LMA Goes Small to Spread Disruptive Ideas Among Local Publishers

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The Local Media Association’s Innovation Missions bring together small groups of media executives — usually fewer than 15 at a time — who spend several intensively scheduled days fielding ideas that are designed to disrupt how they run their businesses.

The missions are held at tech and media companies that have embraced disruption and want to share what they see as benefits to an industry that’s been perennially playing catch-up, especially in reader and advertiser relationships. Participants focus on one or more core themes that they and the presenters agree are vitally important to the media’s future.

The recent Innovation Mission to San Francisco/Silicon Valley drew 13 senior executives in the news business (newspapers, TV, radio and research and development). It was built around three themes:  audience engagement, platform strategies  and using human-centered “design thinking” to solve thorny problems that bedevil most news providers.

In this Q & A, Jed Williams, LMA’s chief innovation officer, talks about what happened at this “traveling roadshow” of a mission:

Participants were told to “be true to your brand.” But they were also told to “give your customer what they want.” But what if your customers don’t, at least not yet, appreciate what your brand means?
It’s an interesting duality. I think the dilemma you raise comes back to another core theme of this recent Innovation Mission trip — human-centered design. Establishing genuine empathy with customers through observation, interviewing and testing enables media companies to build specific “points of view” of what different customers want, then build products to match those perspectives. The “voice” of that product (or content brand) must be distinct to solve these users’ specific problems. To deviate from this is to lose touch with that customer.

Also, we know all too well that winning customer mindshare in such a competitive and fragmented marketplace is a losing proposition without a well-defined voice that builds strong affinity with core users.

The Hustle, one of the companies you visited in San Francisco, embraces the “customer lifetime value.” What is that and why is it important?
Customer LTV is critical as media companies shape more of their economic future around audience-centric revenue instead of (though not fully displacing) advertising. It’s understanding how much it costs to acquire a customer, then being able to measure how much that customer is worth over the full arc of their relationship with you.

In the case of The Hustle, their relationship with audience starts with acquiring an email address. They can then monitor everything someone does as a subscriber. Do they attend events? Do they refer friends to subscribe?

The same goes for a local media company. They must understand the value of different users: a passerby from third-party platforms, a logged-in website/app user, an email subscriber and a paying customer.

User engagement is more complex than the phrase indicates. What are the variables that have to be understood?
If you’re a media company, a good place to star is to define the type of engagement that you’re seeking, and why. It’s easy to be awash in metrics without understanding which are most important. PVs, UVs, CTRs, viewability, open rates, referrals, app downloads, number of sessions, session time…you get the idea.

At The Hustle, “opens” and CTRs are meaningful indicators of engagement. There are deeper engagement metrics, too: how active is someone over 30 and 90 days? How many email subscribers are becoming referrers of the brand to new users? These are also important to The Hustle to grow the aggregate audience and ensure that it’s high-quality.

SmartNews, which we also visited in San Francisco, is a news aggregation app, so downloads of course are important. But so too is something they call “FQ14” — how frequently someone comes into the app within a 14-day window. Connected to this, push alerts are an important lever to drive this activity, so monitoring engagement and latency rates with these alerts is important.

Quantifying the value of an engaged user is important, participants were told. But according to the Spiegel Research Center — cited in your report on the mission — how that user is actually quantified is not that easy, and some approaches can misfire. What’s the right, and wrong, way to do that?
In order to accurately quantify the value of user engagement, a couple of things must be considered. First, what is the specific action that a user is taking, and what is the relative value of that action? For example, how much is it worth for someone to post something on a social media account versus downloading a mobile app?

Certainly there are different values for each of these. Determining and assigning those values is the what Spiegel is striving to do. This reverts back to the lifetime value question.

Spiegel is then taking these engagement activities and analyzing them a level deeper: prompted versus unprompted engagement, the effect of topical relevance of content on engagement, and the effect of all of this on someone’s propensity to buy.

Clearly, an example of a company that is grappling to strike the right balance between personalization and discovery is Facebook. Historically the experience was built around personalization: your network, your “likes.” But a consequence of that approach is filter bubbles, which has (and continues to) led to re-consideration around the optimal approach and UI.

“Human-centered” innovation got a lot of emphasis during the mission. But hasn’t good innovation always been “human-centered”?
You’re right, and design thinking isn’t new by any stretch. Brothers Tom and David Kelley and IDEO — another stop during our mission — have been practicing it for decades. I think what’s changed, at least in media, is the degree to which human-centered innovation has been codified into a structured process with frameworks that can be applied.

Empathy, observation, ideation and learning aren’t new. Far from it! But progress is being made in formalizing effective ways for doing this, and teaching it cross-functionally. Design thinking can’t just be for product managers. How can we make it “real” for newsrooms, sales teams, marketing groups, and more?

“Fail-forward” innovation was emphasized. How to you tell failing forward from just plain failing?
It’s not easy, and they shouldn’t be confused. Ultimately, I believe “failing forward” is assessed by the discoveries and outcome(s) that the failure led to, and perhaps sparked. If an idea fails, but there is no follow-up — no continued observation, testing and learning — then “failing forward” fails. But if it encourages a new design cycle that uncovers new learnings that move someone closer to solving a problem for a customer/user, then “failing forward is doing its job. It’s allowing you to fail and learn earlier in the product lifecycle stage, which is lower-risk and less expensive than investing heavily in building a new product, only to see it fail after it’s already complete.

Would you sum up what you think the event achieved and how it might help you’re the 2.800+ members of members of LMA?
The trip achieved a couple of important milestones that should be relevant not only to attendees and their companies, but also to the industry at large:

1) We wanted to make design thinking more concrete — more “real,” if you will — to local media companies. It’s an idea that’s very trendy, but how can it actually be applied within a local media environment? That’s what we sought to answer, and between the expert perspectives shared at our visits to IDEO and Matter, and the hands-on design thinking boot camp led by McClatchy’s head of innovation, Jeremy Gockel. I believe we supplied a toolkit that can be utilized.

2) We sought clearer meaning around audience engagement. How do different media companies define and pursue it? What metrics do they use to measure success? What business models can be constructed around various types of engagement? Our meetings with The Hustle, SmartNews, Pandora and Google were all designed with these questions in mind. We surfaced a wide spectrum of perspectives, and some clear case studies of audience engagement in action.

What’s the next big event?
The Innovation Mission is heading to Atlanta and Raleigh-Durham on February 5-7. The trip will focus on transformation, with several examples of media companies that are proactively building new paths forward.

Cox Media Group is investing in niche verticals that capture loyal audiences and create strong branded/native content opportunities. WRAL-TV is making a big bet on scaling video production. McClatchy has built a corporate innovation team to drive change initiatives companywide.

We’ll meet with all of these companies for in-depth discussions of why they’re doing what they’re doing, and what they’re learning.

Those interested in attending can learn more here.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) has written “The New News” column for Street Fight since 2011. He is also working on a book about the history, present, and future of Charleston, S.C.