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How Media Execs Can Survive Hazardous Times

Every conversation with every media person I have these days comes around to the financial crisis and the credit crunch. The people working for big companies, small companies, established industry leaders, and brash start-ups are all asking, "Where is this going. How bad will it get? What, when, and where is the bottom?"

Anyone thinking that I have answers to those questions had better stop reading now. I don't. But there are some aspects of this economic adjustment that may favor the more creative business thinkers over the custodians of conventional wisdom. Let me explain.

My hunch is the particular recession we are experiencing now differs in fundamental ways from others that preceded it. We have such tightly interlocked economies with those around the world that there really is no longer any such thing as a purely national economy -- except, perhaps, in Albania.

Through the prism of media companies, our opportunity to reach audiences is global. Our content and business strategies need to be sensitive to this new reality or we will fail to remain competitive over the long term. Even as we go global, however, we have to be entrenching ourselves in the hyper-local niches of the communities where we are physically located.

Doing both at once is not as difficult as it sounds, thanks to technology.

The content we generate, aggregate, and archive is a rich trove of bundled keywords, which, if optimized, and if stored at stable URLs, will continue to attract users, links, comments, and other interactive touches over time. We have got to keep parts of our service as fresh and up-to-date with current news as possible. That's the tip of our content icerberg. But, we also have to make sure the great bulk of our content is easily located, navigated, crawled and indexed.

Plus, since we are media companies, one of our main value adds is the ability to reach specific groups of people, build loyalty, and tease out the kinds of demographic and psychographic data that is useful to our sponsors, advertisers, and corporate partners. We can earn a premium on these "qualified leads" that are orders of magnitude more valuable than a random ad unit thrown up there in the vain hope it will reach someone of interest.

Start-ups, in particular, but some larger media companies as well, often have to cut corners on the quality of the data they collect on their user base, but this can be dangerous. One foible is setting a default "age", for example, that kicks in whenever someone fails to enter their actual age in your registration field. You set it at 28, and, lo and behold, someday when an analyst is running your numbers, (s)he'll spot a massive and puzzling spike among the age distribution of your user base at 28.

We depend on some fairly sophisticated analytical methods for generating reliable metrics for ourselves and our partners. When trying to evaluate options, such as the color, size, or placement of content features on a page, we have to either limit the variables in play to one, or to use multi-variable analytics that your every day media exec is unlikely to have studied in school, let alone used at the office.

All of these challenges are part of our new responsibilities. As we study our audience with a goal of building it, as we learn how to trigger greater interactivity and stickiness, loyalty and time on site, we are utilizing techniques quite different from anything taught, for instance, in J-School. At the end of the day, however, content creators still have to rely on our key differentiator from machines -- our instincts.

I've witnessed a lot of marvels courtesy of algorithms, but I've never glimpsed one iota of a true "news sense." That, of course, is the human element in this complex equation. Every other item I've laid out above is grounded in a philosophy of aggressively building a new business, based on the tools currently available to us. But if the best engineered media site of all lacks "news sense," it will be doomed, ultimately to failure.

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