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Feb. 5, 2009, 10:47 a.m.

A café-shaped conversation

A great conversation has been going on at my previous post, with participants including:

  • A musician/entrepreneur who runs a hyperlocal social network in Fort Dodge, Iowa
  • A mountaineer/futurist who speaks and consults globally on new media matters
  • A newspaper editor in Waco, Texas
  • The president and publisher of “the most widely-read magazine in America” (a 32-million circulation newspaper supplement), based in New York City
  • The CEO of a Alabama newspaper holding company operating in 150 communities
  • An arts reporter/blogger in East Bay, California
  • A New York print evangelist/entrepreneur/educator
  • A Rhode Island consultant specializing in brands, organizational communications and enterprise technology design
  • Plus, yours truly, tucked away in snowy Vermont, and some of his fellow Nieman bloggers located at Harvard and Johns Hopkins

It was as if we all bumped into each other at a sidewalk café and started knocking around the problems of printed newspapers and journalism on the internet. It took a somewhat provocative post on my part to kick off the discussion, but then, that’s what we do every day in newspaper editorials and in our letters columns to get some buzz going.  We got past any animosity, pulled our tables and chairs closer together, and while in the end we “agreed to disagree,” we ascended to some deep thinking about the nature of media and the utility of social networking to news enterprises.  Given some of the players involved, it’s even possible that some of the ideas thrown out could have some actual effects in the marketplace.

Only of few of us have ever previously met in person or by phone or email, but there were were, having what Chris Brogan, writing about social media, has called a café-shaped conversation:

I think some companies will want big conversations, mass messaging, when what we’re offering are café conversations. We’re offering the intimate, the personal, the chance to talk in numbers of dozens and hundreds, and to make the appropriate kind of impact.

So why am I at the café? Because I think that’s what’s selling. I think we’re buying that way. I think that telling you about my experience with Jameson and Bank of America will be the new influence. I think that full page ad in your local newspaper is nowhere near as impactful as what I hear about on Frugalous.

I think the café is where the action is. I think that your $15,000 an hour film crew can’t beat my Flip Mino and a personal touch….

The cafe-shaped conversations that we are finding through social media are more meaningful, more impactful, and have a chance to spread and overtake other mass methods. And yet, they need tending. It’s like watching a small café pour an espresso versus getting a cup of joe at the local McDonalds. Completely different value propositions from the start.

Are there places for both? Sure. Should we throw out everything mass and switch to everything cafe? No.

So in the end, the question is more this: where should we employ café-shaped conversations (social media) and what should the desired results be?

That’s the question for newspapers news enterprises.  We know that uploading our daily newspaper content to a web site, and dressing it up with some breaking news, commenting, and a few blogs doesn’t command sustained attention from site visitors.  We know that the banners and buttons and upsells and even the video ads we’ve been pushing on newspaper web sites don’t really deliver all the punch advertisers need.  We need to facilitate closer, more trusted interactions.  How do we get people to stop at the café, pull their chairs together, and interact around our content?  And in the process, how do we create revenue-producing value for customers formerly known as advertisers?

Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are still trying to figure out that revenue question, despite being much farther along than news enterprises are in facilitating conversations.  So we might be best off postponing the monetization question (although that’s not what newspapers want to hear), and focusing on conversations (something newspapers have not really done, outside of a few experiments).

Brogan refers in his post to Mitch Joel’s list of questions to ask before even jumping into the networking racket:

  • Are we willing to not just listen, but to respond and adapt based on the back and forth?
  • Are we willing to become active participants – not just in our channels but in the other channels and spaces as well?
  • Are we willing to change the focus from being on our company to being about everybody — us, them and the entire community?
  • Are we willing to be participants with just as much fervour and passion when it’s not good for us, but good for the community or the industry as a whole?
  • Are we willing to be open?
  • Are we willing to be really, really open and transparent?

The tendency in the newspaper industry has been to find a “third party solution” for everything from commenting to classified advertising, turn it on and forget about it.  This won’t work for News Enterprise 2.0.  Let’s start with a Chief Social Networking Officer, or the equivalent; an-inhouse evangelist for connecting “us” (the news organization), “them” (our readers), and “the entire community” (retailers, non-profits, schools, government entities — all the stakeholders).  Let’s connect with them where they are now: on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and new local networks like MyFortDodge.  As well, let’s create our own spaces for interaction around specific interests: things like the Quad City Times’s Quadsville or the Washington Post’s WhoRunsGov.  These kinds of sites are not hard to set up — the challenge is to keep them interesting, relevant, compelling and useful, and to make sure that they answer all of Joel’s questions with “Yes.”

Photo credit: WhatCouldPossiblyGoWrong (CreativeCommons license)

POSTED     Feb. 5, 2009, 10:47 a.m.
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