Save the Whales

8 Feb

A version of this appeared on ClickZ.

Talk about oblivious. Consider this scenario: You’re a large media company with content out the wazoo, an audience you know intimately. There are companies dying to buy ads from you, but you don’t have enough space at rates they can afford.

Jupiter Communications predicts there will be $2.7 billion in local, online advertising by 2003. So odds are you’re riding high with an aggressive Internet strategy that harnesses the opportunities for targeted, personalized communication, complementing your offline strategy in the process. Right?

Nope. Especially if you are one of the mainstream media companies rotting on the cyberworld’s fringes like a beached whale.

There’s a great case study here for those companies, and whole industries, that have yet to contemplate the new forces of business on the Internet. In the case of the media, it all boils down to a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is they do. Ask newspaper execs what their companies do, and odds are they’ll talk about delivering vital information to the public.

I spent 15 years crafting that vital information for a daily paper. And the truth is that readers could find everything my paper offered in a dozen other places. The reality is that newspapers and television stations filter the news, then deliver it to consumers in chunks they believe the audience will accept, along with ads that are crudely targeted at that same audience.

Isn’t that what the Net is all about? Time Warner’s merger with AOL may have made waves, but the real news is that media companies just don’t get it. In fact they’ve never gotten it.

And, as if to add insult to injury, there are lots of companies that are charging old world media companies huge fees to help them get back to the basics of their business online. Remember AOL’s Digital City? How about Microsoft’s Sidewalk or maybe Point Cast? The latest of this lot, Media Vergence, has a nifty new desktop application to let newspapers, radio and television stations package their news online.

I’m sure it is a great product. But I find it painfully ironic that the company’s strategic selling point is that they can monitor where and when users are tapping into the content, then refine revenue potential based on that information.

By all rights, the paper that’s dropped at your doorstep should own the online marketing arena. After all, this company already has content. It has a sales force. It has experience melding message and marketing. It even has the most coveted pieces of information, your name and where you live.

Newspaper companies have the treasure trove of gems that most online marketing plans can only aspire to acquire. Yet I cannot find a single newspaper making effective use of the pieces.

Here in Dallas, for example, the paper publishes a selection of its daily content on the main site. In addition, there is an entertainment site that is pulled from the weekend arts and entertainment section. And the paper offers a rather feeble news notification system that usually only succeeds in sending out raw code instead of real news.

There is no attempt to use the Net to create new products, or seize on the technology’s capability to customize the message for the audience. Instead, it is a dumping ground for content deemed too unimportant to put on newsprint.

I want an online paper that gives me the news I want, with ads for businesses close to my home offering products and services corresponding to my needs. I want it delivered to my email box every morning. Instead of dumping their extra material online, why not figure out who might want it, and send it to them? In the bricks-and-mortar world, most papers can create only a half-dozen editions, with minor variations.

Yet, I have never once received a personalized email message from my paper. No one has ever tried to get an email address that would allow them to move our relationship online.

So, for now, I guess I’ll just watch this whale struggle on the beach.