Social Media: Hubs and Spokes

Is this scenario familiar to you? An organization decides that it needs a social media presence. It polls its constituents and identifies their preferred platforms. Then it begins to post press releases, and a few employee photographs, on those platforms.

But the limitations of the platforms make them ill-suited to showcase the organization’s strengths, and thus the content looks shabby … or, even worse, downright awkward. The constituents ignore the postings, and the entire initiative collapses as a complete failure.

So what went wrong? The key mistake, ironically, was the organization’s decision to follow the preferences of their own constituents. That strategy cannot make any sense if — as is usually the case — the factors that drive the constituents to prefer certain platforms are different than the needs of the organization to communicate with them.

Web surfers, for instance, might prefer Facebook or Twitter because of their desire to share colorful photos of their children and grandchildren. Those same web surfers might also be readers of the New York Times’ online articles. But that doesn’t mean that the New York Times would be well advised to publish its entire online newspaper on Facebook or Twitter.

Instead, the Times maintains its own web site as its online hub, and establishes company pages on Facebook and Twitter. Most of its postings and tweets contain links that carry readers back to the online hub. In other words, the Facebook and Twitter accounts act as spokes that distribute the content to the preferred platforms of the readers, while bridging the distance between those platforms and the hub platform.

With this example in mind, what advice shall we provide to our beleaguered organization? Well, that depends on the nature of the organization and the preferences of its constituents. If the organization is a photography studio and its constituents are photographers, the organizational hub might reside on Instagram. There would be no need for spokes if all of the photographers also maintain accounts on Instagram.

However, if the organization is a literary club, it might make more sense to establish a hub on a blog platform. After all, blogs are explicitly designed to host essays of hundreds, or even thousands, of words. Then, if many of its members happen to be on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms, it can establish spokes between its hub blog and those other services.

The key insight, counter-intuitive as it may seem, is that organizations should not necessarily post their primary content on platforms that are heavily utilized by their stakeholders. Instead, they should establish hubs on platforms that are optimally suited to showcase their content, regardless of the preferences of their constituents. Then, and only then, should those organization establish spokes to convey their content to the preferred platforms of their readers.

Does that sound complicated? Perhaps it does. But hey … the online world is a complex milieu. Organizations should expect to require complex strategies to navigate it.

NY Times vs. USA Today: Who’s #1?

F. Scott Fitzgerald, author of “The Great Gatsby,” once observed that “there are no second acts in American lives.” He was referring to the eternal cycle of American culture, a cycle that briefly lifts anonymous citizens to fame and fortune and then destroys them, only to move on to its next hero / victim.

Many other icons have observed this same tendency. Pop art pioneer Andy Warhol, for instance, once remarked that all Americans “will be world-famous for fifteen minutes.” And in the business world, entrepreneurs like Groupon founder Andrew Mason can plunge from the pinnacle of success to the unemployment line in the blink of an eye.

But there are times when fading business icons are able to turn the tables on their successors and reassume positions of leadership, thereby launching the very types of “second acts” that Fitzgerald deemed impossible. Indeed, there are times when their successors actually enable them to do so by failing to rejuvenate themselves.

All The News That’s Fit To Print

The most recent newspaper circulation data, for instance, revealed that the venerable New York Times has supplanted the USA Today as the #1 general interest newspaper in the United States. Although the Times still trails the business focused Wall Street Journal in total circulation, it is the only publication among the Big Three to cover “all the news that’s fit to print” on a seven-day-a-week production schedule.

The Times, of course, has been publishing newspapers since 1851, and has been awarded more Pulitzer Prizes for journalism than any other news organization. But as recently as two years ago, its very existence appeared to be threatened by the emergence of various internet based rivals.

That’s when its publisher “bet the business” on the introduction of a pay wall that covered most of its internet content, gambling that any gain in online subscription revenue would more than offset the loss of advertising revenue from declines in non-subscriber web traffic. Its bold leap into web based e-commerce succeeded; it has returned the Times to its traditional position of industry leader.

But what of its largest general news competitor, the USA Today?

America’s Newspaper

Former Gannett chairman Al Neuharth launched the USA Today in 1982, at a time when no general interest newspaper was pursuing a national circulation strategy. The commercial internet did not exist at that time; thus, it was considered impossible for any newspaper to deliver paper based products on a daily basis across the nation.

Neuharth met that challenge by implementing an innovative business model, one that features the distribution of free newspapers to business travelers through national hotel chains. These travelers have no personal interest in the local news stories of the cities they visit, and yet they are considered attractive targets for national advertising campaigns.

Although critics disparagingly refer to the USA Today as a “Mc Paper” for its brief articles and glossy format, it has grown into a true national newspaper. For thirty years, it has been known as a prominent resource of American media and culture.

USA Today … Today

So what is the condition of the USA Today … today? It once soared past the New York Times on the strength of an innovative business model, only to fall back recently. Is it hoping to repeat its historical success soon?

Ironically, the very business strategy that permitted it to succeed during a time of paper news products is now hindering its growth in the internet era. Today, business travelers can access a wide array of news stories via the world wide web. Thus, they are no longer reliant on a “McPaper” when they are traveling for business purposes.

At the moment, the USA Today does have a web site that presents its contemporary and archived news stories. But it is hardly ever mentioned as a credible competitor among the leading online news portals; indeed, it only ranked tenth in a Nielsen survey last year.

Ready For A Backlash?

Of course, it’s quite possible that the Gannett publication may yet invent a new business model that enables it to win its battle for relevance in the media market. In fact, a number of prominent newspapers have recently experienced a backlash against their new web based strategies, and have begun to issue paper based products again.

The New Orleans Times Picayune, for instance, recently launched a streamlined newspaper on the three weekdays when it had previously terminated paper deliveries. And the initially web-only political news service Politico has launched a daily newspaper in the Washington DC and New York City markets.

None of these “retro” newspaper success stories, of course, imply that the American news market will be turning away from the internet any time soon. Nevertheless, such successes may give organizations like the USA Today hope that they – like the New York Times – will be able to design new strategies for survival.

Paying for Access: Why Now, New York Times?

It might go down in history as America’s worst timed product launch ever. Worse, perhaps, than the introduction of Ford’s bloated Edsel at the very moment when consumers began tiring of costly and oversized automobiles. And worse than Apple’s tiny Newton, a progenitor to the iPad that was launched in 1993, a year before Netscape began to introduce the world to the internet with its Navigator web browser.

What was this announcement?  Last Wednesday, the New York Times publicly declared that the days of free online access to its web site will soon be over. Beginning on March 28th, the news organization promised that its free site will be retired, with all of its content pulled behind a “pay wall” that will require subscription fees for access.

Why was the timing of this announcement so unfortunate? Because, just a few days earlier, the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual report on the State of the News Media. One message in particular was quite disheartening for traditional outlets: that last year, every news platform continued to decline except for the internet.

That’s right; even 24 hour cable news channels, the media outlets that once posed the greatest competitive threats to traditional newspapers, are now themselves falling victim to news based web sites! And yet the Times chose this very moment to restrict access to, and raise prices for, its own web site.

A Contrarian Strategy

“Well … why not?,” you may ask. “Why not start charging for access to a news service through the one media distribution channel that is actually growing in popularity? And why not decide to stop giving away access to the same service for free?”

Those are certainly compelling questions; in fact, the New York Times may yet prove that its instincts are correct. Nevertheless, its new strategy runs contrary to the one that successful web based service organizations that cater to general audiences have employed throughout the history of the internet.

Consider Google, for instance, and Amazon as well. Although they have each grown profitable by charging fees to business organizations for advertising postings, sales support services, and other administrative functions, they have generally declined to charge access fees to the general public.

Facebook has recently become the darling of the technology industry by doing so as well. And even though Apple has achieved immense success with its compellingly simple and elegant hardware and software systems, its Mobile Me paid access service is considered an also-ran; the service is now strongly rumored to be gravitating to a free access business model soon.

A Few Niche Audience Successes

Are there any successful firms that are charging for access on the internet? Yes, there are a few such organizations, including a number of services that provide news and thus compete directly with the Times. For instance, the Wall Street Journal has maintained a pay wall around its web site for some time. And the Financial Times has done so as well, successfully accumulating over 200,000 online paying customers.

But those organizations are targeting consumers of global business news, a niche market of affluent customers who can easily afford to pay subscription fees and then write them off as business expenses. Other niche internet services, such as Disney’s Club Penguin service for parents who desire educational and social online games for their children, have survived for years on a paid subscription model as well.

A few general audience news sites have likewise attempted to establish subscription based revenue models, albeit with limited success. Salon, the first online-only news service that launched in 1995, continues to struggle with its mix of free and fee-based articles. And the New York Times itself launched a paid service called Select in 2005, only to close it down and revert to a free access model in 2007.

Holes in the Wall

Are you looking for opportunities to continue reading the New York Times online without paying subscription fees? Fear not; the Times itself has knocked a few strategically placed holes into its own pay wall. Readers clicking through to their site from Facebook, Twitter, or most search engines will continue to enjoy free access. And virtually every one else will be allotted a quota of twenty articles per month.

With these exceptions, the Times is clearly attempting to hedge its bets by segmenting its readership base into a primary group of dedicated readers (who, presumably, are able and willing to pay for access) and a secondary group of casual readers (who, presumably, are not, but who might support an advertiser based ancillary service). It is indeed possible that the Times, with this strategy, will be able to differentiate between these two groups and earn revenues by catering to each of them.

On the other hand, it is just as possible that its new policies will only result in driving its most dedicated readers away to its online competitors, hence exacerbating the trend that has been clearly described by the Pew report.