Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Online Publishing Insider: Beware Of The Demigods

Beware Of The Demigods

Did you hear about Rupert Murdoch's calling out of editors who have long acted as "demigods" when it comes to content strategy? He sees the audience migration from print to online as tied in large part to, well, a print mentality. Essentially he is talking about the arrogance of not paying close attention to the needs of newspaper and magazine readers. This attitude, he said, "stems from having enjoyed a monopoly -- and now finding they have to compete for an audience they once took for granted. The condescension that many show their readers is an even bigger problem. It takes no special genius to point out that if you are contemptuous of your customers, you are going to have a hard time getting them to buy your product. Newspapers are no exception."

By extension, this kind of "complacency," as Murdoch calls it, can become a disease that encroaches upon the online version of the publication too.

This brings to mind a story I have told in consulting engagements with online companies. It is a cautionary tale and goes back to the days when I worked for a print and online brand that had enjoyed years of market dominance. We had decided to completely redo the design of our site, and we did so without any research among our users or readers. The editorial team had control of the design and navigation. When we unveiled the new site, there were many internal hurrahs on the way that the design captured the look and feel of the print property. I was not so sure, mostly due to the fact that we had not brought our most important asset, our audience, into the process.

Shortly after the launch I was on the phone with Mark, a guy who had been a guest columnist for our publication and site for several years, had been a long-term reader, and now was telling me about an online company he had started that focused on building fan communities around online radio sporting event broadcasts. Mark was buzzing about community. And this was well before the rest of us discovered how important community would be to the Web.

I asked him if he would look at our site and give me his candid feedback. What Mark told me over the next 15 minutes put me into a trance. I dropped my pen and just listened, euphoric with the sense of a kind of transforming awareness that he was giving us the keys to the kingdom. Mark told me that the new design was pretty but irrelevant. It was one-dimensional, essentially just an online version of the publication, without leaning into the power that we had at our fingertips -- a passionate, engaged, important audience. He described all kinds of ways to tap into the ideas, interests, and enthusiasm of our visitors. He said, "Kevin, the Web is not really about your editors, it is about your audience. The Web flips the old model. The sooner you realize that, the better."

When I told my boss -- the president of the group -- about this conversation, his jaw dropped, and he immediately summoned the editors in charge of the site. With an appreciative smile on his face, he asked me to recount what I had heard. The editors sat with arms folded. They were not happy. They said that no one knew their audience better than they did, and Mark's view was a load of garbage. And in the end I had to accept that the editors had the final word in this case.

A year later, B2B and consumer community sites began to emerge, which were designed along all the concepts that Mark had suggested to me -- community feedback, posts, user-generated content, tools, forums, alongside content that editors wrote that carefully matched the measurable priorities of the audience.

We would have done well to listen to Mark. While the site for the next few years repurposed print content, other sites in its category (business technology) surpassed it by following the very principles Mark had laid out. Our friend followed his own advice and did rather well with his little Web site, AudioNet, which he later called Broadcast.com and sold to Yahoo for $6 billion. Yes, I am speaking of none other than Mark Cuban.

Kevin Mannion is founder of Sky Road Consulting,which provides management, sales, and marketing solutions for online publishers.

Online Publishing Insider for Tuesday, November 25, 2008:

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