Motor Sport Business Forum preview: the future of F1 media, part two – understanding what readers want
Looking ahead to the media discussion at this week’s Motor Sport Business Forum in Monaco…
I’ve written elsewhere that magazines and newspapers, referred to sniffingly by web pioneers as ‘old media’, aim to give the readers what they want – or rather, what they think their readers want. This is a tricky task because it relies on a voodoo triangulation: intuition, previous copy sales, and reader feedback in the form of ‘letters’ – shonky barometers, all.
Let’s concentrate on reader feedback for now. People who write letters to newspapers and magazines are, almost without fail, unspeakably angry about matters that just don’t warrant fury of such magnitude. For instance, there is a man in the UK who, when he takes exception to an article in a motorsport periodical, will demonstrate his anger in a scarily methodical and obsessive fashion.
He will compose a suitably damning missive, leaving a space (or spaces) demarcated by a box (or boxes), into which he will glue the pieces of the offending article, which he has carefully cut out with scissors. To give added emphasis to crucial points there will be a smattering of highlighter pen. And, rather than write one long epistle covering every article that has attracted his ire, he will produce individual letters for each – and post them in separate envelopes, often on the same day.
So you can see why many ‘old media’ types became convinced that their readers were potty – simply because most ordinary folk didn’t see the point of spending the price of a stamp on a few words of assent or debate.
The comment facility has made journalists more accountable than ever before to the people who actually matter: the readers
Now that all you have to do is type your name and email address into a form, you no longer have to be insanely angry to make the effort to get in touch. Yes, mouth-breathers occasionally arrive amid a fanfare of bilious, point-missing verbal abuse, but for the most part (often thanks to careful moderation), comment areas are civilised places.
The comment facility has made journalists more accountable than ever before to the people who actually matter: the readers. It’s enabled a vast sector of the demographic – what might have been called a silent majority – to be heard and to connect with one another, and to make their reasoned voices heard above those of the cranks. In the background, though, is another element of reader power that threatens to be more pernicious.
The array of metrics available online has taken much of the guesswork out of content creation. Where the creators of a newspaper or magazine have to rely on experience and intuition (safe in the knowledge, for instance, that putting an unknown or unloved F1 driver on the cover of a motorsport title equates to death on the newsstands), online publishers see precisely how many times a story has been read, and how the readers reached it – via the front page of the site, drawn in by the design and headline, or from elsewhere via links or a search engine. In turn, they can see which key search words yielded the traffic.
If content is pushed to you, pre-shaped towards your existing preferences, could it be that ultimately it converges into a dull, unchallenging dirge?
It’ll come as no surprise to you that newsrooms now march to a beat more familiar on sites such as Amazon: Customers Who Shopped For This Also Bought. If a story brings a spike in traffic, the call will come from management: “More of that, please.” And it’s not just the big organisations. A couple of years ago, Lewis Hamilton regularly came in for kickings from bloggers who didn’t much care for him – and very much cared for the influx of readers from Spain who were keen to hear that Brits hated Lewis, too. This gravy train disappeared into the tunnel of tedium long before the bloggers exhausted their reserves of spittle, but readers from Arteixo to Alicante couldn’t get enough of it.
If content is pushed to you, pre-shaped towards your existing preferences, could it be that ultimately it converges into a dull, unchallenging dirge? Is the proliferation of channels gradually educating us that we need not listen to anything or anyone with a contrasting view? Are we heading into the domain of www.blah-blah-blah-I’m-not-listening-to-you.com? Does customisation stifle diversity? Are we going to be force-fed the good stuff, like foie gras geese?
I’m partial to a glass of Madeira but I wouldn’t want to share the fate of the Duke of Clarence.
Since most of us prefer to access content without paying, lurking behind this cheerful free-for-all is a host of people intent on getting their hands into our pockets by other means. I’ve never been on an SEO copywriting course, but I know people who have, and I’ve read the materials that accompany some commercial SEO copywriting courses. In amongst logical advice, such as on headline writing, there is guidance that to my eyes crosses the boundary between editorial and advertising: “How to add emotional triggers that increase the desire to buy,” and “steps for turning features into sales-generating benefits” are just a couple.
I earn the bulk of my living from commercial writing, so it would be disingenuous of me to claim that advertorials are bad. But it’s very important that advertorial copy is clearly signposted as such. At the moment there are many sites that aren’t as transparent as they could be about what they’re telling their readers, and why. And it’s often the self-styled ‘little guys’ who are being much naughtier…