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April 07 2010

17:00

Word of mouth trumps advertising for the kids these days

This chart sums up as well any the kind of shift that the “engagement editor” in your newsroom is trying to address. It’s from the April issue of the book-industry newsletter Publishing Trends (copy posted here) and it’s survey data asking book buyers how they became aware of the books they’ve purchased. Each bar represents a different age group, moving down from oldest (61-plus) to youngest (under 20).

For the oldest cohort, new books get discovered twice as often from an in-store display than through a recommendation from a friend. But for the youngest group (age 21 and under), a friend’s recommendation is a more common the path to a sale than those nice tables up front at Barnes & Noble. And the same trend line applies to the generations in between, too: The younger you are, the more likely it is that you learn about books through your social networks — online or in person — rather than through traditional promotion channels. (Note that print book reviews, bestseller lists, and direct email marketing from publishers and retailers also get less effective the younger the target audience — while a recommendation from an in-store sales clerk gets more effective.)

This shift is obviously a challenge for book publishers in particular and marketers in general, but it’s also a challenge for the news industry. Getting your content into the personal streams of your audience — where they can and hopefully will want to share it with their friends — is to 2010 what those “Make this site your home page” pleas were to 2002. And it’s more evidence that speaking with an institutional voice rather than a human one is not going to be effective with younger audiences.

March 22 2010

17:49

Lauren Victoria Burke’s WDCPIX: A photojournalist builds business by aiming at sites that can’t afford wires

Lauren Victoria Burke’s strategy for success in the world of political photography is simple: undercut the Associated Press.

Burke runs a one-woman photography wire service in Washington, D.C. called WDCPIX that allows monthly subscribers to download as many of the hundreds of political photos available as they want. Her shots rival those of staff photographers working on the Hill; she typically covers congressional hearings and major public events in the city. She doesn’t guarantee specific event coverage, but does take requests and tries to accommodate her customers.

As a solo roving photographer in one of the world’s most photographed cities, she’s been able to build a business by targeting clients with budgets that won’t allow big costs for photography. About 25 to 30 of her clients are regulars; most pay a flat $260 monthly fee, although some have special arrangements. Subscribers include sites like Talking Points Memo and The Washington Independent; I became familiar with WDCPIX when I worked at both.

“Basically what you want to do is…create a business model that can undercut the bigger sites,” Burke told me. “There are a lot of news entities out there that can’t afford Associated Press or Getty or any of those guys. So you’re trying to create an environment where the smaller news entities out there, particularly with all these blogs around, they can subscribe to WDCPIX and make it very straightforward.”

For anyone familiar with the story of iStockphoto, the possibility of disruption in the photo business is nothing new. And while WDCPIX isn’t a breakout smash at iStockphoto’s scale, it shares a shift in the basic economics of the industry.

When Burke started out as an independent — she spent time at USA Today and the AP, among others — her focus was on bigger clients like C-SPAN and ABC News. She still does regular work for larger outlets, along with occasional clients in the nonprofit and advocacy sectors, like Defenders of Wildlife, and a few corporate clients like FedEx and Starbucks. (“A lot of times people are doing an annual report or they’re doing a brochure or they’re doing a website and they want to brighten it up with some photos,” she said.)

The business side

Burke runs every aspect of her business, including marketing. One tactic she says worked well in attracting new business is requiring online publications to credit WDCPIX.

“That particularly helped with TPMMuckraker because I got involved with them when they were pretty new. So when other people saw that, the other sites that hoped to become like TPM, would see that and call,” she explained. “It’s sort of a small ad. It works really well.”

She also works the typical marketing strategies like sending out mailers to potential clients, blasting email messages, and word-of-mouth. When she first launched the site, she says connections in her previous jobs at USA Today and The Hill were valuable in reaching clients.

When I asked Burke if she got investment money to start the site, she laughed — heartily. Burke said she kept her startup costs incredibly low and she covered them herself. The site runs on out-of-the-box software from Image Folio. She designed the site herself. She pays about $120 a month for a web server. The site’s billing, which she handles herself, is done almost completely online. She has no physical office; most days, she’ll do the journalism side of things from the press gallery in the Senate. Sometimes she does her business work from her home office or a coffee shop.

Burke decided to leave her job as a photo editor at USA Today and go solo was more the result of her independent streak than her interest in the future of media. “You end up working for a bunch of people and at some point, you want to be in more control of what you’re doing and what you’re covering,” she explained. “So owning a website like that and running your own photo service allows you to do that. It’s truly liberating.”

I asked her if she would have done as well if she’s gone a slightly more traditional route, setting up a portfolio website and working as a freelancer rather than setting up a subscription service.

“No. No way. So many people see it that would not normally have seen my stuff if I just had a typical portfolio website up, that we’ve all seen. Nothing wrong a photo website — but when you have this kind of subscription website, you have the payment tied into the site in a way you would not normally have if you just had a portfolio. The person has to go the extra step to expedite payment, expedite the business end. A lot of people are looking for, “Okay, I paid the money, now I want to download as many pictures as I want,” or whatever. I don’t think my photography would be as successful if I had a non-subscription, non-cash site.”

Advice

When I asked Burke what advice she would give to other photojournalists, she didn’t hesitate.

“I think one of the things is not to get too pigeonholed into one thing because we don’t live in the same universe we used to live in,” she said. “Not too long ago, in the ’80s and ’90s, you could sustain yourself on a staff job some place and do just fine. Now, the more things that you can do, the better. A lot of photographers, for some reason, don’t like writing. I really think the writing thing is huge. Even though people shy away from the idea of being a one-man band because it’s so much work, it does put you in the position where you could potentially be doing your own stuff, by yourself, without a lot of interference and middlemen involved, editors, et cetera. And it can be lucrative. It can be a living.”

All photos courtesy Lauren Victoria Burke.

February 02 2010

20:24

Email is Far From Dead

For years, the digerati have been declaring the end of email as a useful tool.

Back in 2003, experts said RSS feeds would spell the death of the inbox. In 2007, Wired and CNET said younger generations were using IM, Facebook and MySpace instead of email. More recently, PC Magazine's John Dvorak proclaimed "9 Reasons E-mail is Dead," and The Wall Street Journal told us "Why Email No Longer Rules."

The prognosticators point to the annoyances of spam; the difficulties of getting mass messages through corporate firewalls (and of having them stripped of HTML or graphics); and the fact that overflowing inboxes are causing people to pay less attention to email.

It's true that media companies -- and isn't every company now a media company? -- need to pay attention to important social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. But they shouldn't underestimate the power of a well-crafted subject line that lands in front of an email subscriber.

Let me give some examples from my own experience, and also provide some data to help bolster my case that email is alive and well.

Don't Underestimate the Email Newsletter

A business associate recently suggested we not devote too much energy to a client's email strategy because people are "overloaded with email." But within four weeks of launch, more than five percent of the client's website visitors had signed up to receive email communications. The list continues to grow at a fast clip, and I consider the people on it to be among of the site's most loyal following.

Another recent example came when a representative from a potential sponsor for MediaShift expressed interest in banner ads, but told me they were really keen to learn about opportunities in our email newsletter. They found email to be the most effective means of communicating, according to the representative.

"Email is probably the single most effective marketing communications platform available
to publishers today, especially since it already has a high penetration level," Chris Sturk, managing editor for the publishing consultancy Mequoda Group, said via email.

For a publisher, email ads, which by law require a user's permission and are thus more targeted than many other advertising formats, tend to garner a much higher fee on a per-user basis than web ads. They also allow for a level of design and linguistic craft that can be impossible to achieve on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook.

I have consistently seen spikes in traffic to websites in the hours and days after email newsletters are sent out. Email allows you to keep messages on your servers, and not have to trust the security and delivery of the social network you're sending them through. You can use the data related to open rates (the percentage of those receiving an email who actually open it), clickthroughs from links and bouncebacks (when an email address is no longer valid, for example), and not have to be as concerned with whether your information is secure. Users' privacy can be better protected with email, as well.

"In business communication with customers, oftentimes a private channel is desired, especially when pertaining to the exchange of money," Sturk said. "Email has this privacy, while social media is mainly public."

The aggregate numbers, too, show that email is not in decline. The Journal story cited data that found the number of email users grew 21 percent, to 276.9 million people, across the U.S, several European countries, Australia and Brazil from August 2008 to August 2009. Sturk said delivery rates and open rates, meanwhile, remain relatively stable.

Social Networks Make Email More Efficient

emailVs.jpg

True, Twitter and Facebook and some social bookmarking and sharing sites are climbing up the rankings when it comes to referring traffic to websites. But surveys conducted by the marketing research company Marketing Sherpa find that users of social media consider them venues for personal communication, while 75 percent prefer that companies communicate with them via email.

Social media users, in fact, may use email more heavily than others, according to Marketing Sherpa editor Sean Donahue. "Just look at LinkedIn or Facebook -- how do you set up an account?" he said. "With an email address. How do you receive your notifications from those services? Through your email."

Social networks, as well as other tools like wikis and document sharing services, may also have made emailing more efficient. Collaborators can now more easily find out a project's status and access documents as needed without having to send and receive emails for every update.

Email may not have the buzz, but it still has a lot of power. If you're in the communication business, you ignore it at your peril. Email should still be in your mix if you're looking to reach your users in a way that makes them comfortable, lets them communicate with you, and also brings you business benefits.

Dorian Benkoil is the sales manager at MediaShift and SVP at Teeming Media, a strategic media consultancy focused on helping digital media content identify and meet business objectives. He has devised strategies, business models and training programs for websites, social media, blog networks, events companies, startups, publications and TV shows. He hosts the TV program "Naked Media: The Business of Media, Uncovered" (NakedMedia.org), blogs at MediaFlect.com and http://dorianbenkoil.tumblr.com/, and Tweets @dbenk.

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