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6 Lessons for News Publishers from Seth Godin

|Includes: Amazon.com, Inc. (AMZN)
Seth Godin is the marketer’s marketer, somewhere beyond guru.


He’s now poking the edges of publishing. After 13 bestsellers, manufactured and sold through the traditional industry, he’s causing quite a stir in the book world, publishing his new book — “Poke the Box” — through The Domino Project. If you haven’t heard much about Domino yet, you soon will. Domino marries Godin’s marketing star power (76,000 followers of his blog just through Twitter) with the book marketing heft of a little company called Amazon. The Domino Project is powered by Amazon, as it moves deeper into the world of becoming a publisher itself, building on its CreateSpace do-it-yourself publishing initiative and its two imprints launched last year, Amazon Encore (reprints of previously self-published books) and Amazon Crossing (translations).

Domino is, aspirationally, higher profile. Snagging a bestseller author like Godin to head the project signals that Amazon is no longer just working the edges of new publishing, but aiming to turn old business models on their heads. The Domino Pitch: Publish quickly (in as little as six weeks) in multiple (e-book, hardcover, audio) forms, pricing the books in bulk (from five-packs and up), spreading word of their arrival virally — and use Amazon’s vast digital book presence with possible exposure of up to 75 million monthly uniques (the ultimate digital endcap) to promote and market. There are lots of individual newer ideas there, and Godin’s push is to bring them together in one initiative, saying goodbye to the old publishing houses. It’s author direct-to-customer marketing — one to one — multiplied exponentially by Amazon’s reach. (His list of Domino’s principles is noteworthy, and worth studying.)

The Domino Project is also a good distillation of the challenges faced by the legacy book industry. As long-form writing, call it narrative, call it journalism, call it whatever you want, morphs and redefines itself in the flexible digital age, the digital handwriting is on the wall for the book industry. That scrawl can be read as easily as a challenge — and opportunity — for legacy news publishers. Much of what Domino is doing in upending models of traditional manufacturing, marketing, distribution and sales bears directly on how news publishers and news creators reach their own audiences.

I caught up with Godin this week, talking to him for my post, "The Newsonomics of the Digital Cafeteria," about how news publishers are moving into e-books and tablet products of all kinds. Out of the conversation, here’s my second installment of Six Lessons for News Publishers (the first: “Six Lessons for the Newspaper Industry from Reed Hastings“).

The six:

Sell silver, not paper: Godin remembers when the Annenbergs owned the failing paper in Philadelphia. “Then they offered sterling silver teaspoons,” as a premium, targeting female subscribers. “That made them the #1 paper.” The lesson: what you do and what you sell may be two different. My sense is that we’re newly into that era as paid content plans sell convenience and delight — all access wherever you are are — rather than “content.”

Treat News ADD: In a world of plenty, really infinities of news, opinion and information, it’s not how much content you can push to the market, it’s how much reader attention you can earn and depend on. In describing Domino, Godin says, “The only asset we care about is attention.” You’ve got to ask, he says, “What are you doing with the attention you have?” That’s a highly relevant question. In print, news publishers used to engage lots of reader attention, gaining four hours or more per month of attention (reading time) of 40%-plus of the households in their markets. Online, most news sites have gotten 10-15 minutes per month of reader engagement, reader attention. The tablet, and e-readers, offer new opportunities in treating this attention deficit disorder, with the early signs showing more attention spent. Innovative approaches to publishing — what you offer, how you offer, how you package, how you engage readers — can be the best medicine. “It’s a huge opportunity for journalists. They can be the “concierge of attention,” he says, as editors point to the best, most useful content, their own or others.

Turn strangers into friends: “I paid Time Inc. $2 to read about the causes of the Civil War,” says Godin. “There was no invitation to join a community or join a discussion. I’m a stranger again.” Godin’s point is that each reading experience is a potential beginning of a relationship, of engagement, of asking for — and sometimes getting — more attention. Ironically, Time, Inc. and other publishers have been highly vocal about getting customer data and retaining the customer relationship, as they create sellable products for Apple’s iPads. Yet, gaining data on subscribers is one thing, but one thing only; there are many ways to engage readers, developing and nurturing relationships that could mean lots of sales in months and years ahead.

Let others bring good things to life: Domino’s second book is “Do the Work,” by Steven Pressfield. The price to readers: free. The book is sponsored by GE, in a new twist on an old sponsorship model. GE gets its brand associated with the work, and the work gets paid for a different way. In the iPad/Kindle era, we’re seeing sponsorship re-emerge as a potent source of funding. There’s something about whole products — as opposed to website bits and pieces — that attracts sponsorship. What does sponsorship mean as to what the content actually says?; that’s an ancient conundrum to worked out anew, with reasonable boundaries to be set, especially for journalistic works.

Don’t let the trucks drive you into oblivion: “The reason why the Inquirer is in Philadelphia is the trucks.” That’s a reminder that while the “death of distance” is over-heralded — reporting and sales feet on the street still retain lots of value — trucks no longer define the business. Distribution by truck and by carrier used to be a formidable barrier to entry, and indeed the daily “monopolies and oligopolies,” as described by Godin, were as much defined by distribution as by local content. Swapping out the focus on trucks for a focus on attention is easier said than done, an abstraction that makes sense, but has proven incredibly hard for legacy businesses.

There’s no whining in publishing: “Journalists need to stop whining. There is a new economy, and you have to recognize this and move on.” Fifteen years into the digital news revolution, the lamentations are receding, but I still heard some of them — more wistful than mournful — in the halls of both the Newspaper Association of America publishers’ conference and the American Society of News Editors top daily editors’ conference. Frankly, in a time of such change — and such opportunity — there’s no time for whining.