You will hardly find a media company, large or small, that is not talking about transformation. But we often misunderstand this word, said Dietmar Schantin, principal at the Institute for Media Strategies (IFMS), speaking at our latest Newsrewired conference.
Transformation is not about bringing an organisation from one stable state to another, he said. It is about training the company today to be ready for the next period of change.
Working with companies, such as the Wall Street Journal, Ringier, Archant, Hindustan Times, Kronen Zeitung, and many others, Schantin identified five areas in which news organisations can improve to prepare for the future.
Audience research often uses legacy questions like "what do you want from us?" The problem is that people tend to give socially accepted answers rather than take the opportunity to express their needs. Also, editorial departments rarely participate in this "marketing exercise" and journalists do not get to know - or do not want to know - more about their audience.
But these insights are important to understand who we are writing for. So rather than just asking questions from an off-the-shelf marketing manual, we need to use empathy to understand how our audience feels.
Having a smart tool for measuring your readers' needs will allow you to spot changes and new trends faster. Doing marketing research twice in a decade is no good when technology, social media and digital habits are constantly changing.
In short, understanding user needs will help your organisation become nimble and more creative.
For many news organisations, page views is still the dominant metric for measuring success. This makes sense if the revenue model is based on advertising, which means that the brand needs the widest possible reach to monetise eyeballs. But if the organisation is looking for audience revenue, metrics like time spent on the page and loyalty also matter.
If newsrooms are being honest with themselves though, they would admit that much of the traffic is often low-value so focusing on page views is hardly ever a profitable strategy.
One of the biggest challenges is to disentangle the mountain of data we all have in our newsroom and focus on the metrics that matter to your business model. That way, data can help you make the right decisions.
Technology and tools
Many news organisations are using legacy editorial systems, like printing plants, or a print-first CMS that "also works for digital". And you may be asking yourself: why change it if it is still working?
Although for many brands print is still important, it is unlikely to be the dominant technology in the future. Investing in the right tools will help you collect the right data about your users to understand how they interact with your product. Doing this will help you keep improving.
Schantin said that CMS and customer-facing technology are among the most important assets for success but he also acknowledged that this is a big task.
Right people in the right positions
Attracting and keeping great people is a massive challenge, especially for smaller and regional outlets. But having the right team is maybe even more important than having the right tech.
The problem is that good people are scarce. This often means that mediocracy is accepted and managers may prefer to hire two "cheap" employees rather than one expensive one because they see body count as more important than the quality of work.
"Siloed thinking really needs to go away if you want to succeed in the future," says Schantin. But that is easier said than done, he added, because it is human nature to preserve what we can control.
That comes back to the point about the right people and the need for the leadership team to be able to truly lead, not just to have fancy job titles. Collaboration and seeing your product as a whole are key to future success.
He added that when it comes to getting ready for the future, you need to have at least three out of these five points sorted to say that you have transformed your organisation.
You cannot know what the future will bring but we can start exploring some emerging trends. According to Schantin, voice-controlled devices like smart speakers present opportunities for publishers, as well as augmented reality and devices like Google glasses. We also do not stop to think that existing technology, like the smartphone, will be vastly different in the future. It is important to stay on top of developing trends.
But we may not know how to use these opportunities today and that is why it is so important to have the right people in the right roles.
All this sounds nice, you say, but what if you only have time and money to tackle one of these five areas?
"Audience is the priority because that is where everything starts," says Schantin. The needs of your audience will dictate what technology, people or analytics you need to succeed.
"We need empathy and not research. The research will never give an answer…to what to do and not to do." But empathy will help the organisation understand how to create value, be useful and relevant.
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