Rebranding for news organizations, how and why?

Newsrooms across the country are struggling to survive, and studies have shown that some of our communities don’t trust us as much as they used too. So how do we find out if and why people trust us? And then, how do we learn what they need from us to come back, or subscribe for the first time?

Plenty of experts have weighed in on the struggles of current day journalism;  the lack of diversity in our coverage and in our newsrooms, online paywalls, lack of dependable delivery of the print product, websites that are not user friendly, lack of advertising, a half-cocked pivot to video and plenty else.

When visiting with newsrooms about this issue, I asked them what they’re doing to find out more about what their community needs and wants to become loyal subscribers. The answers were pretty consistent; they’ve mostly tried sending out surveys through their emails or newsletters. But surveys sent to loyal readers are already skewed; asking the people who already support us these questions isn’t helpful in building subscriptions with those we’ve lost or never reached in the first place. Surveys sent out to potential subscribers are even less successful. Why would they bother to fill out an online survey from the news organization?

The results aren’t good, the numbers are low, so what’s the next step?

Every community is different, and to serve them well, you need to find out what your community thinks of your product. After speaking with newsrooms and marketing professionals, I found this particular suggestion interesting: Engage a professional neutral third party to research your community for you. The neutral third party can make suggestions based on the results and help you re-brand and rebuild your presence in your community.

I spoke with Melissa Thoma of Thoma Thoma, a professional marketing company in Little Rock, Arkansas, that engages in research based brand work, about this strategy to learn more about it.

Duncan:  What introduced you to research-based brand building?

Thoma: I think we all understand the intrinsic value of a clearly defined, well articulated brand that can deliver value to customers. I began to notice that most ad agencies in the 1980s were using media purchase/placement to solve marketing problems, and I didn’t believe this was a sustainable or responsible approach for my clients. Instead, I used research to answer questions and develop marketing plans and tools that drove my clients success, and this led our firm toward a research-based approach.

Duncan: That sounds like something newsrooms could benefit from — gaining back customers and turning occasional customers into long-term customers. Do you think news organizations need to see themselves more as a “brand” the way other companies do?

Thoma: My degree was in journalism and my first years out of college were in publishing, so I have great empathy for the difficulty facing traditional news organizations today. I believe our public does not have a clear understanding of how to determine unbiased vs. biased news reporting due to the emergence of online and social media and the way in which we are served information. With confusion comes devaluation — not to mention the already tricky competitive environment that has seen traditional media falter and fail.

So with that thought, I strongly believe that news organizations must tap into the market power of brand discipline in order to attract, keep and serve customers now and in the future. Today’s brands understand that they are in a very personal relationship with their customers. The walls are down and readers are served very personalized media messages. Only a strong brand will deliver in this environment.

Duncan: For a newsroom trying to learn more about how their communities view them, what are the first steps they should take to start that discovery process?

Thoma: Without a doubt, news media should be utilizing robust customer research to deeply understand their audiences. This research should be in the form of both quantitative (statistically projectable) and qualitative (nuanced and subjective) and should also include the audience of those customers who are no longer subscribing and customers who have never subscribed. So research is always a great place to start.

Duncan: So we’re talking about newsrooms possibly hiring a third party to research how their community sees them. What can they gain from the experience? How does it help them move forward with their readers?

Thoma: Research indicates that information received from a third party source is up to six times more likely to be trusted, so it stands to reason that our audiences (both internal and external) will trust research done on the organization’s behalf (by a third party) rather than by the organization itself. And in our qualitative research, we feel we are able to get more honest information from those we interview.

Duncan: For newsrooms who don’t know where to start, what is your most important piece of advice to jumpstart them in rediscovering how their community sees them?

Thoma: One of the first things a newsroom should do is monitor their social media feeds to get a sense of what is engaging the readers and how the conversation around stories is developing. There are several good social media listening tools, as well as simply watching the conversation and perhaps responding, if not directly, then by developing follow-on stories that touch on themes gathered by this type of monitoring.

Duncan: Wonderful, thank you for your time!

Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

If your newsroom can’t make the investment right now to hire a third party or wants to try other methods, here are five tips to help you build a better relationship with your community.


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