Kevin Davis: News neglects marketing at its peril

My first job in media was way back in 1989, when I became a lowly sales and marketing coordinator for a movie studio’s then biggest cash cow, the home video department.

Kevin Davis

Kevin Davis

There I learned the fundamental principles of media marketing: never, ever just throw product out into the marketplace and hope for the best.

Sure we had some big movie stars and big budgets, but more often than not we spent significant time and effort on marketing titles that we affectionately referred to as “straight to home video.” These were the dogs, the copy cats, the no-namers and “B” movies. More often than not, we made money on every release.

Marketing wasn’t an afterthought. It was a science budgeted as a standard cost of doing business. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “for every dollar spent on producing a major film, the studios have been spending 51-58 cents to release and market it.”

So if every media business — movies, TV, PPV, video games, music and books included — understands the value of marketing, why do journalists and news producers still have such a hard time with it?

Marketing is not just for entertainment products. Documentaries, non-fiction publishers, museums and exhibitions all leverage both tried-and-true traditional as well as digital marketing strategies to maximize the impact and return on their works.

Certainly there are ethical issues that have made reporters and editors uncomfortable with the notion for decades. In the old news models, there were such things as publishers, marketing and circulation departments that were responsible for this function and could keep these seemingly corrupting and time-consuming tasks at arm’s reach.

Today’s independent and digital news producers rarely have that luxury. Moreover, the lines between journalism, distribution and marketing have become inextricably intertwined.

In her excellent blog post “How to Become a Forbes Blogger,” Susannah Breslin writes:

“I am familiar with how to drive traffic to a blog or site. This is what it means to be an online writer today. If you think that is sad, corrupting or indicates the demise of journalism, I suppose you are a more moral person than I am.

“These days, it’s not enough to be a good writer online. You have to be a smart marketer, your own content factory, your own publicist. If you can do it all, you are golden. If you cannot, you are screwed.”

If your mission, core function and purpose in your work is to inform the public, how could there be any better use of your time — besides in writing the ethically-driven journalism itself — than making sure it gets seen by the very people who need it?

At the 50th annual conference for the Society of American Business Editors & Writers in April 2013, AOL Editorial Director Fara Warner stated that journalists need to view social media as today’s circulation department. With new means to circulate content, journalists must develop new ways to present not only their content, but also themselves.

Sarah Szalavitz of 7 Robot, a boutique marketing company, also said, “While content creation once ended with delivery, today, it is only the beginning.”

While in the long-term we at the Investigative News Network advocate for independent and nonprofit publishers to budget for marketing and social content activation as part of the cost of doing business, there are still specific tasks independent journalists (and those who work for less business-minded organizations) can do.

The following pointers have been updated but are based on tips given in an excellent article by Daniel Vahab and Lisa Chau, entitled How to Promote Your Article Online:

  • Figure out who should be reading this piece of content, where they are online and what they are saying about the subject.
  • Share your piece on all the social media platforms where your target audience frequents.
  • Actually interact with your target network and connections. Don’t just talk at them.
  • Proactively curate a team of social media “ambassadors” – socially connected experts and aficionados — for the topic you are writing about who can help you promote and distribute your piece.
  • Tweet, tweet and then tweet again. Vary your language, don’t just retweet or ICYMI. Vary the time of day, and count retweets and favorites to determine best times for future tweets.
  • Add your article’s link to your email signature and away message and send your piece to any lists of which you’re a part (a recommendation by The Huffington Post to all of its bloggers).

As Poynter states in its Principles of Journalism, “[Journalism] must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant. The effectiveness of a piece of journalism is measured both by how much a work engages its audience and enlightens it.”

If we are to accept this statement as self-evident, then it is the ethical obligation of every journalist, editor and publisher today to not just commit him or herself to promoting content, but also to become as well versed and practiced in the art of content activation as in the craft of journalism.

This column originally appeared in NetNewsCheck and has been republished with permission.