Two Things Advertisers Could Learn From Journalists

Red CrossI had the good fortune to attend an Online News Association panel discussion a few weeks ago and it’s caused a couple ideas to be bouncing around in my head about how much advertisers could learn from journalists about how to handle the new media landscape. It’s no secret that newspapers have been scurrying about trying to figure out how to deal with declining subscription rates, ad revenue and, in general, the flood of local reporting that’s being conducted on blogs and other social sites.

But it strikes me that newspapers and advertisers are very similar in a lot of respects. A newspaper is essentially a brand and editors and publishers are beginning to try very hard to make their papers relevant to their audience. Sound familiar? It should, because a lot of brands are grappling with exactly the same problem at the moment.

1. “Our readers are as smart as us.”

This was originally said by Logan Molen of when explaining why they were making user-generated content an intrinsic part of both their online and printed publications and, though it sounds obvious, it’s really a pretty remarkable statement.

The general rule of thumb in journalism is that you always write for a sixth-grade level audience, appealing to the lowest common denominator in terms of the speech you use and the way in which you present information. So, really, having an editor stand up and say that this idea is wrong is pretty interesting.

But, is this a little similar to how we think about demographics and our consumers? Do we sometimes treat them as if they’re not too intelligent? Do we talk down to our audience? There’s certainly cases of this out there right now. For example, Wal-mart’s The Hub, a failed social networking experiment that was essentially a MySpace-lite for the teeny-bopper set, has been heavily criticized across the Internet for having ghost-writers trying to speak like teenagers.

The site, which was shut down only ten weeks after it was put up, included profiles that said things like “Shopping will be my number ONE hobby this fall. I am going to be the most fashionable teen at school! I’ll be on the lookout for the latest fashions. From leggings to layers, to boots and flats, big belts and headbands! I’ll be looking for it all! Layering is SO IN right now. Hobo bags are also in style. OH! And big sunglasses! WHOO!! I don’t know where to stop! With all of the new clothes I’ll be getting, the kids at school will be begging me for fashion tips!”

Is this really a part of a dialogue between kids? Is this how marketers should engage people in conversation?

2. “We have to go where the readers want to take us”

Again, from Molen, this time in regard to an interesting little example of how consumers tend to use brands in ways that are different than the brands intend.

Frightened by the addition of a Bakersfield Craigslist site, put together a free classified advertising site called Bakotopia that, they hoped, would draw some eyeballs away from Craigslist and to themselves. Unfortunately, it turned out that the site’s users really weren’t all that interested in posting free classified ads, and instead turned the site into a local entertainment and event hub, uploading pictures and videos and what not. So, at this point, really had two choices: they could either try to stop people from using the site in a different way than they’d intended it to be used, or they could go with the flow and start adapting the site to better fit their readers’ usage.

They chose the latter and ended up with something pretty cool.

Interestingly, this is rather the same thing that happened with both Friendster and MySpace, although only MySpace chose to encourage its user base. Friendster, originally developed as a dating site, became convinced that people who created fake profiles for characters like Yoda or Jesus and attracted hundreds of people they weren’t friends with in real life was hampering the use of their site. (The fabulous Danah Boyd writes much more eloquently about the “Fakester Genocide” here.)

Was it within Friendster’s rights to limit how people used their site? Sure. But which of those two social networking sites is popular today?

Consumers repurpose applications to fit their own needs. Isn’t it easier for us to change our conception of what the applications should be instead of trying to change consumers to use the applications “properly”?