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SIIA: 'Tech thunderstorms,' customer partnerships transform media industry

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Abrupt change, marked by shifting customer behaviors, the acceleration of digital communications and an increasing reliance on Big Data, will continue to disrupt the media business, according to several speakers at last week's Information Industry Summit 2013, the annual meeting of the Software & Information Industry Association. “In our industry, change is not incremental; it happens very quickly and abruptly,” said Forrester Research Chairman-CEO George Colony, in his opening keynote address at the New York event. “When society catches up with technology and intersects with it, that's when you have a technology thunderstorm and abrupt change happens.” Among the “thunderstorms” Colony cited is what he calls the “death of the Web” through its transformation into a transparent, omnipresent “app Internet ecosystem” for communications, buying and selling. “Customers are interacting with companies in new ways,” he said. To adjust, companies must “shift development dollars and bridge new skills gaps.” Colony said other issues include “the new customer,” defined largely by the different ways various generations consume media and by mobile engagement. “The Web has been a self-service medium, but the future is something else where companies must engage with customers every minute of the day, wherever they are,” he said. “Companies must put themselves in the pockets of their customers and be with them all the time.” The 104-year-old Christian Science Monitor is well along in adjusting itself to these disruptions, according to a presentation by two of its senior executives. Over the past few years, the Monitor has become a “digital-first” news organization and made rapid strides in converting editorial assets into b-to-b “after-marketing” content, said Donal Toole, the Monitor's director-finance and strategy. “Five years ago, profits had stabilized due to cost-cutting; but we knew we weren't going to make money through continued cost-cutting,” Toole said. Editorial changes at the Monitor include a new focus on specialized audiences, particularly those interested in international news; the development of a number of quizzes and lists to increase page views; and “sponsorable” verticals. John Yemma, the Monitor's editor, pointed to what he called “product extensions,” such as the publication's DC Decoder, where staff experts answer reader questions about the federal government. Special research is presented in such premium products as Energy/Environment, International Risk Analysis and World Report, as well as detailed reports for businesses about global regions. “This is the first time we're engaging with the b-to-b market to create products,” Yemma said. “We've moved from a siloed organization, with a wall between editorial and advertising, to collaboration, where business and editorial talk to each other. And we've moved from one-way communications to customers to a partnership with them.” Toole said the Monitor's changes have resulted in “our most profitable year in the last 50 years.” Among the conference's sessions was a panel of editors and publishers presenting “Viewpoints From the 4th Estate” on topics such as mobile, and Big Data and user-contributed content. “Data is changing everything because media companies can use it to monetize Web traffic,” said Bob Felsenthal, publisher of BtoB and Media Business. “And some companies are retargeting appropriate Web visitors, using data from their own websites as well as independent blogs outside their companies.” Felsenthal cited technology publisher International Data Group as a company that's done a good job with data; integrating a global network of b-to-b vertical blogs and brands; and enabling advertisers to retarget prospects within them. Stephen Engelberg, managing editor of investigative journalism site ProPublica, cited user-generated content as an example of a trend that hasn't really gained traction—particularly in b-to-b. “If everyone was born to be a reporter or to write, you'd see better user-generated content,” Engelberg said. “It does have enormous possibilities, such as when a plane goes into the Hudson River or with breaking news from Syria or Libya.” But in a b-to-b setting, “when you want increasingly narrow, value-added journalism that speaks to you and that you can't get anywhere else,” user-generated content will remain a nonstarter, he said.
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