Wednesday, March 31, 2010...11:27 am

What journalism can learn from internet marketers

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Given the turmoil in professional media at the moment, there’s been a fair amount of talk about entrepreneurial journalism recently (ie if no one else is going to pay you for being a journalist, maybe you’ll have to figure out a way of making it work as a business yourself).

As it happens, I’ve been teaching a course at Solent University about online strategy, which is also very much focused on understanding the business models of the web and how journalism students can exploit them.

We’ve covered a whole range of the usual monetisation options – from banner ads to paywalls. But one of the most interesting research topics has been internet marketing.

I love internet marketers. And I think internet marketing has a ton of stuff to teach journalism. Here’s why:

Internet marketers have clear goals

  • Make money
  • Build a database of customers
  • Use targeted blogs, microsites and email newsletters to reach them

Immediately you can see where this starts to diverge from journalism. Journalism has a tendency to say “we know what we want to do, we know what’s good for you, that’s what we’re going to give you”. And then get all upset and cross when people don’t rush to buy their product.

Focus on the audience

Internet marketers don’t do this. They focus immediately and unstintingly on figuring out what needs an audience has and meeting them. And then figuring out the best way to encourage that audience to buy whatever it is they’re offering. It’s a completely different approach that journalism could learn a lot from.

I know, I know. It’s not journalism. These people are just trying to sell stuff. It’s not the same at all.

But actually, there are important parallels.

Internet marketers are selling information

That is, actually, what journalists do. It’s not such a leap to start thinking in terms of making that information valuable to readers.

There are plenty of other useful lessons:

  • There’s a total focus on SEO
  • Content matters and is valuable
  • They find out what the reader really values
  • They offer the reader something they will want to pay for
  • They use every effort to find readers and make them want to read

I’m particularly struck by the second point. Sure, there’s a lot of spam bloggery and rubbish available in the murky world of e-marketing. But basically this is a world of information products – articles and e-b00ks.

Content matters

From the appropriately titled YouCanWriteArticles.com sales site comes this lesson:

You already know that writing articles is the single most effective way of building an online business. How do I know that you know? Because everyone says so. All the big name gurus, all the small-time forum junkies, all the bloggers, all the SEO experts, even the people in the know at the search engines. They all agree that articles are the big secret to online success.

There’s one group missing from this list, of course. Journalists are conspicuous by their absence. Because I suspect most journalists don’t, in their heart of hearts, actually believe this. Otherwise why are they talking about getting the government to subsidise their work?

This is a world where the people involved are looking into every aspect of communication to figure out how to make money.

I’ve signed up to a few email newsletters to see how they work and what’s on offer. One is Kickstart by Martin Avis, which has quite a few interesting links and pointers to this strange new world. [NB: I’m not actually making any money from this, don’t fret that your pure, journalistic heart will be sullied by reading this. Although I really should be.]

As far as I can tell, Martin Avis really does make his living from internet marketing, so it’s interesting to see what he does. And what he does is use an email list to generate sales leads for information products – both his own, and other people’s (getting an affiliate cut in the process).

His content, bless his heart, is a bit rubbish – he mixes reviews of some of the latest products with inspirational quotes and anecdotes from his life in Sidcup. But you know, that could be deliberate – part of his “I’m not slick, I’m a really normal bloke” brand image.

Internet marketers are multimedia to the core

Interestingly, however, he, and the others, are exploring all the things that journalism should – multimedia, for instance.

Avis has started a series of ten-minute audio interviews with other emarketing gurus on his blog – using his iPhone and the iProRecorder app. Other marketers are running online TV channels to sell their products and strategies, or selling video instruction courses.

As for social media – I thought journalists were are all over Twitter like a rash, but emarketers have them beaten, using paid-for services such as the appallingly named Twitollower to generate followers and traffic to their other sites.

Internet marketers integrate their communications

Most importantly, internet marketers are integrating their different communications platforms. They make their blogs talk to Twitter, use Twitter to generate email leads and channel all their traffic to tailored, SEO-heavy sales material. They use audio, video, images and good old text in whatever combination they think will work best to meet their goals.

And while these goals are pretty much “making money”, the best of them also have an ethos of value that shouldn’t be ignored.

What works is to provide real, useful, naturally-written information. What works is to put the reader first and your profits second.

Which wouldn’t go amiss in the editorial office of a national newspaper.

Five key questions

Let’s finish by looking at five key marketing questions that should actually be five key journalism questions.

  1. Are there people out there who want to know what you know?
  2. Are there lots of them?
  3. Are they hungry for your information or just casually 
interested?
  4. Will what you have to say satisfy one of the basic human needs
 that drive us all: money, health, love, security, self-esteem,
 entertainment?
  5. Are they already proven to be prepared to spend money on 
information products?

If the answer’s no, you’re not doing your job – whether as a marketer or as a journalist.

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