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Brands Have Much to Learn From Legacy Media’s Shift to Being Truly Consumer-Centric

April 3, 2018    I   A. Bruce Crawley

“I can understand perfectly how the report of my illness got about. I have even heard on good authority that I was dead....the report of my death was an exaggeration.

The above, often-paraphrased, Mark Twain quote is, undoubtedly, directly applicable, now, to the country’s legacy media outlets. It also relates to the need by beleaguered communications firms to continue to adapt to be productive for clients in a constantly changing, hyper-active, marketing environment.

Indeed, it wasn’t very long ago that most experts, pundits and competitive communications channels were uniformly pronouncing the death of print journalism. Even “45” had gotten into the habit of describing the national newspaper of record as the “failing New York Times.”

 

Truth be told, there was abundant “proof” pointing to “big print’s” demise. Included in that evidence were the increased reliance, by their former readers, upon digital information formats and mobile phones ; the availability of 24-hour cable news; the declining interest, by advertisers, in paying for costly print display ads; declining traditional print circulations; and the leaning, by brands, away from mass media, and toward individual “clicks” and engagements.

 

Other key factors were the rising recent credibility of video for impactful online messaging; the incursions into the news business/publishing by trendy social media platforms; the annual patterns of print outlet revenue reductions, followed by serial newsroom layoffs; and the “incredible shrinking” consumer attention span.

 

Is it any wonder that so many really smart people in marketing and communications were so quick to offer last rites over the The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and others of their ilk?

 

If you haven’t been paying attention, however, you may have missed the fact that legacy media have recovered their mojo by doing something that all brands, and their agency partners, need to seriously consider: They’ve made the strategic pivot to becoming truly consumer-centric....and it appears to be working far beyond any reasonable expectation.

 

To the surprise of virtually all watchers, the new consumer-focused business model at those media outlets is proving, every day, quarter to quarter, that the death of those venerable brands was, indeed, “an exaggeration.”

 

The NYT, for example, recently disclosed that, even as its 2017 print advertising revenues dropped by 14 percent, a new “subscriber-first” approach, as outlined in its 2020 Strategy Report, drove digital subscriptions up to 2.6 million readers, and subscription revenue to $1 billion for fiscal 2017, accounting now for 60 percent of the company’s total revenue.

Contrary to the “failing” narrative, NYT’s overall revenue increased by 8 percent, to $1.7 billion, for the fiscal year. In its 2020 Strategy, the publisher also asserts, in a clear, page-turning kind of way, that it is “not trying to maximize clicks ...or trying to win a page views arms race.” CEO Mark Thompson adds, “(we) believe that our focus on establishing close and enduring relationships with paying, deeply engaged users...is the best way of building a successful and sustainable news business.”

 

The same pattern of shifting from a perceived accountability to the new digital metrics to a direct-to consumer, subscription-building strategy is also successfully underway at The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and several large regional publications.

 

There seems to be a great deal that non-media, consumer-facing, brands can learn from those legacy media. It’s a stark reminder that in a new interactive environment, consumers are recognizing that the marketing effort has to include them, and that brands that don’t function accordingly will have hell to pay.

 

It’s becoming increasingly clear, for example, that creative approaches, alone, are no longer enough. Consumers are selecting brands, and the media channels that deliver their messages, more and more, by whether they agree, at all, with the brand’s values, and its integrity.

 

That is a significant part of the takeaway from the recent March for our Lives events, nationwide, and the subsequent calls for targeted brand boycotts. Young consumers were saying that if you want our business, a slick ad campaign won’t be enough. If we find your brand values inconsistent with what we believe to be ethical and appropriate, we will stop purchasing your goods or services, influence others to do the same...and, if you happen to be a public official, even refuse to vote for you.

 

In such an environment, brands will need agencies that can help to guide them in their understanding of consumer segments, in constructing an appropriate customer journey and in developing messaging that goes beyond the company’s fundamental margin-building focus. It will also no longer be sufficient for agencies to be defined simply as creative shops, ad/tech, pr, or media-buying firms.

 

The new, more useful and effective agencies will be those that incorporate all of those skill sets, that come to the table with no predisposition to any one of them, but have a proven ability to provide contemporary, consumer-centric strategic guidance, up to the C-level.

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A. Bruce Crawley is president, CEO and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management, Inc. (M3M). Read More...

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