News Publishers Must Focus on Audience

Jon Stookey is an associate director of strategy at Designkitchen, an integrated agency that’s part of WPP Group. Follow him on Twitter @jonstookey.

When I read “Journalists Need to Take Advertising 101,” my initial reaction was it ranked among the top 10 dumbest things I’ve read.

I surprised myself with how vehemently I objected to what I thought I was reading – given that I abandoned my idealistic, investigative journalism track almost immediately after graduating from Medill (note: now the Medill School of Journalism AND Integrated Marketing Communications). I’ve been working in integrated marketing and brand/digital strategy ever since.

What I thought was being argued: news journalists should find ways to make their articles more attractive to advertisers … put the saddle right on my ethical high horse. “That’s the end of free press and, and … objective journalism,” I sputtered to innocent bystander colleagues. Histrionics aside, I still think that’s true – more or less. The job of a news journalist is to report objectively — this is what their audience expects above all else. A friend of mine from the New York Times with whom I had dinner last night vehemently agrees.

I started thinking about parallel industry examples to throw some additional light on this. Following the logic that journalists are in the audience business, which is, in turn, monetized by advertising — isn’t Google in a similar boat?

I know: There are ripples of conspiracy circulating right now about its algorithm being tweaked to favor large brands. But by and large, its search service is used and preferred today because people trust the results. Now, say Google goes public and admits that its aim is to make its algorithm “more attractive to advertisers.” What would the impact be? My guess is total bedlam — and, well, buh-bye Google.

No one objects when it makes changes to make its service more user-friendly, though. Which in turn creates more users and more ad revenue … and so on and so forth.

Journalists, marketers, advertisers, technologists, etc. are all creating something that resonates deeply with their audience: something that offers people value and some form of utility. Not to be overly simplistic, but the rest will fall into place if you get that crucial formula right.

Take Vice Media, for example. Its client list is chock full of heavy hitters, including Intel, GE, Red Bull — and partnerships with HBO and UFC. Not bad for what started out as a free Canadian magazine.

But ask the leaders of the company what their key to success was, and I bet they say one thing for sure: laser focus on their audience. They’re tapped into exactly what those elusive Millennial unicorns want. They’ve got that special, PBR-laced sauce that generation can’t get enough of. And they hold the hands of the brands they partner with to create content that makes sense, remaining true to their own brand.

Journalists “will be needed to figure out how this content can best play to their audience”; so maybe I’m helping prove the overall point. In fact, Vice may just be the poster child for this new model as it strengthens its Ad Vice network — it’s nothing if not a consummate marketer.

One thing that’s absolutely right is that “content marketing” is on the lips of every major brand at the moment. From an agency perspective, it’s in nine out of 10 RFPs that cross our desks these days. And as we develop content strategies for our brands that include potential partnerships, I look forward to creating relationships with journalists and organizations that have a deep understanding of the audiences we’re trying to reach — as well as their integrity and reputations intact.

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