To Stay in Race for Gold, Marketers Need an Appetite for Disruption

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The Olympics are inspiring on a number of levels. One reason is that the games showcase athletes such as Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt wowing us with their continued mastery of their sports, even as they age and face upstart challengers.

The media world, too, has its share of enduring winners. Some, but not all, stare down disruption as rapid shifts in technology give rise to a host of new competitors eager to swipe their medals.

As I have written before, marketers should take copious notes and model the media's best practices. We face the very same threats.

Kobe Bryant isn't only a student of his game; he watches other sports closely as well.
Kobe Bryant isn't only a student of his game; he watches other sports closely as well. Credit: Team USA
While I am no Jim Collins, there seems to be a pattern among the digital-media brands that have gone from just good to great. Some seamlessly swing from one digital era to the next like Tarzan.

These perennial champions all:

1. Embraced a major paradigm shift early in their lifecycles;

2. Leaned into the -- often by abandoning conventional wisdom and, sometimes, under a lot of scrutiny;

3. Continually reinvented themselves in the face of disruption, all the while remaining true to their core genius.

Here are just two examples. Each has proved able to adapt as the predominant news discovery paradigms shifted from bookmarks and portals to search and now social.

Yahoo News is a marquee example. It came of age in the late 1990s, a go-go era when portals such as ruled the roost. Today, although Yahoo itself is less potent, its news property has remained one of the most-visited sites in its category.

One reason is adaptability. Yahoo News, for example, was one of the earliest adopters of Facebook's open-graph platform. This partnership with the social juggernaut has helped the property embrace reach a younger audience through social discovery, all while remaining true to the core -- curated, high-quality content.

The same ethos rings true at the Huffington Post. It came of age in 2005, before Twitter and just as millions started switching their home pages over to Google. And it succeeded, in part, by honing a well-oiled, search-engine optimized editorial machine.

Later in its lifecycle, as Facebook and Twitter began to take off, HuffPo -- while still remaining true to its roots -- leaned hard into social media and today, arguably, is one of the best at using it to grow an audience eager to spread their content far and wide.

Bookmarks (a vestige of the portal era), search and social today all remain the predominant ways we discover content.

However, disruption looks large now that 50% of Americans are armed with smartphones. Already new players such as Flipboard, Pulse and Zite are asserting themselves in between media brands and their end consumer -- creating both opportunities and challenges.

It remains to be seen how Yahoo News and HuffPo will adapt as mobile consumption upsets the digital apple cart once again. 

I believe they will channel their inner Olympian, just like Kobe Bryant.

Bryant, a Team USA basketball gold medalist, was a ubiquitous presence at the London games. He was seemingly a spectator at every major sport. He wasn't just being patriotic, though; he was in school.

Former Lakers coach "Phil Jackson once told me that he always looked for players who played a myriad of sports because they learn a multitude of skills that are necessary to understand the game of basketball at a higher level," Bryant wrote on his Facebook page. "So, I encourage everyone to not be narrow-minded but to instead look at other sports thru the lens of your own and you will learn from others how to better yourself."

For us, the spirit of these games must continue. Your front-row seat to disruption awaits.

Steve Rubel is exec VP-global strategy and insights for Edelman.
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