Newspapers still social wallflowers
CONSIDER this. My 80 year-old dad still walks to the local store to buy his paper where he bends the ear of the 'corner boys' about daily affairs. My dad's experience of news is social in nature. News reflects and refracts what he considers to be popular or important, informs his public discourse and is consumed and shared socially. Newspaper execs who understand the social value of news position their titles through targeted marketing and promotion. Alas, the same SA papers miss the plot when it comes to social marketing online.
The web is also a social space where the next generation of 'readers' 'increasingly spend more time in relation to traditional media. Internationally, many execs realise that future success means giving users access to content in channels where they are. At the moment, this could mean buying the ‘corner store’ (literally) in Second Life, creating a billboard where folks see your headlines (like a widget for Facebook) or facilitating user generated content, sharing, ranking, tagging, comments and mashups.
Social (aka web2.0) features are highly sticky, boost search ranking and content reuse, increase virtual ad space on free user generated content and generate vital data about online media users that can be exploited for contextual advertising.
Here at the Southern tip, bandwidth penetration, digital divides, skills deficits, creaking content management systems and dubious internet strategies have left several of the top ten selling news titles sucking the hind tit. Most titles don’t even allow comments on articles and resources tend to flow to aggregator sites and not to individual brands. Some like the top selling newspapers aren’t even in the race.
For example, the websites of Media 24’s Daily Sun (1) and Sunday Sun (3) with a cumulative readership of 6.8m readers are still under construction. What’s ponderous is that it does not appear that any content from either title is used on 24.com – Media 24’s media and content and service aggregator. Where’s a black diamond to go for some meaningful interaction? The Sowetan? Not likely.
While Avusa’s Sunday Times (3) and The Times enjoy a fair amount of social stickiness with blogs (written by staffers and 'blogumists'), comments, ranking engines and widgets similar resources and functionality have not been poured into other titles like the newly redesigned Herald or Sunday World (8) and Sowetan (6). Top marks to The Times though. Now if only Avusa would capitalise on its media properties and services with a decent content aggregated portal.
Independent’s Web2.0 strategy is also quizzical. For all its resources, IOL which aggregates content from its newspaper and magazine empire doesn’t permit comments on articles or exploit user generated content. They do run a few bookmarking widgets - but these haven't exactly caught fire in South Africa. The only area where users can interact with a title, its journalists or each other seems to be on polls and an Inside IOL blog (an expert blog produced by the online team).
The group’s subscription driven sites can also stand to be improved. This is less a gripe about social functionality as it is about general useability. Independent’s titles have individual websites with premium content that is accessible by buying a newspaper subscription. This brings in a little revenue and prevents the online copy cannibalising already sensitive regional circulations. But why would anyone visit isiZulu flagship Isolezwe (9) when every story is premium and cannot be accessed? It's downright annoying. You have to tease users and give 'em a chance to sample the goodies – otherwise what’s the point?
2007's most innovative social animals by far are 24.com and M&G Online.
Media24 bought a 30% stake in mobile social network Mxit (4.2m users). Its content aggregation site, 24.com includes blogs, mynews24, a MSN style messenger service, photo sharing, Facebook headline applet, a Digg style social news and bookmark app, Laaik it and a soon to be launched online social networking portal for youth. It's a bold move but one that aims to get readers where they are - even if they are doing something else.
The problem remains its individual titles – Natal Witness (50% owned by Naspers), the Daily Sun (1), City Press (4) and Rapport (6) all lack Web2.0 functionality and basic link integration with 24.com's social media and networking services. There's also no social ranking or comment functionality to speak of.
The winner is the granddaddy of the South African web, Mail & Guardian Online. Given its limited media properties and moderate circulation M&G (23) continues to punch above its weight. It has embraced any range of tools to distribute its content on the wired net and mobile platforms. M&G Online (23) has put its money on a social media aggregation strategy built around blogging and user generated content platforms Amatomu (blog aggregator), Amagama (blogging platform), Thoughtleader (expert moderated blogging), News in Photos and a nifty headline app for Facebook.
Now if only Africa’s biggest media player, SABC News would get its act together. Most commercial radio stations have lapped the PBS online by creating sites that have become spaces for dialog and content sharing. If the SABC is serious about “Total citizen empowerment”, it needs to think seriously about its content and social strategy to engage some of the 5.2m South African web users. Given the demographics of the South African web, this provides a prime opportunity to engage with marginalized, apathetic or absent audiences.
Word to the wise. Learn from the Beeb.