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March 1, 2010, 10 a.m.

The right information, the right way, at the right time

You hear a lot said about how news organizations need to help people “make sense of the world.” I’ve used the idea myself to show how news organizations need to realize they sell convenience, not news. We all kind of know what we mean by the concept, but it doesn’t have a clear definition.

On Thursday, I encountered that made that meaning clear to me.

At 5:30 a.m., I got a text message from one of my local television stations alerting me that my kids’ school was closed because of an impending snowstorm. This was a valuable bit of information. Getting it by text was incredibly convenient: My phone buzzed on my bedside table, alerting me to the text. I didn’t even have to get out of bed. I turned off my alarm and slept in, a rare luxury in my frenetic life.

Around noon, I got a second text message from the TV station, advising me my 2 p.m. graduate school class was cancelled. I was sitting in the Syracuse University library at the time, eating my lunch, so again getting a text was preferable to any other mode of communication for me at that moment.

I got these texts because months ago, I had signed up on the TV station’s web site. I was able to pick the schools for which I wanted text or email alerts. It took less than 10 seconds.

Making sense of the world

This TV station gave me the specific information I wanted the way I wanted it and when I wanted it. Sure, I could climb out of bed, fire up my laptop, and read the school closings from a long list. Or I could do it the old-fashioned way and listen through a recitation of closures on the radio, hoping I had tuned in at the right moment to hear my kids’ school. Or I could watch the scrolling list at the bottom of a TV screen.

None of these other options are really arduous. But wasn’t it nice that a news organization brought the very information I wanted to me the way I wanted it? I don’t need to know what other schools are closed. I just want to know about my kids’ school. That’s the heart of the niche-based way of thinking that dominates on the Internet — a way of thinking that news organizations must embrace or they’ll continue their downward readership trend.

Text alerts of school closing won’t save journalism. And I know my local TV station is not unique; in some communities, school districts themselves text the parents about closures. My point is that this type of service — reader-directed and selected — engenders loyalty. Lots of these type of services can make a news site a destination community members will always remember to check.

It’s notable that the way I heard about these text alerts was from other mom friends, who thought the service was so great they felt compelled to tell everyone they know with kids. That’s the real gold standard in marketing: Customers who love something about your product so much that they can’t help but spread the word.

The station didn’t make any money off me (although I’d gladly pay for this service), but it gained a lot of my goodwill. I think this idea could be applied to other areas to help people navigate their communities that could make money. I’d love to be able to go to my local newspaper or TV station website and sign up for text coupon alerts from specific stores. I’d welcome being able to sign up for special deals from stores I pick that come right to my phone. Then I’d just give the code to the clerk, rather than have to remember to bring a direct-mail or newspaper coupon to the store with me.

Again, the core idea isn’t new — I could search the web now for discount codes. But I don’t really feel like it. That’s where the selling convenience comes in: You save me time, and you’ve saved me something I value. I’d appreciate any news organization that let me select what I want, when I want it, and how I want it. And that’s something I’d be willing to pay for.

Photo by Ian Iott used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 1, 2010, 10 a.m.
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From Nieman Reports: Where are the women in leadership at news organizations?
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