It was the sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill who said “The artist is not a different kind of person, but every person is a different kind of artist.”

I was reminded of this when I was reading about Amazon’s Jeff Bezos’ address to the staff at The Washington Post after he acquired the newspaper. “If you replace ‘customer’ with ‘reader,’ that approach, that point of view, can be successful at The Post too.”

This is one of the most defining lines I’ve heard in a long time. Which is why Bezos is rich, and I’m not.

The reader is not a different kind of consumer, but every consumer is a different kind of reader, digital absorber, social activist, parent, car buyer, pensioner, youth, and market target in terms of commercial opportunity.

In his initial observations, Bezos has laid bare our conundrum. As I’ve said so often before, we attract customers   — readers, online — but they don’t hang around. In the Bezos/Amazon/Kindle world, one downloads a book, whether one reads it in full, or not. I would reckon that I’ve read fewer that one in twenty of the books I own from cover to cover. The average person reads less than a quarter of their print content. In the digital environment the levels, to put it statistically, are trivial.

In the news publishers’ world, customers pop in, stay for a few minutes and a few pages, and then nip off to a time competitor, by which I mean an alternative source of interest/entertainment/gratification. Our conundrum is the glue of engagement.

I recall, decades ago, one of the more egotistical editors of the many I’ve endured and/or enjoyed, complaining that I shouldn’t call his newspaper a “product.” In an early meeting I proposed a research concept where we would ask 40 of his readers to read his competitors’ title and vice versa, and then measure their response and comparison. His view: “But I could lose 40 readers” (I’m not making this up). At the next meeting, I mentioned the word “product,” and he told me to leave his office. Just imagine if I had called his readers customers or indeed users. So we’ve moved on from there (ish). 

If I may indulge you further in academia, Philip Kotler — the Kellogg School guru of marketing strategy — defined the model of a “product” at three levels:  

• The core benefit – in our case the delivery of news, influence, information.

• The product features – branding, styling, packaging, imagery.

• Augmentation – such as delivery mechanisms, installation, pricing and charging.  

It’s instructive to look back at Kotler’s model, which he devised decades ago, and remains a staple business school teaching tool.  

On the first point, I am sure we all remain committed. But how about points two and three?

Are our brands top of mind among our customers?

Does our delivery in print or digital reflect the very best?

With a few exceptions, newspapers continue to be woefully unwilling to promote their brands, their content in print and create a real dialog and interaction between print and online. The basics of Kotler are somehow being lost in space.

 So let’s, as always, look to the lessons and accentuate the positives. Newspapers continue to be the world’s most potent and influential medium. I was reminded of this recently when I had to appear on Scotland’s most respected BBC news and current affairs programto defend an accusation that newspapers in Scotland are no longer fit for purpose in regard to a forth-coming referendum regarding independence (which won’t happen). The fact is that 75 percent of Scots read an average issue of a newspaper (over 3 million), where the typical audience of this BBC flagship is 75,000. If someone can find a more competitive and lively newspaper city on earth than Glasgow, where I am writing, or typing, this diatribe, and where 16 daily newspapers compete, I’d like to hear about it.  

To return to Gill’s point, every person is a different kind of reader, and every reader is a different kind of customer — and that is our challenge and opportunity.

 For better or worse, the Internet has liberated the news consumer. It’s not that they escaped from jail. It’s just that they’re free to get with their lives without us. To re-rehearse the KPI’s, globally digital newsmedia audiences show around 5 percent of the consumption intensity of those in print. According to comScore, daily visitors equate to around 0.38 per average issue reader. Visits per month are around 8.4. Pages per visit are around six. Digital advertising revenues

correlate more or less to the levels of digital engagement; 5 percent globally. And the same principle can be applied to advertising. Basic mass online advertising generates trivial responses for advertisers, and pitiful cost-per-thousand revenues per inventory for most media owners, other than Google, who’ve got it figured out (ish), yet I’m seeing that the simplest of “customer relationship management” tools can multiply revenues per inventory by not just ten fold, but in some cases one hundred fold. Bezos gets it better than anyone. His message is a simple one: Every consumer is a different kind of reader; and needs to be understood and treated as such.

Jim Chisholm can be reached at jim@jimchisolm.net.

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