Media lost on Breadth. They can still win on Depth, if they act like teachers.

Part I:  Media’s Crisis and The Way Forward

Media firms face a true existential crisis:  What is their purpose?  Why do they exist?

For about 150 years, Media businesses were the only way to get messages, both non-commercial (news) and commercial (ads), in front of large groups of specific people.  Media firms’ purpose centered upon the breadth of their reach to their audiences.

Today, the breadth contest is over:  Google and Facebook have won.  Together, these twin giants of tech and distributed content reach billions of people each day.  (By comparison, the largest legacy media firms command daily audiences in the mere tens of millions.)

Because they’ve won the battle for breadth, Facebook and Google have also won the battle for revenue growth.  Print advertising is being eaten by digital advertising.   While spending on digital advertising continues to climb, an oft-cited statistic is that Facebook and Google are capturing 90% of that spending growth, leaving media firms to fight over the table scraps.

In order to adapt, media firms have spent the last few years re-organizing, downsizing, or – in direst circumstances – selling themselves.  But in general, very few media firms have made a strategically sound bet:  Pursuing greater depth in their audience relationships.

By depth, I mean knowing someone very well – who they are, what they know, what they don’t know, what they need, and what they care about.  Knowing a person in depth is typically achieved only by a privileged few:  Family members, close friends, and teachers.

Think for a moment about how well teachers know us, and why:  They spend significant time interacting with us.  They gain our trust because we know they are there to help us.  And, of course, teachers ask us lots of questions.  In the process, they come to understand our strengths, our concerns, and our opportunities to grow and improve.

After we leave school, we continue to learn as we pursue our careers, and in the process we acquire new teachers:  Managers, colleagues, and leaders of the occasional class or training session we may attend.  But we have other post-graduation ‘teachers’ that are largely unacknowledged and under-appreciated:  The people who author and distribute information and guidance related to our jobs, our careers, our world, and our personal lives.  They’ve been around for about 150 years, and they’re called the Media.

With polls showing that mistrust of the media is higher than ever, weekly attacks from politicians, and cries of “fake news” filling the air, it’s easy to forget that the Media’s original purpose was to inform, guide and help us.  In other words, to teach us, after we’ve left formal schooling behind.

Trust in Media has eroded for many reasons, and rebuilding it will take sustained effort on many fronts.  But I’d argue that the way forward for Media firms must involve taking an active role as teachers of their audience members.  In doing so, Media firms can notch a double win:  They’ll regain audience trust by showing their concern.  At the same time, they’ll develop new business models based not upon showing ads, but rather upon asking their audience important questions, remembering the answers, and providing personalized, individualized guidance.

(coming soon:  Part II – How Media Should Teach)