True change can only take place if we stop thinking of ourselves as publishers and shift to being in the membership community business.
By Kirk Stelsel
A decade can fly by in a hurry. Between family, work, and life, 10 years can seem like the blink of an eye. But think about the changes to the media and publishing landscape over the past 10 years, and 2004 seems like another lifetime. Back then, most phones were flip phones, Facebook was a personal project in Mark Zuckerberg's Harvard dorm room, blogging was just barely becoming mainstream, and the death of print was far less predicted.
So what does that mean for us communications professionals? It means we've adapted a lot and there's no slowdown in sight. Chris Bondy, Gannett Distinguished Professor and administrative chair of the School of Media Sciences at Rochester Institute of Technology, shared his tips on succeeding in this changing landscape during the opening session of the recent 2014 Association Media & Publishing Annual Meeting.
Revolving Door of Change
Consider this: In 2000, 85 billion physical photos were processed. Today, four trillion digital photos are taken per year. Mobile has done more to change the way we consume and share information and how we interact than we could have ever imagined. According to Bondy, all this adds up to a perfect storm threatening to overcome us; but the storm doesn't have to win.
When technology advances it affects culture, which changes the economy. Down that line of dominos, our membership changes, so we as publishers must change as well – but how? Bondy asserts that true change can only take place if we stop thinking of ourselves as publishers and shift to being in the membership community business. To create a worthwhile community, we need to understand how people are changing and that starts with research and planning.
"We run too fast," Bondy says. "We don't take the time to plan — business is upon us, needs are around us, and we just tend to move to the next thing without a really good game plan."
Research done right is intensive, but even the most thorough research won't reveal everything. According to Bondy, your members can't tell you what they need. Sure, they can point to what they're unhappy with and what they want, but they don't know what they really need. Needs are found by distilling the nuances to spur innovation and create a truly valuable community.
Creating a Community
There are many audiences we need to understand and among them are Millenials. Just like any new generation, they are a tough nut to crack. As technology has shifted, so has the culture they have grown up in, and it has shaped them. Bondy shared a quote from the Pew Center for Research stating that Millenials are "unattached to organized politics and religion, linked by social media, burdened by debt and under- or unemployed, with a low level of social trust — yet surprising optimistic about the future."
Interpret that how you want, but it definitely means we have to adjust for a whole new audience, and it's going to take some new tactics. "They're in an environment where, if there's not entertainment value, they're kind of a hard-to-reach crowd," Bondy says. "They're over stimulated. I think we have to engage them, make it entertaining, and also find a way to challenge them — maybe even push their comfort level a little."
"Once they start voicing their opinion, you're starting to set the hook."
Once you understand all segments of your audience and their unmet needs, you're ready to create the community. There are communities all around us. Even the local Starbucks has created a community where it's more than just a cup of coffee. At Rochester Institute of Technology, Bondy was given the opportunity to lead the school of print media, and the first thing he did was figure out a way to move the platform forward through needs, technology, and a value proposition.
If you find that your research has led to a couple different possible routes, don't fret. Testing the waters of multiple ideas may help you determine which direction is the best to move forward in. For example, Bondy cited how Chris Anderson, former editor of Wired, uses his blog to test book ideas. Only after he finds an idea that sticks and that elicits interaction and a connection, does he move forward with a book.
So where does print fall into this plan? Bondy encouraged those in attendance not to give up on print. Print is a value add, he said, and very much has its place when it's done right. Integrating print and digital can not only be rewarding, but exciting. Take a moment to Google the term "Lexus print ad, iPad" and you'll see how a little innovation can go a long way. All you need is a deployment plan that includes scope, goals, measurement, timeline, budget, resources, project management, and reporting.
Change mandates a new balance. If we make sure we're in the membership community business and use research and innovation to guide the way rather than allowing tools or an outdated model to dictate the direction, the members and revenue will not be far behind.
Kirk Stelsel is director of communication and marketing for the National Precast Concrete Association. This piece was excerpted from Stelsel's full article, which will appear in a future issue of Signature magazine. Association Media & Publishing thanks him for volunteering to cover this Annual Meeting session for our members who were unable to attend.