Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How digital retailing could roil local media

Thanks to the growing ubiquity of mobile devices, a digital revolution is about to transform bricks-and-mortar retailing – a fast-breaking phenomenon that potentially poses the biggest challenge yet to the economics of local media companies. 

More than four out of five smartphone and tablet owners use their devices for shopping, according to a report issued earlier this year by the Nielsen marketing metrics service. Nielsen says 65% of consumers research products before they head to a store, 66% of shoppers check prices in stores and 49% of them redeem coupons from their mobile phones. 

Given all this click-to-buy-ing, it is perhaps no surprise that mobile-enabled commerce is projected by the eMarketer research service to nearly triple from today’s level to $113.6 billion by 2017. Now, here’s why publishers and other local media companies should worry: 

With more shoppers making buying decisions and actual purchases on their mobile devices, local retailers and national brands are bound to vector ever more of their marketing dollars into intercepting consumers on mobile platforms, thus diverting ever greater portions of their budgets away from the traditional print and broadcast media. 

Retail advertising, without doubt, is the lifeblood of local media. In 2013, retail advertising accounted for 75% of the $14.5 billion in advertising sold by local television stations, 43% of the $23.5 billion in ads sold by newspapers and 38% of the $4.2 billion in ads sold by local radio.  The broadcast information was provided by Kantar Media and newspaper statistics came from the Newspaper Association of America.  

The rush to digital retailing dominated a June conference in San Francisco sponsored by Street Fight, a smart online news service covering the myriad ways that prodigiously funded start-up companies are developing high-tech solutions to such pressing problems as C2C (Coffee to Commuter), S2S (Shoes to Shopper) and PP2CP (Pepperoni Pizza to Couch Potato).  

Although these commercial goals may seem modest, the technologies, algorithms, analytics and business models developed to solve these problems likely will pave the way to changing how brands target prospects and merchants smooth the myriad frictions associated with driving to the mall, navigating a store, selecting a product, fishing out a credit card and schlepping the purchase home.   

“We don’t believe shopping centers are dead,” says Nicholas Cabrera, who researches the future of retailing for Westfield Group, one of the largest mall operators in the world. But Cabrera told the Street Fight audience that technology is poised to “transform” shopping into a more pleasant experience for consumers – and a more productive one for merchants. 

Here’s how that will happen: 

Using apps, search engines, shopping sites, social media and volunteered information from consumers, everyone in the shopping ecosystem – brands, retailers and even mall operators – will endeavor to learn as much as they can about individual customers. Then, using smartphones, Google Glasses, smartwatches and the like, they will put the right offer in front of the right consumer at the right time, perhaps even adjusting pricing dynamically to recruit desirable new customers. 

Websites, social media, shopping portals and search engines already monitor content consumption, conversations, wishlists, shopping carts and buying behavior. They increasingly are combining this information with masses of acquired and derived data to pigeonhole consumers into ever-tighter segments in order to optimize marketing messages to them.  

In the interests of capturing real-time information about the intentions and behavior of consumers while they are in stores, a growing array of hardware, software, network and analytics companies intend to track customers via not only signals from their own devices but also with concealed cameras using sophisticated facial-recognition technology to gauge buying intent. Leaving nothing to chance, the newest Android phones can take your pulse to identify the shoes that quicken your heart.   

To capture even more data, nearly every major retailer has developed – or soon will launch – an app to help consumers organize their shopping excursions, redeem coupons, make payments and earn loyalty rewards. Walmart’s latest app even issues rebates to customers if it finds a product being sold for less by a competing merchant. Not so incidentally, the apps will help merchants learn tons about customers at the same time.

The retail revolution is nothing short of an arms race to accumulate as much information about individual customers as possible. Local media companies can be major winners in the revolution by developing delightful products that help merchants to capture and leverage customer data. If they fail to act, however, they will be marginalized as advertisers move to interactive marketing.  

While local publishers and broadcasters lack the technology to do this by themselves, their market presence and brand power are extremely valuable to the tech companies trying to solve far more than just the PP2CP problem. When potential partners come calling, media companies need to listen. Then, they need to respond as if their lives depended on it.  

© 2014 Editor & Publisher

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Are newspapers doomed? It depends.

Now that every major media company has dumped or soon will jettison its print division, the question I hear every day is: Are newspapers doomed?

The answer is neither simple nor universal. But the dramatic and traumatic contraction of the newspaper industry in the last decade suggests that the business models, publishing platforms and journalistic conventions that seemed so stable and certain a few short years ago will not carry forward into the future. 

So, yes, some newspapers will fail, as they run out of relevance, readers and revenues. Since the Great Recession, we have lost such titles as the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Tucson Citizen and the Manassas (VA) News & Messenger. But newspaper failures, as demonstrated by the demise in 1978 of the estimable Chicago Daily News, are not new news. 

So, where does that leave us? Hopeful but worried. Here’s why: 

The future of newspapers – or, more precisely, local news ventures that may or may not involve putting ink to paper – will depend on whether the people running them are up to the considerable challenge of creatively disrupting their businesses before an ever-growing phalanx of digital competitors destroy what’s left of the still-enviable commercial might and journalistic value of their enterprises. 

Unfortunately, the industry’s track record is not good. In the two decades since the Internet burst into common consciousness, the leaders of the newspaper industry have failed to recognize the need for profound change, much less manifested the grit to go for it. Rearranging the deck chairs by shuffling newspapers into free-standing entities won’t, in and of itself, change the troubling trajectory of the newly liberated publishing units of News Corp., Tribune, Scripps, Journal Communications or Gannett.  

If the executives entrusted with the new newspaper companies rise to the task, however, refreshed businesses can be built on the brand power, content-creating power, sales power and marketing power enjoyed by all but the weakest newspaper. But these exceptional attributes, like the value of the businesses themselves, have been wasting at a frightening pace.  

For the record, the average 16% pre-tax profits of the publicly held newspaper companies surpass those of both Walmart and Amazon.Com. But revenues, profits and newsroom staffing ain’t what they used to be. 

As painstakingly (and painfully) detailed here, the weekday circulation of newspapers fell by 47% in the last 10 years to the point that only a quarter of the nation’s households take a daily newspaper. Print and digital advertising sales fell by 55% in a decade. In spite of aggressive efforts by most publishers to increase the fees they collect from print and digital readers to offset the ad decline, the industry’s total revenues slid 35% in the last 10 years, dropping the average pre-tax profits of publicly held publishers by 37%. 

The outlook for print is daunting, given that three-quarters of the print audience at the typical newspaper is 45-plus years old. The print format, as discussed here, largely fails to resonate with Millenials, Gen Xers and even many Boomers. The advanced age of the print audience not only is undesirable to many advertisers but also represents an unavoidable demographic cliff as readers age to perfection – and beyond. 

The reason the newspaper industry is shrinking, of course, is that the digital media have changed everything about the way we get – and increasingly give – the news. This not only has unhinged the traditional relationships between reporters and readers but also the long-time dependence of many advertisers on newspapers. 

Notwithstanding the vague “digital first” sound bite voiced at most newspapers, the industry’s share of the national digital advertising pie shrank by 52% in the last decade. The gap continues to grow, with  the collective digital advertising revenues of the nation’s newspapers rising a puny 1.5% in 2013 at the same time over-all nationwide digital ad sales surged by 17%

The conundrum facing newspaper publishers is that 80% or more of their revenues (and, arguably 100% of their profits) still come from the advertising and subscription fees sold in connection with their print products. Because print quite literally pays the bills, publishers obsessively, and understandably, focused on fixing the print business as ad sales fell from a record $49 billion in 2005 to less than $21 billion in 2013 (revenues continued tumbling this year, too).  

Owing to the relentless focus on print, most newspapers have not invested in developing the content formats, publishing platforms and advertising vehicles that appeal to digital consumers in an age where the average consumer is said to spend 34 hours a month on her smartphone. Consider: 

:: Most newspapers are content to shovel yesterday’s print stories into tomorrow’s website and then port the same material into yards of gray type on mobile apps. Compare the thumb-numbing presentation of this typical 2,925-word newspaper yarn with the thoughtfully deconstructed coverage at Vox.Com, the eclectic aggregation at Huffington Post, the concise presentation at Circa, the data wizardry at Pro Publica, the crowd power at Bleacher Report, the electric vitality of BuzzFeed and the addictive virality at Upworthy. 

:: Rather than reliably “owning” their audiences as they once did in print, the internal metrics at every newspaper show an increasing dependence on the likes of Google, Facebook and Twitter to generate the traffic that is the lifeblood of any media enterprise. As but one example, a recent internal report showed that even the New York Times is consistently, and embarrassingly, out-gunned in promoting its own stories on the web. 

:: The top digital revenue sources at most newspapers are run-of-site banners that are the least-valuable forms of digital advertising to the growing number of sophisticated brands demanding detailed data about readers so they can target their ads to the right prospect at the right place at the right time. Because most newspapers cannot deliver state-of-the-art ad targeting, many publishers have difficulty selling even half of their interactive inventory. The publishers who do offer targeted advertising depend on Google and other digital natives to provide them with both the customers and technology they need to do the job – thus, sacrificing a healthy percentage of the margins they enjoyed when they dominated print advertising in their markets. 

:: Newspapers missed out on – and, accordingly, have been shut out of – such large and significant digital revenue opportunities as search advertising and commerce. The Boston Globe famously declined to invest in the nascent Monster.Com because its managers did not want cheap online advertising rates to cannibalize the hefty fees they charged for print want-ads. Although the newspaper industry eventually got around to establishing Career Builder and Cars.Com as strong online classified brands, it is notable that the broadcasting side of Gannett plans to keep these successful sites for itself when it severs the newspaper division that built the parent company. With respect to commerce, most newspapers remain so digitally tone-deaf that they don’t bother to link to Amazon or iTunes when they review a book or an album. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing the newspaper industry is that its practitioners tend to avoid change, instead of embracing it. To some degree, newspaper leaders cherish print, as I do, out of sentimentality. To a larger degree, they carefully cultivate print because it is their core business. But, to the largest degree of all, they focus on print as the only way they know to earn a living, hit their bonus objectives and hang on to their hard-to-replace jobs in a steadily contracting industry. 

Because nearly all senior publishing executives are held to exacting profit targets at the end of every quarter of the year, they have to squeeze the most they can out of the revenues available to them.  When revenues decline – as they have been doing relentlessly since 2006 – they have no rational choice but to cut expenses by consolidating printing plants, restricting circulation, outsourcing ad make-up, reducing newshole and eliminating staff. 

In their hearts, they know that these tactics – which, among other things, have led to the elimination of 1 out of 3 newsroom jobs  in the last decade – are making their products less desirable and less compelling than ever. So, they are understandably reluctant when someone proposes a digital initiative that will siphon resources away from the troubled legacy business they are trying to preserve.

Unlike the stampede of bold, well-funded and single-minded digital natives who are usurping the audience and advertising revenue once commanded by publishers, newspaper executives are trying to tiptoe from print to pixels. But tepid measures won’t work.  

To save newspapers – or, more precisely, local news ventures that may or may not involve putting ink to paper – publishers have to commit to disrupting their tottering business model as enthusiastically as their competitors are committed to overtaking them. There is no other choice.