Three Social Media Lessons for the Public Sector from the Newspaper Industry

I started my career in newspapers – first as a reporter and then later as managing editor for the Newspaper Association of America – and then, after the newspaper industry imploded, I moved onto government contracting, helping agencies with their outreach and communications functions. The dramatic marketplace changes that the newspaper industry faced in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the industry’s reluctance to adapt and innovate holds many lessons for businesses large and small, as well as the public sector, particularly as the public sector struggles to adapt to and adopt social media as outlined in a recent blog post, “The 5 Biggest Challenges of Doing Social Media in the Public Sector,” by featured GovLoop Blogger Alain Lemay.

Here are three lessons for the public sector to consider:

1. Don’t ignore the obvious. Much like the public sector today, newspaper publishers in the late 1990s and early 2000s regularly talked about, thought about, and listened to presentations about the Internet. Newspaper publishers also regularly spoke with Internet moguls like Craig Newmark and Jeff Bezos, they learned about disruptive innovation from Clayton Christensen but yet they couldn’t see how the Internet would disrupt their business model, which was based on printing and delivering a physical product to their customers every day, rather than delivering content where their audience is and wants to be – on the Internet, on their phone and other mobile devices. Similarly, the public sector needs to deliver its message and products to consumers where they spend most of their day — on the Internet, on their phones and other mobile devices.

2. Even a cash cow can become a white elephant. One of the many reasons publishers didn’t seem concerned about their print-and-deliver business model is it was still a profitable industry until the early 2000s, and the Internet was still looking for a business model. In the late 1990s, Amazon was still just selling books and Facebook hadn’t gone public yet. Twitter didn’t even exist yet. But, publishers needed to harness the power of the Internet before it become more powerful than their presses. Similarly, the public sector needs to harness the power of the social media platforms that exist today or risk being left behind as new platforms are introduced to audiences.

3. Content is still king. I can’t tell you how many newspaper conferences I attended where the mantra was “content is king,” and as long as you provide good content, your customers will come to you. We now know that the delivery platform – print, online, mobile — is probably more important then content but that doesn’t mean you can push out low-quality content and still have an engaged audience. Consumers still want compelling content that gives them something to talk about or makes them feel smarter. So, whether content is offered on a website or pushed out through Twitter or Facebook, the content needs to have value and provide useful information for it to be king.

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