4 reasons media companies are so far behind in social media

I just got done reading this interesting article “Media execs are asleep at their own wheel” over on the Go Big Always blog written by Sam Lawrence. Sam’s observations about how the long-time tech media companies are way behind in adopting social media – and in the way that they adopt social media once they make the decision to do so – are right on. To quote the post:

“Yes, I get their business model: serve as many pages as possible so they can have enough media “inventory” to sell lots of ads. And then there is subscription. That’s when you collect names through registration forms so you can market the lists and/or prove your readership demographics to advertisers. This is basically the old print media model online. And it, like other old-fart models, is stuck a decade behind.”

I completely agree with Sam – traditional tech publishing companies don’t get it and haven’t adjusted to the online business models. But although I agree with Sam, I actually have a bit more tolerance for their slow transition because I understand what motivates them and what’s holding them back.

The number fourHere are four reasons why I think that traditional media companies are so far behind in adopting social media:

1) They are still trying to support a print circulation model. Historically, in the tech trade publication world of IDG, what was formerly CMP Media, and Ziff Davis Enterprise, it has been all about getting a qualified audience to support a print magazine. The subscribers to these companies’ various print titles don’t pay to receive copies of the print publications, instead, they trade detailed demographic data to prove that they are worthy of receiving the magazine. The publications, in turn, provide the demographic data to advertisers to demonstrate that they have the “qualified audience” to warrant the vendor spending $50k+ on print advertisements.

The secret is this – it’s incredibly expensive to qualify this audience. Every year, magazines lose thousands of subscribers who don’t re-qualify. So circulation managers are constantly trying to recruit new, qualified readers for their magazines. This is costly – and traditional media companies have started to use every online audience touchpoint that they can to try to continue to qualify audiences, including social media registration forms.

2) It takes a long time to make the necessary infrastructure changes. One issue that the tech publishing companies have is that they are stuck with legacy systems that were created before the term “social media” even existed. While blogs that are newcomers on the scene were built from the ground-up to support social media, the big publishers are struggling to make the smallest changes to their massive publishing systems that will allow them to play in the social media space. These companies have millions of pages of content – all stuck in ancient content management systems that they adopted in the 1990s. This digging out of legacy technology and making the transition to Web 2.0 technologies is not going to happen quickly, easily or at a low cost for these companies.

3) The leadership doesn’t even know what social media is and/or doesn’t have time to stay on top of the latest developments. There are a lot of really smart people working in big media companies – and there are also a lot of really outdated people working in these companies. Much of the leadership in the tech media industry reached the level at which they are at by mastering print readership models – very few of today’s leaders are visionaries promoted to the top because of their success online. There are of course exceptions; but if you were to discuss social media with the majority of the executives at traditional tech media companies, they would mention blogs and message boards – and that’s about it. And with the precarious state of many of the tech publishers at the moment, few have time to stay on top of the day-to-day changes and developments in social media – most are trying to just stay afloat.

4) They are afraid of social media. Although these tech media companies will talk about the “separation of church and state” – meaning the fact that their writers are in no way influenced by their advertisers – the truth is that the media companies are terrified of what will be said by users about their advertisers once the barriers are opened up. Media companies know that they will not be able to control the conversation with a heavy hand, but they still want to maintain some semblance of control so as to not completely alienate advertisers. Until media execs feel comfortable with this fine-line, they will not be able to whole-heartedly embrace social media.

(Disclosure: I was formerly an employee for IDG’s Network World and Ziff Davis Media; and am currently a consultant to Ziff Davis Enterprise.)

Photo by Cappellmeister

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