Why car­ing is fun­da­men­tal in a peo­ple-first busi­ness

The Insider - - MARKETING - Sa­muel John­son, renowned 18th cen­tury English author

I “The mind is never sat­is­fied with the ob­jects im­me­di­ately be­fore it, but is al­ways break­ing away from the present mo­ment, and los­ing it­self in schemes of fu­ture fe­lic­ity... The nat­u­ral flights of the hu­man mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”

find this quote both up­lift­ing and un­set­tling at the same time. Not be­ing sat­is­fied with the sta­tus quo mo­ti­vates us to con­tin­u­ally im­prove and that’s a good thing. But if that dis­sat­is­fac­tion man­i­fests it­self in manic moves to­wards the next new shiny thing, then we risk find­ing our­selves in a per­pet­ual state of wish­ful think­ing.

This re­minds me very much of the pub­lish­ing in­dus­try’s re­la­tion­ship to so­cial me­dia — big shiny stages where bil­lions of peo­ple con­gre­gate to dis­cover, con­sume, share, and dis­cuss “stuff”.

Face­book, YouTube, Twit­ter, Snapchat, In­sta­gram, and Pin­ter­est have be­come ad­dic­tive to not only con­sumers, but ev­ery brand on the planet that is chas­ing the prover­bial long tail to grow scale. Main­stream me­dia is a cit­i­zen of that madding crowd.

With three bil­lion peo­ple on­line, it’s tempt­ing to try and reach them all with con­tent, espe­cially when the cost of dis­tri­bu­tion is next to noth­ing. With the ma­jor­ity of pub­lish­ers spew­ing out con­tent on Twit­ter like wa­ter through a fire­hose with­out ever en­gag­ing with the peo­ple who con­sume it, I would sug­gest that op­por­tu­nity cost is in­deed much higher for those busi­nesses.

Re­cently I vis­ited a Twit­ter feed of one of the ma­jor legacy news­pa­per pub­lish­ers. Tweet af­ter tweet was just an­other ar­ti­cle from its lat­est print edi­tion. Click on any post and you find your­self fac­ing a hard pay­wall that ob­fus­cates the con­tent. I con­tin­ued to scroll down the feed to see if there was even a sin­gle time where the pub­lisher at­tempted to en­gage with any of its fol­low­ers. I fi­nally gave up. I never found one in­stance of a retweet, re­ply, or com­ment.

But, to be fair, that pub­lisher isn’t the only one who’s ig­nor­ing au­di­ences — they are, in fact, part of a large ma­jor­ity of con­sumer-fac­ing brands.

Is it hubris that keeps so many be­hind an iron cur­tain that smacks of “I pub­lish — you read. I don’t care what you think.”? Or are they just ig­no­rant about the power of en­gage­ment? I don’t know the an­swer to that, but what I do know is that at­tempt­ing to grow a qual­ity au­di­ence and rev­enues us­ing so­cial me­dia as a mega­phone is just wish­ful think­ing.

Au­di­ence-first isn’t what it should be yet

It wasn’t all that long ago when a lot of pub­lish­ers talked about becoming dig­i­tal-first. Many of them now re­al­ize that suc­cess doesn’t come from be­ing dig­i­tal-first and have started to trans­form their news­rooms into be­ing au­di­ence-first.

But be­ing au­di­ence-first means dif­fer­ent things to dif­fer­ent pub­lish­ers. Some are gen­uinely try­ing to lis­ten to what read­ers want, give it to them, and en­gage with them through con­ver­sa­tion and unique ex­pe­ri­ences. They may not be en­tirely au­di­ence-first yet, but they’re head­ing in the right di­rec­tion. At the FIPP Dig­i­tal In­no­va­tors Sum­mit in March 2018, I could see ev­i­dence of that and it gave me hope.

But there are still those who be­lieve that be­ing au­di­ence-first is all about max­i­miz­ing reader rev­enue — a strat­egy that’s im­ple­mented mostly through data anal­y­sis and au­to­ma­tion; no per­sonal touches re­quired.

Now, I’m all for us­ing smart data to cre­ate a bet­ter prod­uct, ser­vice, and ex­pe­ri­ence for read­ers, but when the data is used to ex­ploit or ma­nip­u­late peo­ple for per­sonal gain, then there is a prob­lem.

Even­tu­ally we’ll have a reg­u­la­tory frame­work in place that should pre­vent the lat­ter, but un­til then, I hope th­ese pub­lish­ers see the er­ror of their ways and don’t let his­tory re­peat it­self.

How did we get here?

The growth of news­pa­per chains be­tween 1960 and 1990 had a huge im­pact on our in­dus­try. 30 years ago less than 1% of news­pa­pers in the US faced any com­pe­ti­tion in ci­ties. With fewer ti­tles, pub­lish­ers were able to raise ad rates by 243% be­tween 1975 and 1990. Prof­its soared and av­er­age cash flow mar­gins were run­ning at 29% by the late ‘90s.

With the loss of fam­ily-owned dailies, new pub­lish­ers, of­ten out of touch with their read­ers, com­mu­ni­ties, and lo­cal jour­nal­ists, fo­cused more on fi­nan­cial per­for­mance. Ed­i­to­rial suf­fered as did au­di­ences, but it didn’t re­ally mat­ter given all the money pour­ing in from ad­ver­tis­ing. Life was good for pub­lish­ers, but not so much for read­ers.

Think­ing about this I was re­minded about a time in 2007 when I vis­ited a ma­jor pub­lisher in Paris. We were look­ing to se­cure a li­cense to print their news­pa­per in Moscow. It was very ev­i­dent that the man cared deeply about the qual­ity of their printed prod­uct — the paper size, newsprint stan­dard, color man­age­ment, etc. When I men­tioned the value of time­li­ness in terms of when the read­ers ac­tu­ally re­ceived the pub­li­ca­tion, the pub­lisher said, “I don’t care about that. I don’t care about the read­ers. I only care about the ad­ver­tis­ers.”

Fast for­ward and things haven’t changed all that much ex­cept for the money part. By not un­der­stand­ing the eco­nomics of dig­i­tal, pub­lish­ers taught read­ers that dig­i­tal news was free. 20 years later and that old habit is prov­ing dif­fi­cult to break, as is some pub­lish­ers’ habit of not re­ally car­ing about the in­di­vid­u­als who con­sume their con­tent.

So what does it mean to care?

Let me share with you a few lessons from some­one who epit­o­mizes a peo­ple-first men­tal­ity — self-made bil­lion­aire, in­ter­na­tional en­tre­pre­neur, and founder of the Vir­gin Group, Sir Richard Branson — a man who truly cares.

Les­son 1: Be em­pa­thetic

On March 29, 2018, a 17-year-old boy from Ar­gentina reached out on Twit­ter to Branson, ask­ing for ad­vice. The kid didn’t even have a pro­file pic­ture (he does now) and only 23 fol­low­ers.

99% of peo­ple would have prob­a­bly ig­nored him (or worse, blocked him), but not Branson. He replied (Yes, he per­son­ally writes his own so­cial me­dia posts) with some very suc­cinct, but thought­ful ad­vice for the young man.

It’s not the first time Sir Richard has replied to strangers. Why does he do that? In this case it could be that the young Ar­gen­tinian re­minded him about what it was like to be 17. He felt em­pa­thy.

At that age, Richard Branson, who was dyslexic and strug­gling with aca­demics, had al­ready dropped out of school. But his age and fail­ure to grad­u­ate didn’t hold him back.

To ap­pease his fa­ther who wanted him to com­plete his ed­u­ca­tion, Richard made his first big deal. He promised his fa­ther that he would sell US$8,000 worth of ad­ver­tis­ing needed to launch a mag­a­zine he felt young peo­ple needed — The Student. If he missed his goal, he would re­turn to school; if he made it, he would be free to launch his first real busi­ness. And the rest, as they say, is his­tory.

Les­son 2: Put your staff first, cus­tomers sec­ond, and share­hold­ers third

Most busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives would prob­a­bly think this is coun­ter­in­tu­itive. Aren’t share­hold­ers al­ways first? Not at Vir­gin.

And to those who feel they must slash news­room jobs and in­tro­duce fric­tion to read­ers to make them pay, all in the name of in­creas­ing share­holder value, isn’t it time to re­think your strat­egy?

Les­son 3: Em­brace a peo­ple­first mis­sion

Even as a teenager, Branson didn’t fo­cus on mak­ing money with his first busi­ness ven­ture. He fo­cused on cre­at­ing some­thing bet­ter than the “stale pub­li­ca­tions and school mag­a­zines of the day.” He wanted to give youth a voice in the face of out­dated ed­u­ca­tion mod­els and the Viet­nam and Bi­afra wars.

Since then, Richard Branson’s driv­ing force when start­ing a new busi­ness (of which he’s had hun­dreds) hasn’t been to make a for­tune, it has been to im­prove the lives of peo­ple.

Les­son 4: Give trust and get trust in re­turn

In 1995 at the young age of 24, a man by the name of Alexis Dor­mandy joined Vir­gin and worked di­rectly with Branson. Within four years, Dor­mandy was run­ning a good part of the busi­ness, launched Vir­gin Mo­bile, and over­saw all of Vir­gin’s new busi­nesses.

When asked what it was like work­ing with the head of Vir­gin, Dor­mandy replied,

I ab­so­lutely loved it, with­out reser­va­tion. The whole busi­ness is run on trust… I don’t think there was a sin­gle de­ci­sion I made that Richard ever sec­ond-guessed me on…The cus­tomer is fo­cused on with a level of de­tail you wouldn't be­lieve. [Richard] cared about the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence.”

Les­son 5: Dif­fer­en­ti­ate; cre­ate some­thing unique

Branson has launched hun­dreds of com­pa­nies, but not all have been suc­cess­ful. Per­haps the most rec­og­niz­able fail­ure was Vir­gin Cola. De­spite what con­sumer stud­ies told him (that his brand tasted bet­ter than Coke and Pepsi), the soft drink was not dif­fer­en­ti­ated enough and the big brands could, and did, force it off the shelves of su­per­mar­kets. Branson was dis­ap­pointed, but un­der­stood his mis­take.

"The prob­lem was that, you know, we didn't have some­thing com­pletely unique. We had a great brand. But Coke had a great brand. The taste of the Cola was maybe marginally bet­ter. But it was nei­ther here nor there. So since then what I learned from that was only to go into busi­nesses where we were pal­pa­bly bet­ter than all the com­pe­ti­tion."

“From my very first day as an en­tre­pre­neur, I've felt the only mis­sion worth pur­su­ing in busi­ness is to make peo­ple's lives bet­ter. There's no point in start­ing a busi­ness un­less you're go­ing to make a dra­matic dif­fer­ence to other peo­ple's lives.”

But that fail­ure didn’t dis­suade the se­rial en­tre­pre­neur from try­ing again and again. With the 400 com­pa­nies he’s built, he’s won far more bat­tles than he’s lost be­cause he learns from his mis­takes, stays true to his con­vic­tions to build bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ences, and moves on.

Les­son 6: Take risks, but be prag­matic if they don’t work out

In 1984, when Branson was fed up with the poor air­line ex­pe­ri­ences he’d en­coun­tered in his trav­els, he de­cided to build his own air­line, Vir­gin At­lantic. Peo­ple, espe­cially his direc­tors, thought he was nuts. They were wrong. By fo­cus­ing on pro­vid­ing a much bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence, Branson cre­ated a thriv­ing air­line busi­ness that is still win­ning awards to­day, while many orig­i­nal ri­vals have fallen away.

In 2007 he de­cided to try the same thing in the US. When Vir­gin Amer­ica was launched it was met with great fan­fare and for seven years it con­tin­ued to win Best US Air­line from Condé Nast Trav­eler Read­ers’ Choice year af­ter year.

En­ter­ing the US mar­ket was a huge risk. Be­cause Branson was not a cit­i­zen, the US De­part­ment of Trans­porta­tion forced him to take some of his shares as non-vot­ing shares, ba­si­cally ty­ing his hands when Alaska Air­lines pro­posed a merger. Branson was dis­ap­pointed, but re­mained prag­matic.

“Con­sol­i­da­tion is a trend that sadly can­not be stopped… I would be ly­ing if I didn’t ad­mit sad­ness that our won­der­ful air­line is merg­ing with an­other.”

Ev­ery new jour­ney starts with one small step

Sir Richard Branson is one of the most ad­mired en­trepreneurs of this cen­tury. His zest for life, his “Screw it, let's do it” at­ti­tude, open­ness to ad­mit mis­takes, and learn from them has won him the hearts of peo­ple all over the world.

But the thing that stands out for me is his be­lief that busi­nesses should im­prove peo­ple’s lives; he ac­tu­ally cares about the ev­ery­man.

Branson is an in­spi­ra­tion to oth­ers, but what in­spires him? One quote he posted from author, Maria Robin­son, on his blog spoke to me about where we, as an in­dus­try, are to­day and where we can be to­mor­row.

“No­body can go back and start a new be­gin­ning, but any­one can start to­day and make a new end­ing.”

We can’t (and shouldn’t) go back to 1990 when ad rates were high, prof­its soar­ing, and au­di­ences were pas­sive pur­chasers of what­ever we chose to pub­lish. But what we can do is to turn over a new leaf and re­ally start to care. Here are the six ways in­spired by Branson:

• Be more em­pa­thetic — walk in other peo­ples’ shoes

• Put our em­ploy­ees first, cus­tomers sec­ond, and share­hold­ers third

• Em­brace a peo­ple-first mis­sion — fo­cus on mak­ing their lives bet­ter

• Give trust to staff, cus­tomers, and part­ners

• Dif­fer­en­ti­ate our prod­ucts, ser­vices, and cus­tomers’ ex­pe­ri­ences

• Take risks and be prag­matic with the out­comes

Let’s start right now with one small step

Log on to Twit­ter and reach out to one of your fol­low­ers. Make their day by show­ing them that you care about what they wrote/asked and let them know that you’re in­ter­ested in hear­ing more from them. Lis­ten, re­spond, and learn. It might sur­prise you how good it feels to give to oth­ers with­out ever ex­pect­ing any­thing in re­turn.

Need more ideas on how to en­gage with fol­low­ers? Check out th­ese brands and see what made them the most en­gaged brands on Twit­ter in 2017.

In this short video, it be­comes pretty clear why Branson’s pri­or­i­ties makes dol­lars and sense.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.