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June 2, 2010, 10 a.m.

Step aside, brand loyalty; we’re loyal to information now

The Pew Research Center released an interesting study last week that offers some sobering — if unsurprising — insights for the news business.

Researchers examined top news stories in the mainstream press as well as what news got traction on blogs, Twitter and YouTube. A main finding was that what’s hot on social media differs — a lot — from what leads in the mainstream press. But what’s even more interesting, I think, is that what’s popular on one form of social media differs significantly from what’s trendy on another. For example, Twitter’s domain is technology, not surprisingly. Blogs and the mainstream press focus more on politics and government. Also not a shocker. As my kids might say: “No duh.”

But what isn’t so obvious is what this might mean. I’ve written before about how I believe the real reason many people don’t subscribe to news online — or in print — is about commitment, not money.

This study crystallizes my thoughts. I suggest these findings illustrate the radically different way today’s consumers think of news, compared with the past. It’s not brand based. It’s not even platform based. It’s based on niche, which many have said before. But the niche isn’t just in the content or the subject matter; it’s in the mechanism of transmission.

Modal switching of media

In other words, the people formerly known as the audience know if they want a certain type of information, they head to Twitter. Another type, they’ll go to YouTube. Something else, that’s what FourSquare is for.

It’s likely not a conscious decision — it’s more visceral than that. But the important point is that the loyalty isn’t to the platform, the application, the delivery system, or the brand. The loyalty is to the need for the information. Another Twitter-like service could spring up tomorrow, and if it fit a niche — or a micro-niche — it could go great guns. People wouldn’t stay loyal to Twitter because “We’ve always been on Twitter.” They’d go where they can get what they want.

That’s why social media flourish and then flounder.

It’s a very different mindset than the one still cherished by some in the mainstream press. That mindset was built on the idea of brand loyalty that grew over time as people saw the brand (the newspaper) as a symbol of something in their lives. A rite of passage into adulthood. A sign of respectability.

Media as tool, media as meaning

For example, when I was growing up in the 1970s, my parents subscribed to the New York Daily News to sate my Yankees-obsessed father’s love for sports coverage. But they also took the local daily for the hometown news. As I grew into adulthood, those papers were a staple on our kitchen table, which would have seemed oddly empty without them. The newspapers weren’t just a delivery source for information.

My children likely won’t ever have that kind of bond with any kind of media. They’ll replace one platform with another as technology improves and their interests evolve. They won’t expect any to have staying power. They’ll instinctively know they are fleeting.

Who creates the information, who creates the news may be meaningless to them. Worrying about the demise of one online platform will be as odd to them as bemoaning the loss of the rotary-dial phone would have been to me.

The question is: How do those in the news business deal with this reality? That’s a tough one. I can suggest what won’t work. Teaching your staff to use Twitter and Facebook as if these are these are the news tools of the trade, the notebooks and pens of an earlier day, won’t cut it. By the time the news professionals get proficient in one platform, the rules and the platforms will change. As I tell my introductory journalism students, my goal isn’t to teach you how to use social media for reporting; it’s to teach you how to be able to spot the next smart app that comes down the pike.

The key is to be fluid and to realize that readers want relationships with people, not brands. That targeting audiences won’t work. You must target your content to the right platform at the right time and be ready to change in a moment’s notice. In short, the goal is to become like the news consumers you are trying to reach.

POSTED     June 2, 2010, 10 a.m.
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