The Media Industry's Social Mix

Media companies, especially in the publishing space, have been struggling to stay alive. But instead of seeing social as a threat, they should embrace these channels to extend their voice and keep their subscribers engaged.

Adapt or die. It might be an age-old adage, but for the media industry it still rings true and dangerously close to home. The emergence and extreme popularity of social media has meant that the media industry, especially its publishing arm, was forced to make changes.

When social media first started becoming popular, many news organizations were tempted to shrug off the new threat and resist the temptation of changing their established practices. But one after the other, media entities have had to admit that they were wrong and instead of resisting social media they needed to embrace the new communication channels and leverage their strengths.

Much of the shift has to do with dwindling audiences and slashed advertising funds that led to financial challenges. "The State of the News Media 2013" report found that 31 percent of Americans have "deserted a particular news outlet because it no longer provides the news and information they had grown accustomed to." The fact that readers no longer need to buy a newspaper to get the news might have been the final nail in the coffin of many publications. The reputed Chicago Tribune risked going that way and on December 9, 2008 it published two articles, highlighting how good journalism might not be enough to save a publication from its demise. It was the day when Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested for allegedly trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by U.S. President Barack Obama, a story which the Tribune had broken after what Editor Gerry Kern described as "years of investigative work."

But on the same day, the newspaper, which boasts three million readers, was also publishing an article about itself-the day before it had applied for bankruptcy protection from its creditors as it faced what Tribune Co. chairman Sam Zell described as a "perfect storm" of forces rolling the media industry and the broader economy.

The Chicago Tribune has weathered the storm, and last year emerged from bankruptcy. But its story rings close to home for many similar publications. The Internet was the first threat that several organizations tried to overcome by introducing pay gates. But social media is another animal altogether giving the power to everyone to share information. In short, news entities stopped being the ones to break news and the role was instead given to social channels, especially Twitter, which, as Mark Pinset, social and content lead for Metia, notes, has become "a stream of attention-grabbing headlines."

A new way of doing business

Similarly to other companies, social media is completely changing the way media organizations operate. Traditionally, media companies were simply pushing information to their consumers, pretty much deciding what content they would find useful. Two-way communication was limited at best. Newspapers, for example, relied on letters to the editor to hear from their readers.

But this changed drastically with the advent of online content. Soon, readers were able to comment on articles, voice their opinions, and also add content. Further, it is much easier for consumers to share online content. As Alexandra Samuel, vice president of social media at Vision Critical, notes, these "communities" provide an opportunity for engagement. Not only can media organizations learn from what their users are saying, but they can also turn to the community when they need further information, for example getting additional details about an unfolding event. "Engage your customers not only as consumers, but also as co-creators," Samuels stresses. CNN's iReport function, for example, reaches out to users and encourages them to share content. Anchors on a number of other news shows ask users to Tweet them. Leveraging social media for co-creation is a win-win opportunity-it gives the organization additional details and provides consumers with the satisfaction of demonstrating their knowledge.

Rather than resist the impact of social media, the more savvy organizations embraced these channels, providing customers with additional ways to easily share their content. Pinset uses Britain's The Guardian as an example of a newspaper that understands the importance of leveraging the power of social media. Pinset notes that it was among the first to provide its online readers with a quick and easy way to share the news, extending its reach to a broader audience.

The social impact

Undoubtedly, social media has had an enormous effect on the media industry. In what seemed to be an overnight occurrence, social channels became the go-to place for people to get information about what was happening around them. The "State of the News Media 2013" report found that while word of mouth continues to be the most common way for people to get news, 15 percent reported getting information from social media sites. Never was this phenomenon so apparent than during this year's Boston Marathon bombings, when people took to Twitter to share the news. As the newly public social channel itself put it, "Twitter became a crucial part of the journalist's toolkit." Even the Boston Police Department took to Twitter to share updates, including the announcement that the suspect had been captured.

What the role of social media, especially Twitter, in the Boston bombings highlights is the fact that today everybody can be a publisher of information and all they need is a phone. Further, the quest for immediate gratification, in this case getting information as it happens, is solidifying the important role of social interactions during major events, allowing users to get information and updates from other users rather than the more traditional channels. In essence, to find out what's happening in any part of the world, you no longer need to wait until the next news cycle. As John Golden, CEO and president of Huthwaite, notes, "the idea of daily news has gone by the wayside because everything is so instantaneous."

Undeniably, this shift is putting pressure on traditional media organizations, especially ones that are adamant not to risk accuracy for the sake of being the first to break the news through social sharing. Media organizations know they're facing an uphill struggle-many times they have no way to compete with eyewitnesses to break news.

However, while media organizations have a hard time winning the battle for breaking news, they can still leverage social channels to their advantage. For starters social interactions help media organizations understand the pulse of the community and get a better grip on what's happening around them. "They can glean intelligence to make their organizations more responsive," explains Vision Critical's Samuel. A better understanding of what their customers already know and what they want to hear more about can help news organizations tailor their offerings.

A second opportunity revolves around using social media to provide customers with supplemental content that will complement primary news stories that are already running, notes Dan Ogdon, senior vice president and general manager of Swiftpage and Act! Further, by making content accessible over different social channels, media companies increase their opportunity to interact with and engage customers. "Media outlets also enhance customer experience by providing consumable content across multiple platforms, including mobile," he notes.

The dark side of social-an opportunity for the media industry

Social media has several advantages. However, with so many contributors it is inevitable that accuracy can at times be at stake. Individuals who share information on social channels aren't bound by journalistic ethics to make sure a piece of information is correct before they share it. Some might jump the gun, others might make mistakes because they don't know the context of the full story. While social channels are used as an alert system that lets them know what's happening, many people are still looking at established media channels to verify what they hear on social media. This, Pinset believes, provides an important opportunity for traditional channels to retain their position as beacons of credibility.

Further, while media organizations are struggling to break news, they can keep their users engaged by providing context and more in-depth details. Rather than see social as a competitor, these companies should leverage information they glean from social media to give additional content that's more relevant to their users. "Make sure users believe in you and then use social channels to extend your reach," Pinset stresses.