As if it isn’t enough that newspaper and magazine publishers have to compete with an ever-widening array of information providers, in the effort to migrate subscription revenues from print to digital these publishers are squaring off against an additional challenge: subscription fatigue.
Not every consumer is opposed to paying for media, but with so many fee-based streaming services now being offered — including the ones by powerhouses like Netflix and Spotify — trying to get people to focus on “yet another” resource is proving difficult.
Moreover, when it comes to news information sources it’s even more challenging. According to a recent Digital News Report prepared by Reuters Institute, when given a choice between paying for news or paying for a video streaming service, only ~12% of respondents in the Reuters survey stated that they would pick the news resource.
It seems that with so many time demands on people’s online activities, fewer are willing to pay for access to information that they don’t wish to commit to consuming on a regular basis. Unlike most of the entertainment streaming services, news stories are often available from free sources whenever a consumer might choose to access such news stories. Those alternative news sources may not be as comprehensive, but i’s a tradeoff many consumers appear willing to make.
This is hurting everyone in the news segment, including local newspapers in smaller markets which have faced a major falloff in print advertising revenues.
Underscoring this dynamic, more than 1,800 newspapers in the United States have closed their doors in the past 15 years. Today, fewer than half of the country’s counties have even one newspaper within their borders. This fallout is affecting the availability of some news information, as local media have a history of covering stories that aren’t covered elsewhere.
But it’s yet more collateral damage in the sea change that’s upended the world of newspapers and periodicals in recent years.
More findings from the Reuters Institute report can be accessed here.
Decades ago, people had a choice of cloth fibers like cotton, wool and silk. Each of these natural cloths had positive attributes … as well as negative ones, too.
Cotton is comfortable to wear, but wrinkles when washed. Wool is great for the cold weather months, but needs to be dry-cleaned. Too, moths and other insects love to burrow their way through woolen clothing, making many an item made from wool ready for the trash far too soon.
Silk? It has all the detriments of cotton and wool without any of the positives — except that it looks rich and expensive if one wishes to put on airs or otherwise “make a statement.”
Beginning in the 1940s, polyesters and other synthetic fibers were introduced, giving rise to all sorts of new clothing items that touted a variety of positive attributes: They washed up fine, didn’t need ironing, and kept their shape over time.
Never mind the fact that the clothing didn’t breathe, and made more than a few people stink to the heavens after wearing a synthetic cloth shirt for barely an hour on a hot summer day.
Along these same lines, today we have synthetic media. It’s essentially how people and machines are collaborating to create media that is algorithmically created (or modified).
In its earliest incarnations, synthetic media was a blend of “real” and “faux” components. Think of a newscast with your favorite, very real anchor person … but the background, screens and graphics are computer-generated.
But things have gone much further than that in recent times. Text, photography and videos are being created by software with such precision and seeming authenticity that it’s nearly impossible to determine what content is “real” versus what has been “synthesized.”
On the plus side, content can be automatically translated and delivered in multiple languages to different audiences spanning the world, bringing more news and information to more people simultaneously. But what if the avatar (host) could be customized to be more “familiar” to different audiences — and therefore more engaging and believable to them?
There’s a flipside to all of this innovation. So-called “deepfakes” (a recent term that took no time at all to be added to the major dictionary databases) harness digital technology to superimpose faces onto video clips in ways that are so realistic, they appear to be totally authentic.
Considering the advances in the technology, one can only imagine the plethora of “news” items that will be unleashed into cyberspace and on social media platforms in the coming months and years. Most likely, they’ll have the effect of making more than a few people suspicious of all news and information — regardless of the source.
Which brings us back to synthetic fabrics. They’re with us and always will be; there’s no turning back from them. But people have learned how to use them for what makes sense, and eschew the rest. We need to figure out how to do the same with synthetic media.
Canadian interactive media and search engine specialist extraordinaireGord Hotchkiss is one of my favorite columnists who write regularly on marketing topics. Invariably he does a fine job “connecting the dots” between seemingly disparate points — often drawing thought-provoking conclusions from them.
In short, a Hotchkiss column is one that is always worth reading. In his latest piece he starts out with a bold pronouncement:
“When the internet ushered in an explosion of information in the mid-to late-1990s there were many — I among them — who believed humans would get smarter.
What we didn’t realize then is that the opposite would eventually prove to be true.”
His point is that information technology has begun to change the time-honored ways humans are hard-wired to think, which is both fast and slow. In essence, two loops are required for mental processing: the “fast” loop pertains to our instinctive response to situations, whereas the “slow” loop is a more thoughtful processing of discerning reality.
In Hotchkiss’ view, people need both loops – especially now, considering the complexity of the world.
A more complex world requires more time to absorb and come to terms with that complexity. But when the focus is only on thinking “fast,” the results aren’t pretty. As he observes:
“If we could only think fast, we’d all believe in capital punishment, extreme retribution, and eye-for-eye retaliation. We would be disgusted and pissed off almost all the time. We would live in a Hobbesian State of Nature [where] the ‘natural condition of mankind’ is what would exist if there were no government, no civilization, no laws, and no common power to restrain human nature.
The state of nature is a ‘war of all against all’ in which human beings constantly seek to destroy each other in an incessant pursuit for power. Life in the state of nature is ‘nasty, brutish and short.’”
Do any of us wish to live in a world like that? One would think not.
But here’s where Hotchkiss feels like things have gone off the rails in recent times. The Internet and social media have delivered to us the speed of connection and reaction that is faster than ever before in our lives and in our culture:
“The Internet lures us into thinking with half a brain … and the half we’re using is the least thoughtful, most savage half … We are now living in a pinball culture, where the speed of play determines that we have to react by instinct. There is no time left for thoughtfulness.”
In such an environment, can we be all that surprised at the sorry result? Hotchkiss, for one, isn’t, noting:
“With its dense interconnectedness, the Internet has created a culture of immediate reaction. We react without all the facts. We are disgusted and pissed off all the time. This is the era of ‘cancel and ‘callout’ culture. The court of public opinion is now less like an actual court and more like a school of sharks in a feeding frenzy.”
Not that every interaction is like that, of course. If you think of social media posts, there are many — perhaps more — that are wonderfully charming, even cloyingly affectionate.
Most people are quick to point out that there’s this good side to social media, too – and in that sense, social media merely reflects the best and worst of human nature.
But regardless of whether it’s negative or positive, pretty much all interactive media lives in the realm of “thinking fast.” All of it is digested too quickly. Too often it’s empty calories – the nutritional equivalent of salt-and-vinegar potato chips or cotton candy.
Hotchkiss’ point is that interactive communications and media have effectively hijacked what’s necessary for humans to properly pause and reflect in the “slow thinking” lane, and he leaves us with this warning:
“It took humans over five thousand years to become civilized. Ironically, one of our greatest achievements is dissembling that civilization faster than we think. Literally.”
This post is a continuation of a topic I wrote about several days ago. That column focused on the (lack of) reader engagement with customer e-newsletters and what may be the root causes of it.
This follow-up post focuses on what marketers can do to improve their newsletters’ worth to readers. It boils down to addressing four main issues:
Too much e-newsletter content is “full of it” – People don’t want to read about how great the company is or other navel gazing-type content that’s completely company-focused. Instead, offer soft-sell (or no-sell) content that’s truly of value. Simply ask yourself, “If I weren’t an employee of this company, would I care at all about this topic?” This exercise applies equally to B2B and B2C newsletters.
Tired writing – There’s nothing more tiresome than a newsletter article that’s filled with corporate-speak or comes across as a patchwork of language from multiple sources. But this happens all too often. Sometimes it’s because the writer is overworked and hasn’t had sufficient time to source the article and create a compelling narrative. Perhaps the author is a non-writer. Often, it’s simply that the people inside the company love how the copy reads – tin ear or not. Regardless of the topic of your story, newsletter copy should have personality, and it needs to move. Otherwise, it’s your reader who’s going to move on.
Gaining an audience – Too many newsletters are playing to an empty house, whether it’s because of an opt-in audience that doesn’t care about you anymore, or from a total lack of visibility in search results or on social media. Build circulation through in-house databases, optimizing copy to draw in new readers via SEO, and promoting article content through social posts. Again, these prescriptions work for both consumer and business marketing, although the individual tactics may differ somewhat.
Neglect – It happens way too often: An e-newsletter initiative begins with great fanfare, but it doesn’t take long for the novelty to wear off. What starts out as a bi-weekly turns into a monthly or a quarterly, with gaps in between. Eventually the only thing “regular” about it is its irregularity. It’s surprising how many corporate websites show links to archived newsletters all the way up to 2016 or 2017 — but then nothing more recent than that. And we all know what that means …
Wrapping it all up, it’s worth asking this basic question every once in a while: “Is our newsletter any good?” The answer should be unmistakable — if you read your content with a completely open mind.
If you’re involved in your company’s e-newsletter initiatives, do you have any additional insights about what makes for a successful program? Please share them with other readers here.
One of my clients is a multinational manufacturing firm that has published its own “glossy” company magazine for years now. The multi-page periodical is published several times a year, in several regional editions including one for the North American market.
It’s a magazine that’s full of interesting customer “case histories” accompanied by large, eye-catching photos. The stories are well-written and sufficiently “breezy” in character to read quickly and without strenuous effort. The North American edition is direct-mailed to a sizable target audience of mid-five figures.
And I wonder how many people actually read it.
The reason for my suspicion stems from the time we were asked to produce a survey asking about readers’ topic preferences for the magazine. The questionnaire was bound into one of the North American issues, including a postage-paid return envelope. The survey was simple and brief (tick-boxes with no open-ended questions). And there was an incentive offered to participate.
In short, it was the kind of survey that anyone who engaged with the publication even marginally would find worthwhile and easy to complete.
… Except that (practically) no one did so.
The unavoidable conclusion: people were so unengaged with the publication that they weren’t even opening the magazine to discover that there was a survey to fill out.
In the world of company e-mail newsletters, is the same dynamic is at work? One might think not. After all, readers must opt-in to receive them – suggesting that their engagement level would tend to be higher.
Well … no.
A just-published study titled How Audiences View Content Marketing, finds that company e-newsletters are just as “disengaging” as the printed pieces of yesteryear.
The study’s results are based on a survey conducted by digital web design firm Blue Fountain Media. Among the findings outlined in the report are these interesting nuggets:
One in five respondents completely ignore the e-newsletters they receive, while more than half scan headlines before deciding to read anything.
Two-thirds of respondents admitted that the main reason for opting in to receive e-newsletters is to take advantage of special offers or discounts, while only around 20% expressed any interest at all in receiving information about the company.
More than half of respondents (~52%) feel that newsletter content is too “commercial” (as in “too sales-y”). Other complaints are that the e-newsletters are “too long” (~21%) or “boring” (~19%).
Even more alarming is this finding: Approximately one-third of the respondents felt that e-newsletter content is so lame, it actually leads them to question using the product or service.
That seems like marketing going in reverse!
What Blue Fountain has uncovered may be indicative of another challenge as well: the diminishing allure of content marketing. Over time, readers have become cautious about accepting online content as the gospel truth; this research pegs it at two-thirds of respondents feeling this way.
At the same time, only about one-third of the respondents think that they can distinguish well between fact-based content versus content with an “agenda” behind it. And therein lies the basis for suspicion or distrust.
On the plus side, the research found that readers are more apt to engage with video content, so that may be a way for e-newsletters to fight back in the battle for relevance. But it still seems a pretty tall order.
I address the topic of company e-newsletters in a second blog post to follow. Stay tuned …
It would seem that the more top ratings a company or product can receive in online reviews, the better it would be for their business.
As it turns out, this isn’t exactly the case. A recent national study has concluded that businesses earning star-ratings averaging between 3.5 and 4.5 on a five-point scale earn more revenues annually than those with other ratings – higher or lower.
And even more surprising, top-rated businesses with five stars actually earn less in revenues than those whose customer ratings are two stars or lower.
What’s going on here?
It would seem that five-star ratings are considered “too good to be true.” Seeing them, people tend to think something’s fishy about how the ratings can be so high. And if there’s something worse than getting low ratings, it’s the feeling that the ratings a company has earned aren’t “genuine.”
The analysis, conducted recently by small business SaaS supplier Womply, sought to study the correlation between online customer reviews and company revenues, and in doing so it looked at data from a large number of U.S. small businesses.
The more than 200,000 businesses studied had an average annual revenues of around $300,000. The Womply research spanned diverse industries and markets including restaurants, auto shops, retailers, medical and dental offices, hair and nail salons, etc.
While the ratings dynamics may be surprising, another Womply finding reinforces the intuitive view that attracting more reviews online is better than attracting fewer ones.
The businesses studied by Womply averaged ~82 total reviews across multiple online review sites. But for those businesses attracting more than the average number of reviews, they earned ~54% more in annual revenues than the average. And for those with 200 reviews or more, the average annual revenues were nearly double the average revenue figure.
The propensity for companies to respond to reviews appears to boost revenue performance as well. The Womply study found that businesses that fail to interact with their customers’ reviews earn lower revenue on balance – as much as 10% less than their counterparts.
The key takeaway points from the Womply research appear to be:
Too many top-rating reviews risk making a company’s reputation appear less genuine, actually repelling business rather than attracting it.
To improve revenues, businesses should encourage their customers to post reviews online.
To improve revenues, businesses should engage with reviewers by responding to their comments, addressing concerns, and expressing gratitude for praise.
People feel more affinity with companies that acknowledge their customers and treat them like they care. It’s basically the Golden Rule in practice.
What are your thoughts? Do the findings surprise you? Please share your perspectives with other readers.
There’s no question that “native advertising” – paid editorial content – has become a popular “go-to” marketing tactic. After all, it’s based on the time-tested notion that people don’t like advertising, and they’re more likely to pay attention to information that looks more like a news article than an ad.
Back in the days of print-only media, paid editorial placements were often labeled as “advertorials.” But these days we’re seeing a plethora of ways to label them – whether identified as “sponsored content,” “paid posts,” or using some kind of lead-in descriptor such as “presented by …”
Behind all of the verbal gymnastics is the notion that people may not easily distinguish native advertising from true editorial if the identification can be kept somewhat euphemistic. At the same time, the verbal “sleight of hand” raises concerns about the obfuscation that seems to be going on.
These dynamics have been tested. One such test, conducted several years ago by ad tech company TripleLift, used biometric eye-tracking to see how people would view the same piece of native advertising, that carries different disclosure labeling.
The results were revealing. Here are the percentages of participants who saw each ad, based on how the content was labeled:
“Presented by” labeling: ~39% saw the content
“Sponsored by” labeling: ~29%
“Promoted by” labeling: ~26%
“Brought to you by” labeling: ~24%
“Advertisement” labeling: ~23%
Notice that the content that was labeled “advertisement” was noticed the least often. This provides yet more confirmation that people ignore ads. When advertisers used softer/fuzzier terms like “presented by” and “sponsored by,” they achieved a bigger lift in the content being noticed.
It comes as little surprise that those same “presented by” and “sponsored by” labels are also the most potentially confusing to people regarding whether the item is paid content. And when people find out the truth, they tend to feel deceived.
Members of the Association of National Advertisers look at it the same way. In an ANA survey of its members conducted several years ago, two-thirds of the respondents agreed that there should be “clear disclosure” of native ads – even if there’s a lack of consensus regarding who should be responsible for the labeling or what constitutes “clear” disclosure.
Asked which labeling describes native ad disclosure “very well,” here’s what the ANA survey found:
“Advertisement”: 62% say this labeling describes native ad placements “very well”
“Paid content”: 37%
“Paid posts”: 34%
“Sponsored by”: 31%
“Native advertising”: 12%
“Presented by”: 11%
“Promoted by”: 11%
“Branded content”: 8%
“Featured partner”: 8%
Considering that the findings are all over the map, it would be nice if a universal method of disclosure could be devised. But the language that’s agreed upon shouldn’t scare away readers, since in so many cases native advertising isn’t directly pitching a product or service. Labeling such content “advertising” would be as much of a misnomer as failing to divulge the company paying for the placement.
My personal preference for adopting consistent labeling language among the options above would be “Sponsored by …” What’s yours?