Digital Denial, Drowning and Discipline: What’s a Local Media Company to Do?

Guest column by Lynn Tornabene, CMO, AffinityX

Quality journalism, from the national to the local level, is the bedrock of any democracy.  But as anyone who has been paying attention knows, many media companies that have traditionally relied on print have been struggling to keep up in the digital age.

Local media companies especially, with limited resources along with legacy mindsets, are often less than nimble at adopting new trends and technologies.  For example, according to a recent study by the Local Media Association, only one percent of local leaders (publishers/station managers/GMs) strongly agree that their sales reps do a good job when it comes to selling digital.

There’s no arguing that the process can be overwhelming and it’s hard to know where to invest and how to maintain acceptable margins doing it.   But the writing is on the wall – local media must adapt to digital or find themselves facing increasing pressure to cut more costs, more jobs, or even face dissolution.

So how do most local media companies approach their transformation to digital?  Usually, through three phases: Denial, Drowning, and finally, Discipline.

Digital Denial

As digital and programmatic started to rise in influence, there was a mindset among many that “it’s not going to be that important.”  That was the phase when local media companies, for example, thought digital would be “just one more medium” and an add-on. We all know the outcome of that theory.

Digital Denial is manifested in lack of commitment to the medium.  Print salespeople were tasked with adding digital inventory to their responsibilities, despite it being an area they knew nothing about. According to Clark Gilbert, former CEO of Deseret News (Salt Lake, UT), one big issue facing local media companies is the rarity of digital-only sales teams.  He maintains that a legacy team that is also selling digital will cap out at 15% of revenue coming from digital. (Source: Local Media Association)

Digital Drowning

Phase two — panic sets in as companies discover “we are way behind, we have to invest a ton of money and we’ll never catch up.” This is the phase that most of the local media industry is currently in.  It’s no surprise – change can be painful, not to mention that the thought of trying to compete with Facebook and Google for digital ad spend can feel hopeless.

Some of the statistics are indeed grim. According to Borrell, just 18 percent of local digital advertising is now being sold by local media and directory companies — down from their 75 percent share in 2002. Within each local marketplace, an individual media or directory company might only be taking 3 percent of total digital revenue.

But companies truly can build the discipline for success — with a focus on a candid assessment of capabilities and a roadmap forward.

Reaching out to an expert partner never hurts and fortunately there are a host of consultancies, agencies and other partners who can help guide companies inexpert in digital, mobile or – even more opaque to many – programmatic.   When choosing a partner, note that it’s extremely difficult to get to Digital Discipline without leveraging technologies that are purpose-built for local marketing.

Digital Discipline

This is the critical phase in which local media companies learn to unlock all the value and promise that digital has to offer.  There are key questions – rather, soul searching —  that must be attended to during this phase including:

  • What is our sustainable business model for the future?
  • How can we boost our speed to market?
  • Are we enabling our sales team to be its most productive? Why or why not?
  • When our digital offering takes off, how will we scale?
  • How do we continue to champion digital?
  • How do we continue to identify real revenue opportunities?
  • What further change management is needed to help us win?

Local media companies need to embrace the transformation in marketing and build smart digital proficiency.  They need to take a rigorous approach to integrate digital into their DNA and explore their readiness to do so on criteria such as their people, processes, technologies, and partners.  It’s a tremendous cultural and process change, but a necessary one to step into the future.