Relevant is Better Than Viral

It has been a brutal year for the media industry. The last month alone has ushered in the closure of BuzzFeed News, MTV News, and bankruptcy filings for Vice Media. In April ESPN, ABC News, National Geographic, and Vox all cut their headcount. In general, as our team updates our media lists and follows up with our contacts across publications, we’re finding staffing cuts and change-ups have been nearly constant.

How Did We Get Here?

I’m a bit of a news junkie, with a massive respect for journalism, so seeing these dominos fall in such rapid succession has been disheartening. How we did we get here – to this space where so many once-successful publications are shuttering?

As NPR explained in their recent article: Hard times are here for news sites and social media. Is this the end of Web 2.0?

In the early years of social media, publications tried to play nice with platforms, seeing the audience potential as irresistible…Outlets craft stories for maximum social amplification with headlines and topics that can be easily juiced by algorithms. They’re all chasing that singular reward that social media recommendation systems provide: clicks.”

The entire article is totally worth a read. It reveals how media industry players have all been chasing a mirage: virality. Over the last decade, the idea that views, clicks, or impressions were the end all be all has shaped digital media strategy.

Virality is a rush, but it doesn’t translate directly to a sustainable business model. In an interview with Hard Fork, former BuzzFeed News Founding Editor & Chief, Ben Smith, articulated the problem with ad-supported  viral news in stark financial terms:

“One company may have had 100M views last year and 200M years this year, and revenue only went up 5%…These new factories, Google and Facebook, could generate [online ads] on an infinite scale, and if you are selling something of which there is an infinite amount, there is not a lot of value.”

Now What?

It’s hard to put the toothpaste back in the tube on this one, but the breakup with big social might end up being good for the overall state of journalism. As Slate Editor, Hillary Frey put it:

“Being free of our reliance on tech platforms is going to be better for our business. The old traffic tricks don’t work anymore—what does is great work, and serving an audience who loves you so much they’ll pay for you.”

As publications focus on relevancy, creating those stories that will garner subscribers and not just meaningless clicks, so must PR pros and their clients. Habits are hard to break/

It’s going to take thoughtful strategies and counseling to help clients build a media strategy that is not reliant on clicks.

Relevant is more valuable than viral. Here are three ways we help clients find wins in the new media environment:

  1. Spray and pray is not the way. It’s not enough to release a new product or expect coverage of your brand because you’re a big player. Storylines and messaging must connect with the news and trends of that moment. While that’s a difficult needle to thread, when it happens, it’s pure magic. Our team is doubling down on tracking what reporters really care about and trends that impact our clients.
  2. A return to exclusives. We can expect as media outlets compete with one another for top stories to see a return to outlet exclusives whether that’s a product release or a thought leadership article. Having a good handle on your top targets and what they have been writing about helps any PR pro craft that irresistible pitch.
  3. Assess the key targets. Having a “quality over quantity” mindset sometimes means reassessing the most relevant targets for a client’s message. Are they going to be better served by reaching out to millions of average consumers, or speaking in depth to a more targeted audience in a key vertical market publication?

As we look at a new chapter for media, PR strategies must evolve and change to meet the shift. True journalism is not lost, but it’s going to take more effort to land those relevant, quality, top-tier stories. Our collective investment across the board must increase from paying the subscription fee to access stories to clients investing in the budgets to adequately support the strategies that will gain true earned coverage. Shifting the digital media mindset from placing value in clicks and impressions will take time, but the narratives we craft and the results we earn will stand to be far more rewarding.


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