The assertion that journalists have a bright future might seem rather strange given the somewhat disparaging things I have tended to say in this blog about the institutions and processes of journalism (many of which are contained in the posts here). However, if we separate out the skills of a journalist, from the institutions of journalism we can see that those who are able to make this separation are presented with many opportunities. Here’s why.
I have advised many organisations on how to make the transition to operating in the social media space. Without exception, there are three challenges that present themselves when doing this.
Challenge number one – People
In social media, the answer almost always is a person, never a piece of technology. You need people to monitor social media, to participate in conversations, to nurture networks and communities. Buying an editing suite won’t edit you a video unless it has a trained operator, but it surprising how many organisations are buying black box monitoring products or out-of-the-box social network platforms and somehow expecting that to be “the answer”.
Marketing departments are going to become conversation departments. They can only sustain that conversation via real people – either by gathering these people in one place, outsourcing elements to agencies or outsourcing the conversation to the business as a whole via encouraging employees to use social media tools as part of their day-to-day work.
Challenge number two – Content
Content is now a volume game. Generic, one to many mass message doesn’t work, people expect the information that an organisation produces to be far more specific and relevant. As a result, it is not about creating a shop window, with a few fixed, expensive displays (ads, brochures, campaigns) but about creating a warehouse with the shelves stacked with the digital and highly mobile answers to any conceivable question a customer may have. The organisation that understands this better than any is Demand Media, which has cracked the business model for content provision and in the process showed us the future of content. Demand Media pumps out about 4,000 videos per day – i.e. the equivalent in about one month that the entire global advertising industry puts out in one year.
This high volume, low cost, editorial approach to content is what organisations need to get their heads around and it is no good trying to get an ad agency or conventional production facility to help. Their business models are just not configured around this requirement.
Challenge number three – Stories
When distributing information was expensive messages has to be short. In fact, the whole art of marketing was about reductive communication – boiling down a lot of information into a single 30 second generic statement, a single image, or a short piece of text. The bedrock of this process was the brand proposition. However, social media is not constrained by the expense of distribution – distribution is free. We can use what we used to think of a mass broadcast channels, for things as frivolous as individual conversations. Brand propositions don’t get you very far in a conversation, instead what you need is a story. Encoding a message in a story is a tried-and-tested way of securing distribution through conversational channels, something religions worked out a long time ago before Gutenberg came along and created a print and publication culture.
The basis for marketing therefore has to be a story and the ability to tell stories and have storytellers within an organisation will become critically important. It is also necessary to have a credible story in the first place – something many organisations will struggle with (but that is another story).
Hopefully it is now apparent where journalists come in. Their skills are far better adapted to helping companies meet these new challenges than the skills of the traditional agency creative. Journalists don’t necessarily have the strategic skills to advise organisations on what they need to do – but there is also going to be a surplus of strategists (planners) falling out of traditional agencies as this business collapses. Seizing this opportunity does require that a journalist give up on the practice and institutions of journalism, (in the same way that a planner will have to surrender an attachment to the creation of the one-to-many mass message) but the practice of journalism is becoming a collective and collaborative process and moving away from said institutions in any case.
If I had the money and inclination, I would set up (or invest in) a company offering a social content production and storytelling resource to organisations. Of course, there is an industry sector – customer publishing – that says it already does this. The trouble is that this is a sector shaped by and welded to particular means of information distribution – mostly print with a bit of electronic and digital on the side. It cannot shake itself loose of this heritage and business model and therefore looks set to go the way of the traditional media and advertising agencies.