Four social media lessons from the New York Times

For years the doomsayers have predicted – and in some cases even rooted for – the demise of the New York Times.  Print advertising revenues plummeted.  Ownership of and overpayment for papers like the Boston Globe drained resources. Endless digital real estate diminished the value of every online property’s available ad space.

But the Times isn’t doing all that badly at the moment. For the first time in a long time total ad revenues stayed flat rather than falling. In fact in its most recent quarter, digital ad revenue jumped 21 percent. Operating profit doubled and an improved cash situation gives the paper more time to plot a strategy for real growth. Given that the recent good news comes in a miserable economy, I’m betting the venerable paper pulls it off.

If you look at the Times from another perspective – that of partnerships, social media behavior, and content – the company’s actually a shining example of how to hold onto core values and evolve at the same time.

Here are four things it’s done that serve as examples for any traditional company, including advertising agencies.

Get over the not invented here syndrome

For more than a couple of years now the Times has offered up content from a number of new sources that in earlier days would never have justified an appearance under the masthead. But there they are: ReadWriteWeb, GigaOm and other blogs’ content front and center on the Technology page. Stop there once a day and you practically have a centralized source of content. Granted it’s filtered by the Times, but there’s only so much filtering you want to do on your own anyway.

Lesson:  There are plenty of great sources of content outside your walls and beyond that generated by your staff. Why not take advantage of it, whether it’s for your company blog, the blogs you maintain for clients, a YouTube channel, or any of the other places you need content?

Embrace change and new technology as fast as you can

OK, perhaps the Times hasn’t always been lightning speedy at this, but in the last couple of years they’ve done a pretty decent job. Case in point is their iPad app. Not only were they among the very first publications to have one, it was well thought out with a clean, simple interface and just the right amount of content for a pad. All the sharing you need is built in. And while its elegant lacquer-black type on the iPad’s white linen background presents the ideal screen experience, their standby iPhone app’s not bad either. I’ve read 5000 word magazine articles on the thing.

Lesson: Create utility. Make your brand available everywhere.  Consider the context in which the user is engaging.

Be social in every way possible

I like how the Times does this, too. Times People is what every brand with customers or subscribers should do: introduce them to each other. It’s a benefit to users. It helps to spread content around. And it gives readers an added reason to come back and share what they find. The Times also does a pretty good job on Twitter. They’ve created their own lists of writers by category, and even gathered recommended lists of other writers and bloggers by categories that include technology, the arts, opinion and more. They don’t always engage as much as they should, but it’s still a valuable feed to keep you informed. Need someone interesting to follow? Go grab a new list.

Lesson: Take advantage of all the social tools and tactics. Market your employees and their content. Gather your company’s social presence and make it easily accessible to customers and prospects.

Great content wins out in the end

Want to know the reason that properties like the Times along with other content creators of note (including great creative advertising agencies) will always prevail? Quality content. Not only does the Times continue to deliver stuff you want to read, they’ve done a damn good job covering the very topic we’re talking about right here: digital technology and social media. Consider two great examples from the last week alone. One on whether Twitter encourages a distortion of who we really are. A second on whether the digital age diminishes originality and encourages plagiarism. Great stuff that will keep you thinking.

Lesson:  Don’t abandon the core values that got you where you are.  Just bring them to life in new places and apply them to relevant subjects.

What do you think? Is the Times doing it right? Can you replicate any of their practices? Will the “paper” survive?

9 comments
equinox1510
equinox1510

When social marketing is done properly like in this case than it can bring benefits.

Will Burns
Will Burns

Edward, I believe the last lesson around "Great Content" dwarfs the others. Without the content no one would want to be social with the NYT or be willing to adapt to new technologies to get their NYT. I might even go so far as to say, with the consumer so in the driver's seat now, all the NYT needs to do is focus 100% on their content and all the rest will work itself out. And that's true for any media outlet, not just the NYT.

Great post!

Vineeta @hotelsfairy
Vineeta @hotelsfairy

Yes, Times takes full advantage of social media. This is a great lesson for any business or publication.

Edward, I also agree with your point about digital media is encouraging plagiarism.

Dave Macdonald
Dave Macdonald

One of the things that someone pointed out to me once is that newspapers are traditionally two core competencies melded together very tightly. One is content creation and the other is distribution. Their distribution models are so incredibly capital-intensive. They've got some opportunities to change, much as the NYT is doing, but the marriage to a high-cost distribution system and the notion that they create all the content is preventing the hardliners from changing their businesses.

Steve Poppe
Steve Poppe

This may be an enthocentric point of view but The New York Times should be one of the top 5 websites in the world. (Alexa ranks it as #91.) I'm baffled as to why the site is not higher. There are many eyes and fingers in the world and many are trained on the things the NYT delviers. Baffled.

Howie G
Howie G

The Newspapers lived in a monopolistic bubble for many, many years. This was great for journalism because it allowed investment in news gathering. Every City had at least one major paper. Each paper could pay for people to be posted everywhere. There was minimal competition.

Then these papers had to compete with each other around the world at the same time due to the internet. And of course craig's list ended their classified cash cow. And the internet enabled portals and aggregators in. The last dagger was someone conned the papers into digital ad supported (free) reading vs subscription. And those ads didn't come close to replacing all the revenue.

Some papers are icons. While someone in Iowa probably didn't pay for a hard copy of the NY Times, now they can read the Times. This should strengthen the big names and reduce the smaller names to local news and sports. But it was easier said than done. I truly think Edward you covered this well. I think the smart news businesses can thrive with the right focus on great content. Content is king and great format/utility amplifies great content in my opinion and being social will help these companies embrace their readership in ways unheard of before.

Tracy Fox
Tracy Fox

I agree wholeheartedly with the lessons you highlighted in this article. Thinking about where your audience is in social media and making sure you are there an engaging with them and targeting your messages to be of value to THEM will help you use the strengths you already possess in new and exciting ways.

Anna Barcelos
Anna Barcelos

The Times is at least trying to do it right. They are embracing internal and external audiences in every way possible. I think they have set a great benchmark for other companies in an industry that has been doom and gloom for a year.

edward boches
edward boches

No doubt. In fact I am always surprised how few other papers have embraced their tactics.

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