Social Media and Traditional Media: Not Exactly A Match Made in Heaven

closePlease note: This post was published over a year ago, so please be aware that its content may not be quite so accurate anymore. Also, the format of the site has changed since it was published, so please excuse any formatting issues.

Social Media BandwagonBlogs. YouTube. MySpace. Facebook. Twitter. These are the social buzzwords of Web 2.0, that ill-defined concept that traditional media thinks will make them money.

The problem is that traditional media (by which I mean mostly newspapers and television broadcasters, with an emphasis on local media) simply don’t understand how social media works. There seems to be this weird idea that if something is popular on the Internet, you can make money off of it. So when “user generated content” became the hot new thing, traditional media outlets tried to jump on board and rake in the dough. But like I said before, they just didn’t understand how it works.

One of the great aspects of social media is the ability to speak your mind without being censored. On top of that, as soon as you post your thoughts, they are immediately available for the world to read and respond to. The first thing traditional media did was to take away both of those freedoms in favor of covering their own asses. I’m not saying that what they did was wrong, I’m just pointing out that the operating principles of traditional media are not in line with the fundamental ideals of social media.

Of course, that hasn’t stopped them from trying.

The hot new thing right now is Twitter (although I have no idea why), and everyone is jumping on board with mixed results. Three of our four local TV stations – KREM, KHQ, and KXLY – are using Twitter to tweet their headlines and link back to their respective websites. Our local newspaper, The Spokesman, also has a feed of their headlines, although it hasn’t been updated since December (they had massive layoffs recently, which could account for that). Simply tweeting your headlines seems like a pretty weak usage of the technology, although even CNN is doing the exact same thing. Interestingly, someone who works at Q6 and goes by the name KHQGirl has a feed that is rather blunt about what it’s like to work at the station. I wonder if the station managers know about it.

A couple of years ago, T.V. stations embraced blogging in a big way. All of the stations started some form of blogging, but once again, they simply didn’t get the point of it all. KREM had their reporters and anchors posting blogs, which had a lot of great potential. Unfortunately, they blogged their headlines and other news stories. It’s pretty much the same way now, although every once in a while someone posts something a little less dry. It’s kind of sad they the station managers wasted an opportunity to help the viewers better connect with the reporters.

KAYU took a different approach; they understood that blogs are about giving their viewers a voice. Unfortunately, if you build it, they won’t come. KAYU’s blog page has been a complete and utter failure. At the time of this writing, most of the posts are from late 2007, and the most recent post is over a year old. At least 90% of the posts were written by staff (I would know, since I was the webmaster at the time and asked them to do it), and the community just never got on board.

Why did KAYU’s blogs fail? A couple of reasons are immediately obvious. To begin with, they were too late. Many users already had blogs, which really started to get popular about 5 years earlier. Worse, users are stuck blogging about topics dictated by the station (actually, the topics are dictated by Fox Interactive Media, the company that made the website). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, was censorship. Every post goes into a queue and must be approved by an admin (me, at the time that I worked there) before it hits the site. That’s not exactly vox populi, which was the entire point.

A lot of companies also decided that they needed MySpace pages. But do they? What possible reason could any business have to create and maintain a MySpace page? Or Facebook, for that matter. They already have websites that are much better suited to the information they want to disseminate; MySpace was made for bands, not businesses. Facebook started as a sort of online yearbook or annual for Ivy League college students. True, you can get a little closer to your audience, which has its benefits, but how much value are you really adding? Are you sure you want your business to be associated with any yahoo on these sites? Do the benefits really outweigh the costs?

YouTube is a great way to connect with your audience and get people hooked on your “product.” I’ve spent countless hours watching videos on YouTube, much of it copyrighted material that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise. Had they used it properly, traditional broadcasters could have taken advantage of YouTube to drive people to their own products. Unfortunately, a lot of companies decided that YouTube was a threat (or were told it was) and took action to remove their material and distance themselves from the site.

Part of the issue was copyright infringement, and in those instances they acted well within their rights. However, they never really took advantage of the medium properly, largely because of the initial negative association, but also because of the bottom line. It seems that traditional media companies have a hard time with the whole “you have to speculate to accumulate” thing. They want to see ROI numbers upfront and seem to have trouble understanding that sometimes, the return isn’t monetary.

What this all boils down to is that traditional media companies missed the boat early on and never managed to catch up. Their stalwart inability to change caused a mental blockage in understanding that the point of social media was twofold: To connect with other people who have similar interests, and to allow the masses to express themselves.

Is there hope for traditional media? Honestly, I think the only way for them to succeed is to stay out of it altogether. They clearly don’t get it, and if they want to succeed with their audience online, they need to let the audience dictate the rules. Stop thinking about how much money you’ll make from your website and start thinking about how you can make your users happy. Satisfy the users and money will follow.

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