Why caring is fundamental in a people-first business
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.