Newspapers Struggle to Make Online Transition

Let’s talk about the newspaper industry. No. On second thought, they’re just a special case of media, so let’s talk about media in general — and CRM. You wouldn’t know it by looking at this Web site which is plenty high-tech, dynamic, and customer focused, but the Web sites of many media outlets are pretty poor and indicate that their owners lack much in the CRM department.

It really should not surprise me, though it does, that the media companies have such lousy Web sites. Here’s what surprises me: It’s a secret hidden in plain sight that the newspaper business is in trouble, yet papers seem to be supremely ineffective at doing something about the situation. Selling yesterday’s news on squashed pine trees is losing steam. Better than 80 percent of the revenues newspapers count on comes from advertisers, but that money is being earmarked for more and more marketing projects that don’t even involve paper. That’s a problem.

Adjusting to Their Readers

That’s not to say that the advertisers’ money is actually going to a place where it can do some good. The old adage from the big department store retailing age, “I know half of my marketing budget is wasted, I just don’t know which half!” still plays well today.

Newspapers are trying to compensate by moving online, but most are doing a terrible job of it because they are trying to make a literal transition and are finding themselves disrupted by pure play e-media and bloggers. The obvious cause of the disruption is the change of technology, but the real, deep down problem (as with many disruptions) is that the newspapers just don’t get it — they don’t know how to relate to their customers.

Newspapers, but also electronic media, need to become more customer aware. They come into our cars, homes, and offices with messages tailored to us — or at least our segments — with fake sincerity claiming, “We’re your news station!” “We play the songs you want to hear!” “We’re your hometown newspaper!” and other things that make you think they’re inside your head. But they’re not. It’s the same old prescription-without-a-diagnosis — playing for the largest segments — that we’ve grown accustomed to with broadcast advertising.

Contact Us If You Can

Need proof? Ever try to find an e-mail address for your newspaper/TV/radio station on its Web site? I’ll give you a hint, it’s tucked way out in the electronic hinterland along with the snail mail address and the god-forbid-you-use-it phone number. Ever sent an e-mail and gotten a timely, relevant response?

I have a theory — they don’t want to hear from you because they don’t have the staff to handle real customers and they’re also pretty far behind in the automation department. They think they can’t afford staff or technology because it’s their job to deliver profits to the corporate parent, er, I mean deliver programming to the segments (that’s not much better, is it?). When an entity or the people who manage it, feel they are compelled to repeat mistakes because they can’t afford to do anything else — that’s the essence of disruption.

That’s too bad, because I have another theory — they desperately need to hear from you. Their lack of connectedness or even approachability is making them less and less relevant and that’s a pity because as they wander off into the wilderness they’re taking our public life with it. They are the messengers of news and important arbiters of culture and as the messenger becomes irrelevant so does the message. For example, the news is no longer THE NEWS; it’s 22 minutes of headlines interspersed by 8 minutes of ads for headaches and hemorrhoids. Some culture.

Connecting With Customers

You can’t do much about what the news is, but you sure can do something about your point of view and how you treat your readers/subscribers/viewers — in the final analysis they’re who your advertisers really care about. If I was a newspaper or station owner, I might decide to cozy up to my customers using the latest methods and tools I can find to learn what they think. I would use technology to be a lot more customer-centric instead of being simply segment oriented. Media companies need to engage in a more or less constant conversation with their customers if they expect to stem the slide.

I started thinking about all of this the other day when I sent an e-mail to my hometown paper, The Boston Globe. I wanted to know the whereabouts of a former columnist, so I sent e-mail to the HR department. What I got in return was an acknowledgement of receipt of a resume I didn’t send. I counted that as an improvement because when I have sent them e-mail in the past it was never even acknowledged. Where does it go?

I am also researching the whole idea of the Voice of the Customer (VOC) right now. To my delight, I am finding lots of companies with advanced technologies and methods that are making a big difference in the way large enterprises are beginning to listen to their customers. Best of all, these applications are hosted and not really expensive.

Last week I talked about what comes after CRM because people are tired of being talked at by efficient CRM systems. I mentioned books by a couple of MIT professors who have a strong inkling that it will have something to do with engaging with customers in real dialogue and capturing VOC. What should we call it? In the spirit of this column, send me your ideas.

Denis Pombriant is a well known thought leader in CRM and the founder and managing principal of the Beagle Research Group, a CRM market research firm and consultancy. Pombriant’s latest white paper, Adding Sales to the Call Center Agenda, summarizes his recent research in the call center industry. In 2003, CRM Magazine named Pombriant one of the most influential executives in the CRM industry. Pombriant is currently working on a book to be published next year. He can be reached at [email protected]

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