The year of quiet adjustments (shhh)

“If 2017 reached peak innovation strategizing, pivoting, and iterating, then 2018 may very well be the year of pause, pare back, and hyper-focus.”

My prediction is that 2018 will be the year of quiet adjustments.

Sound uninspiring…or, actually, manageable and focused? Worrisomely workaday…or maybe a strategy for planning ahead for a news ecosystem in which continual change is business as usual?

If 2016 was sobering — a double-digit drop in print ad revenues, peak anti-platform sentiment, the migration of the large majority of digital ad revenue to Google and Facebook, among other disruptions — then 2017 was arguably chastening. The pivot to video peaked and crashed. VC-fueled digital pure-players lost their luster, missing revenue targets, and following up with layoffs (BuzzFeed, Mashable). The year of Trump, Brexit, and growing populism all across Europe has — this is a reductive shortcut, but all those were driving external factors — forced a turning point on the platforms, which have started evolving, grudgingly, into institutions with social accountability, even as more people that ever before are consuming their news on platforms. The fake news phenomenon has transformed the very identity of news media and their role as trustworthy gatekeepers that had been taken for granted. Those are just a few of this past year’s disruptions.

But because of (or despite) all that, the past few years in the news media ecosystem have also been a flurry of often radical innovation in newsrooms. Powered by results-driven methodologies, full of experiments and outcomes and metrics, it has been transformative. But it has also been exhausting and, for some newsrooms, exhaustive. They may be reaching the natural end of an intense cycle of constant testing-and-learning, even as newsroom restructuring continues. The New York Times just announced its second reorganization in as many years of their audience team, The Washington Post this past summer announced a series of new digital strategy and editorial innovation roles, and here at the Financial Times, we are creating a new newsroom team, led by my colleague Robin Kwong, head of digital delivery, that is defining new digital strategy roles. If this is the start of a new cycle of innovation, what comes next?

It may be that 2018 will be…chill.

I’m kidding. But not entirely. If 2017 reached peak innovation strategizing, pivoting, and iterating, then 2018 may very well be the year of pause, pare back, and hyper-focus. It is a year that could look something like this in newsrooms:

Let’s get really good at the engagement strategies that we now know work.

Let’s try to talk about innovation (always? Only ever?) coupled with sustainability: This thing that we wan to try — what is the lasting change it could bring about? For whom? And what is its value to that audience?

Let’s reassure audiences and not wow them or blow them away — or let’s make the former the priority and the latter the really-nice-to-have. It’s not the end of delight, but let’s focus on sustainable satisfaction.

Let’s prove our value to audiences in everything we do. In other words, let’s make everything we do something worth paying for.

Let’s give away less journalism for free (fewer clicks on Google, less free stuff on social), but let’s offer more ways to pay for it — not just onsite, but offsite — and with a greater variety of products. Maybe not all audiences should be paying the same amount for the same product, or be offered the same products. Let’s anticipate their willingness to pay and offer personalized pricing to go with personalized content.

Let’s change the subject from fake news and trust, and let’s start talking instead about strategies to anticipate our audience’s needs, using AI to understand their habits and preferences even better than they themselves consciously do. Let’s help them understand what they find most useful in what we offer and develop more efficient ways to help them find it.

Let’s ask audiences to tell us what they think, and let’s remember to let them know that we actually listened.

All of which quietly builds trust and loyalty, without asking for it. Quiet revolutions are sometimes the most radical.

Renée Kaplan is head of audience engagement at the Financial Times.

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