Don’t underestimate audience loyalty: Simon Holt

If I might steal from a recent lunch-table discussion, the future alluded to in the movie Back to the Future Part II was 2015. We might not be swanning around on hoverboards, but there was a bold prediction in the movie, or so it might have seemed, that every household would have a fax machine.

Similarly, futurists have been trying to predict the media industry’s evolving fate for a long time. The death of newspapers, the death of the homepage, the death of journalism as we know it – for traditionalists, it’s a dire outcome. And similarly, futurists have been getting a lot of it wrong.

One of the problems is that in Australia and other global markets we are relying on trends in the United States to formulate our curve. Yet, our curve is a bit off the pace, which gives us an opportunity to learn from the mistakes made elsewhere.

Paywalls are a great example. About five years ago, there was a rush to initiate paywalls. People must pay for journalism, we were told. Shortly after, there was a line of thought that it wasn’t important to be first. It was important to be right.

Now, we are seeing news organisations pull their finger from the hole in the paywall dam. As an industry, we’re reluctant to admit errors of our ways. We’re not sure yet whether the decision to initiate a paywall was actually an error. Rather, we slowly build pores into the wall to a point where most people aren’t aware the wall exists.

Eventually, it probably won’t, despite a continued push on subscriptions – at least until we can get our heads around the possibility that the business case of media companies is as diverse as their audience allows.

Even though entrepreneurial possibilities are endless, the first business mission will be to build revenue streams that stem from the construction of mass audience, which we know quality journalism can do.

In theory, those streams will keep our core industry afloat.

However, if we are to crystal ball-gaze and be guided by trends, the real challenge lies not with the generation of audience, but with the retention of loyalty.

If the audience is not entering via a branded channel, as they would a masthead or website homepage, then how are they expected to be loyal to a peripheral product, such as an event – a tactic proving successful for my own employer, Fairfax?

One school of thought at present foresees a short lifespan of regional news sites. A drive for the quantity of audience large enough to sustain high-revenue targets means national and global audiences are paramount.

Industry participants aspire to the penetration of Buzzfeed and Huffington Post in their quest for an answer.

The race for traffic is consequently being run via Google, social media channels and other sources external to the company’s brand. An argument hence emerges: is the brand diluted as a result, and is trust diminished alongside the logo.

It would be unwise, however, to write off the power of community – the influence generated by product loyalty. The strength of news organisations has always been an ability to build communities, whether they be geographic or “of interest”.

This might take an acknowledgment that the top few media mastheads in the country will dominate the airwaves, via whatever platform that might be. However, as the media market matures in its efforts to create a solid business platform on which to sustain its core pursuit, so will the advertising industry, and so will the entrepreneurial skills of a new wave of media barons.

It would be dangerous for all media organisations to follow a global path in the chase for heavier traffic. It would be perilous to ignore the parochial stage on which their foundation was built.

Some things will never be the same. Newspapers may well die. The homepage may die. But our audience will not, and they will demand that we deliver products with relevance.

It would seem regional news products are on the rack in the US, but it is hard to believe news entrepreneurs who embrace modern business models in tandem with an ability to meet audience demand will not be in a position to succeed.

The audience will insist upon it.

Simon Holt is managing editor of the Brisbane Times

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