The Web Isn’t a Local Broadcast Channel, It’s a Listening Post

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dataThere it was in the ad for a news director position via Rick Gevers’ excellent website that tracks openings for management people in the local television industry. “It” was a simple statement in the requirements of candidates for the position: “Broadcast, mobile and on-line distribution experience is also important criteria.” (sic)

I don’t mean to pick on this particular ad or station, because what I wish to point out is a systemic anachronism impacting the entire media industry. It’s the word “distribution” and the way it automatically flows from the minds of mass marketers with the same certainty that 3 follows 2. In this case, it produces a mistaken belief that “mobile and on-line” are merely additions or extensions to the company’s core competency. But the concept of “on-line distribution” — better, “network distribution” — reveals a naivete about the technology that assigns it only sustaining innovation status for legacy media companies.

These companies are in the audience business. We “make” content, but we “sell” audiences. One “delivers” content to an audience, so the word “distribute” fits beautifully in this tried-and-true paradigm. Any new technology, therefore, is viewed for how well it can sustain this model. If you can build an audience for your newspaper or your television station, the thinking goes, you can build an audience online, too. Hence, it’s a “sustaining innovation.” This would be fine, except the Web is vastly more a disruptive innovation for media than sustaining.

While it’s true that the Web can mimic one-to-many distribution systems, it is terribly dangerous to pin business growth or development on that alone. This danger also extends beyond legacy media to anybody trying to use traditional, audience-based advertising to pay the bills for the creation of local content.

It’s simply a very tough time to be in the audience business, because technology has not only set the captive audience free, it has also fragmented and unbundled everything from the infrastructures designed to take advantage of those audiences through advertising. The value of the word “distribute,” therefore, isn’t the web competency that does the most for media.

What we tend not to see is that, for media companies especially, the Web is really a listening post. Let legacy media be legacy media — but get used to the idea that, in a connected world, the ability to carve out new local news niches and profit centers is based, in large part, on our ability to listen. This is not a skill widely held among those who only “distribute,” but it’s one of the keys to a successful tomorrow in the network. It can be as simple as a beat that includes local online commenters to something much more technologically sophisticated.

This is what Annie Pettit does. Annie is known in some circles as “The Listen Lady,” for the book she wrote by the same name. She is VP of research standards at Research Now and the chief research officer of Conversition Strategies. She specializes in social media market research, survey research, and data quality. In other words, she “listens” to social media. Software just gathers data, as Annie told me recently, but the “listening” must always be done by a human being “who understands not only the nuances of social media data, but also the nuances of the category being researched.”

“When researchers analyze the results aggregated by the software,” she adds, “they can quickly see which topic areas generate the most volume or the most negativity and subsequently focus their analyses on problem areas or marketing advantages.” For newspeople, this could provide valuable insights on, let’s say, what’s important to the people they are attempting to serve, either as a whole or on specific issues.

Pettit also notes that information is currently being used to engage individual people and not just those in the aggregate. “Many specialized companies,” she adds, “have built proprietary systems to do just that.” However, it remains a risky business over privacy concerns. “It can be unnerving,” Annie told me, “for a private citizen making a random complaint to their friend on Facebook to suddenly be contacted by a billion-dollar company.”

On the other hand, there are an equal number of people who view it just the opposite and get upset when not responded to immediately or at least “within hours.” She adds that “It’s simply impossible to determine which consumer is the privacy seeker vs. the attention seeker, a distinction that can lead to serious problems if mishandled in either way.”

With his book, Public Parts, Jeff Jarvis began a discussion of the benefits of a culture of sharing versus a culture of obsessive privacy. As our connected society advances, Jarvis concludes, “it is fine and necessary to ask what could go wrong and to guard against our worst-case fears.” But, he adds, “it is also vital that we recognize new opportunities, envisioning the sort of society we can build upon an ethic of sharing.”

Sophisticated listening (both individual and algorithmic) will continue the climb to the democratization of the press by allowing media companies to weigh not only what needs to be written but why. This would shift power away from deep-pocket special interests, and that may well be the most stunning result of our entire networked world.

Listening deserves our attention and in ways far beyond just data. Stay tuned.

TerryNaplesTerry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.