and then for a little while just after work, in each person’s own time zone.
Every content-marketer knows when traffic is best. It’s always best to prepare and offer your content for exactly when people are hungry for it — otherwise, it’ll become stale.
Also, because of the ephemeral nature of the web and social, you’ll need to learn to repeat yourself over time, time zones, and whatnot, just to make sure your content shows up when people are looking for it.
For example, the vast majority of our content is still published late in the evening, but our digital traffic is busiest early in the morning. We aim ambitious stories for Sunday because it is our largest print readership, but weekends are slowest online. Each desk labors over section fronts, but pays little attention to promoting its work on social media. (p. 86)
I quoted Guy Kawasaki’s sage advice in my article, Tweet like Guy Kawasaki for Twitter success. To wit:
I repeat my tweets because I don’t assume that all my followers are reading me 24/7 x 365. This is the same reason that ESPN and CNN repeat the same news stories (without updates, simply identical reports) throughout the day. I’ve examined the click-through patterns on repeat tweets, and each one gets about the same amount of traffic. If I tweeted stories only once, I would lose 75% of the traffic that I could get.
Identify the social media passion players in your organization and put them to work — you can’t make them love you if they don’t, and you’ll never cajole your elitist, top-drawer, journalists, reporters, editors, and copy editors to spend the sort of time and attention needed on social. Social is not only a full-time job but it’s a 24/7/365 job. According to Nieman Journalism Lab:
In addition, while many in the newsroom are under the impression that the social media team exists to promote their work, that team was in fact originally conceived of as a primarily information gathering body. (p. 45)
Specifically, they point to the fact that many of their best social staffers learned those skills through the book publishing process, not in the newsroom. Their research included an experiment in identifying social influencers, both in the newsroom and outside it, prior to a story being published. The result of their experiment — getting Ashton Kutcher, who has 15.9 million followers, to retweet a Times story — was considered a success. (p. 48)
Invite your readers to become your writers — I write for The Huffington Post for free. And for BuzzFeed, too. For free. I have a lot to say and sometimes I want as big a voice as I can muster. Since the Internet is breaking down the fourth estate, it’s also time to break down the fourth wall of the fourth estate, too.
Invite readers to post at will, as community writers. People are more likely to share their own content with all of their friends via social media than they will your content (unless it includes adorable kittens) — so use community posting to the NYTimes.com domain as a sort of honey pot.
People will click through to the Times because of their friends but they will stay because the Times is an amazing newspaper (people don’t really think about it — no cats!). Again, according to Nieman Journalism Lab:
The merging of platforms and publishers has garnered some attention in the media space lately, and the report’s authors do not neglect that conversation. They look at what organizations that allow users to create content on their sites are doing, and question how the Times could develop a strategy without diluting its brand. They suggest that the Times’ audience is full of educated and interesting people who could easily pen valuable content that might find enthusiasm from readers in the digital space. A new push to expand products around opinion reflects this consideration. (p. 52)
Outsource shamelessness if modesty’s your jam — and while I appreciate modesty, have you ever met a journalist who doesn’t brag? From where he went to college (Columbia, Berkeley) to the cool places he’s been, the amazing people he’s met. Journalists are natural storytellers. However, that said, maybe shameless self-promotion just isn’t cricket:
At the Times, we generally like to let our work speak for itself. We’re not ones to brag. Our competitors are doing a better job of getting their journalism in front of new readers through aggressive story promotion. They regard this as a core function of reporters and editors, and they react with amazement that the same is not true here.
If you need to maintain a veneer of civility or maintain your reputation as the newspaper of record, then hire out the dirty work to those people who have already cut their teeth at BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, and The Guardian. We’re a decade past Mainstream Media innovation, it’s time to beg, borrow, and steal on behalf of the Times. It’s not too late. You really do create quite a lovely paper, indeed.
Digital and social are no longer the red headed step-twins — It’s been 22-years, Grey Lady – it’s time to work on fully integrating your organization. Engineers are just anti-social journalists who hate the phone and write in Perl, Python, Ruby, and PHP instead of Chicago Manual of Style.
Then again, I guess everyone hates marketing, PR, and sales, right? Well, nerds, embrace the prettiest, well-socialized, and balanced members of your team: business (“oh, profit, you’re so dirty, you’re so beneath me,” you say under your breath? — get over it!):
The wall dividing the newsroom and business side has served The Times well for decades, allowing one side to focus on readers and the other to focus on advertisers.
United we stand, divided we #fail
Our Twitter account is run by the newsroom. Our Facebook is run by the business side. (p. 45)
The left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing — and vice-versa.
Being pretty isn’t enough online — the world doesn’t really care how many Pulitzer Prizes you have or your pedigree. Janine Gibson, editor-in-chief of The Guardian’s web site wrote:
The hardest part for me has been the realization that you don’t automatically get an audience…that you have to go find your audience – they’re not going to just come and read it – has been transformative.
Back in January, 2012, I wrote a post titled Being Pretty Isn’t Enough for Social Media Marketing in which I wrote:
I always tell clients that it is no longer enough to be beautiful when it comes to marketing online. The Internet has become more like an Oscar after-party than it is like the airport Ramada. Online, you’re never the lone beauty in the hotel lounge. Online, you’re surrounded by equal or greater beauties. What’s more, the most successful online social media barflies are aggressive in addition to gorgeous. Too many companies that have invested vast resources in social have Pretty Boy/Girl Syndrome. A symptom of this disease is an expectation that others will go out of their way to pursue you.
It was as true in 1992, 2002, and in 2012 as is it is in May, 2014. It’s taken the New York Times 22-years to get the memo.
Nobody ever clicks through past a bad title — and since we live in a world where all content is decentralized, at the end of the day, all you have is your title.
Forget “nothing beyond the text,” Monsieur Derrida, there’s nothing beyond the title — the headline! In fact, most of the time, you’re competing on title alone as the way social media sharing works, via RSS and other aggregators, they’ll have no idea the bad title they’re looking at links directly to good content on the NYTimes.com web site.
Case-in-point, according to The Nieman Journalism Lab:
Meanwhile, outlets like The Huffington Post “regularly outperform” the Times in terms of traffic, simply by aggregating and repackaging Times journalism. Regarding the deployment of this strategy around Times coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death, a Huffington Post executive said: “You guys got crushed. I was queasy watching the numbers. I’m not proud of this. But this is your competition.” (p. 44)
Basically, what they’re saying is, we take your content, repackage it for our site, optimize it for search, come up with superior titles, and then distribute it through our channels, social media and otherwise, and we constantly out-perform your very own source content — oh, for shame.
If you build it (as a destination), they won’t come — The New York Times has never gotten past its all-consuming section A1, above the fold, obsession. I am best friends with a Times reporter and he’s mad about A1 and B1 as well. Of course, who wouldn’t be.
All roads may well lead to Rome but all roads no longer lead to The New York Times. This is a prime example of how Las Vegas’ Eiffel Tower is now way more popular a destination than La Tour Eiffel à Paris en France is to Americans. We’ve always been a cheap, easy, accessible, and nearby facsimile thereof. Vive la simulacrum!
“. . . including a sense that the Times will simply serve as a destination — leading to a neglect of social promotion. One factor is an obsessive focus on the front page of the print paper, with reporters evaluated in their annual reviews on how many times they’ve made A1.”
Only a third of our readers ever visit [the Time's home page]. And those who do visit are spending less time: page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages last year” … “But at The Times, discovery, promotion and engagement have been pushed to the margins, typically left to our business-side colleagues or handed to small teams in the newsroom. The business side still has a major role to play, but the newsroom needs to claim its seat at the table because packaging, promoting and sharing our journalism requires editorial oversight. (p. 23-25)
Let the experts be experts — newsies — the scamps and street urchins that ran wild selling newspapers in New York City during the 1890s to support themselves — were the kittens of their day. Back in the late 19th century, the news was a very competitive game. Only in the last 50-years has the New York Times become one of the last giants standing after all local and national papers were closed or sold.
But, back in the day, newsies, paper boys, and newsstands were the shameless self-promoters of the news business. Even into the 50s and 60s, newspapers hired people to run around the streets both selling and promoting their papers.
I mean, for me, that’s much more compelling than side boobs and baby pandas. But, even though the digital team at the Times is massive, there’s still apparently an inability — or unwillingness — to allow the town criers cry and let the tweedy, cigarette and whisky-stained journalists report:
“These colleagues have specialized skills that most editors simply do not possess and they are trained in the processes of turning ideas into successes.”
The report also singles out comments as a place where the Times nominally attempts to interact with readers. While the Times takes pride in its ability to encourage discourse while maintaining the brand by moderating its comments, the report suggests this level of engagement may not be sufficient. “Only a fraction of stories are opened for comments,” they write. “Only one percent of readers write comments and only three percent of readers read comments. Our trusted-commenter system, which we hoped would increase engagement, includes just a few hundred readers.” (p. 49)
Firstly, allow people to comment from anywhere, including mobile. Allow them to receive alerts that replies have been added. Allow them to access this content from wherever they are.
Spend some time with Tapatalk, the smart phone app that is a beautiful interface to online message boards and forums, and also understand better how The Huffington Post has turned their entire reporting platforms into a quasi social network, allowing anyone to follow anyone as well as anyone to syndicate anyone via RSS and also track what they’re saying and doing. Every author is an object as is every member of the community.
While there are paid journalists on Huffington, and there are also writers who are just doing it for love (or fame) for free, there are also very popular and famous community members who have quite a following — and all they do is comment, engage, and read.
Only a community manager who is is both passionate and also an expert is able to do the sort of weeding, planting, and gardening required to turn a broadcast medium, mainstream media, into a conversation. It’s possible. Mashable has also succeeded.
I am sure there are many others. The most successful in this regards? Reddit! A platform wherein the inmates surely run the asylum — and it’s one of the most popular and relevant destinations in the known universe — and it’s bloody owned not by some cool, regular guy, like Rob “CmdrTaco” Malda of Slashdot fame, but by Condé Nast!
Require your journalists to think about social from the start — Nobody’s perfect. But, according to Niemen’s analysis, even some of the oldest, most crotchety, of journalistic endeavors, ProPublica, have been able to embrace not merely Twitter but what twitter means and it’s importance:
In a section addressing promotion of New York Times content — essentially, social media distribution — the report’s authors survey the techniques of “competitors” and compare them to the Times’ strategy. For example, at ProPublica, “that bastion of old-school journalism values,” reporters have to submit 5 possible tweets when they file stories, and editors have a meeting regarding social strategy for every story package. Reuters employs two people solely to search for underperforming stories to repackage and republish. (p. 43)
Contrastingly, when the Times published Invisible Child, the story of Dasani, not only was marketing not alerted in time to come up with a promotional strategy, “the reporter didn’t tweet about it for two days.” Overall, less than 10 percent of Times traffic comes from social, compared to 60 percent at BuzzFeed. (p. 43)
Keep evergreen content alive and working forever — for whatever reason, after a while, New York Times content goes into hostage mode: if you are a digital subscriber, you have limited access to the archive from 1923-1986 (the heyday?) and unfettered access before 1923 and after 1986.
If you’re not a digital subscriber, you’ll need to write some checks. So, basically, when it comes to sharing through social media, all of the Times’ content’s in an anti-social media lockbox instead of flowing dynamically into the dance known and stickiness in the form of context, recommendations, and “if you like this, you’ll love this” list of headlines, articles, and links.
Here’s hoping a recommendation like this woos the Times to understand that they may be taking short term dosh in the form of $3.95 archive fees in lieu of long-term viability and success:
We can be both a daily newsletter and a library — offering news every day, as well as providing context, relevance and timeless works of journalism. (p. 28)
Make your archives available for free, forever — what’s more, make sure the best-of and all the evergreen content keeps on bubbling to the surface. Henry Blodget, founder and CEO of Business Insider, gets it:
You have a huge advantage. You have a tremendous amount of high quality content that you have a perpetual license to.
Until then, please check out the article I posted back in January, 2012, titled Being Pretty Isn’t Enough for Social Media Marketing and let me know what you would like me discuss next week, same bat time, same bat channel.
Until then, go git ‘em Tiger!