Not so long ago, customer experience in the media industry was not a thing for many who wrote, edited, and broadcast the news.
Newspapers published big stories, important tales on topics that editors decided were important for people to know. Network anchors read the news with well-informed narration – and millions listened.
They didn’t need to try too hard to attract readers or listeners because customers should come to them, many journalists believed. The importance of their work should speak for itself – and besides, mixing the editorial and “business” sides raises ethical concerns.
Not as much anymore. With traditional media decimated by the move to digital, improving customer experience is essential to reviving newspapers and magazines that are hemorrhaging readers – and sustaining digital publications facing their own difficulties.
“Customer experience has become much more important as the news business continues to struggle with its digital transformation,” Peter Canellos, managing editor for enterprise at POLITICO, told The Experience Maker in a recent interview. “There’s a simple question underlying all success or failure in digital media: How do you engage and sustain an audience?”
POLITICO, which shook up the industry with its rapid-fire political coverage when it launched in 2007, has also helped set the pace in customer experience, “thinking out of the box” with moves such as handing out its printed newspapers and magazines for free and becoming an early adopter of Apple Wallet to distribute news.
Engaging Readers In Different Ways
Media organizations are trying harder to lure customers even as they face yet another obstacle: the relentless flood of online news and other content has soured some on the media itself. A new study found that many people are limiting their news consumption or avoiding news altogether.
To combat these trends, traditional media outlets attempted to follow readers where they are – rather than insisting readers come to them – pouring resources into their websites and embracing social media. In recent years, they have moved to subscription models, charging readers for specialized content and turning to reader-friendly delivery forms such as newsletters.
Engaging younger, perpetually online readers is also a focus: one Bloomberg news product strategist designed a 57-page guide for attracting Gen Z audiences, which included social listening – asking people what they feel should be covered.
Some are taking a futuristic approach, calling for the industry to try “highly immersive, interactive experiences that can engage consumers,” such as embedding cryptographic non-fungible tokens (NFTs) within media experiences and using AI-generated synthetic media.
As a former college newspaper reporter and longtime avid media consumer, I worry about traditional media’s decline – but welcome the rise of digital and especially the growing importance of customer experience. Extraordinary and memorable experiences can enliven any organization, and there aren’t many industries more important in a democracy than a healthy and vibrant media.
Customer Experience Was Traditionally Less Important in the Media Industry
In 2016, The New York Times’s then-public editor (a position the Times has since eliminated) captured the perspective of many journalists about trying to appeal to customers.
“Most journalists I’ve worked with have a reflexive aversion to interacting with readers,” she wrote. “They subscribe to the view that editors and reporters have the most cultivated sense of which stories are most important, and which subjects most worthy of attention.”
That viewpoint largely prevailed among journalists, according to POLITICO’s Canellos, especially older ones, who “grew up believing that there was an ethical firewall between news and business – and that anything done to attract readers was ethically questionable.”
He added that younger reporters and editors, “having grown up with social media, feel very differently. They don’t see any harm in trying to attract readers.”
Yet even with the youthful generation, the relationship with customer experience remains complicated. “Like many reporters, they’re liable to worry more about their sources than the broader readership,” Canellos said. “… that’s not the right attitude for the health of the publication.”
Even today, an editorial leader at a major online news outlet told The Experience Maker: “I’ve never heard anyone at a media company refer to customers; we talk about audience, readers, listeners, and viewers and some newsrooms have subscribers, but never customers.”
“I’m not totally sure how customer experience would map onto what we do exactly,” this journalist added, “though we certainly think about our audience every minute of the day.”
Digital Has Made Customer Experience in the Media Industry More Important
Still, media organizations have been forced to adapt since the rise of digital media began eating away their subscriber base in the mid-2000s.
That relentless shift has made customer experience something that Salesforce and the Harvard Business Review called “key to the future of the media industry,” saying that “today’s media organizations compete for consumer attention with the entire media landscape,” requiring “a more personal, curated customer experience (CX).”
For Canellos, “one way to do so is to engage people viscerally, by playing to their core interests… there’s also the fact that people like to graze across the internet. How do you get them to bookmark your site (or, better yet, subscribe) and develop a loyalty and comfort with it? That’s all about customer experience.”
Media organizations have tried everything from capitalizing on the proliferation of newsletters to sponsoring live events and encouraging reporters to respond to reader queries. They have launched specialty news sites and their own streaming services, along with branching out to offer non-news products – a huge subscription driver at The New York Times.
Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of sticking to the basics, such as offering reduced-price subscriptions or, as one editor put it, attracting subscribers by doing “as much’ quality journalism as possible.”
All of this is for the good. Media outlets should never compromise their basic mission: to cover the news fairly and comprehensively. But if they want to prosper, or even survive, adding a dose of customer experience can only help.