You're going to read a lot about Jeff Bezos in the months and years to come. And for good reason. Aside from his enormous wealth, Bezos has transformed Amazon into a tech behemoth, accomplishing some amazing things along the way.
Last week's third annual Prime Day destroyed the company's own sales records for previous Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales performance. While specific data was not released, Amazon sold more than three times as many Echo devices worldwide than it did on last year's Prime Day.
The company revolutionized reading eBooks with the development of Kindle back in 2007. The Echo – featuring the familiar voice of “Alexa” – is poised to change the way we interact with gadgets and media at home.
We've written several blogs posts about Bezos in the past year, including one on the transformation of retail sales and its potential impact on radio. Amazon's purchase of Whole Foods this year is another potential game-changer, threatening to alter the ways in which consumers shop for food.
But perhaps Bezos' greatest accomplishment has nothing to do with digital media and technology. It's the fact he's turning around The Washington Post – and in the process, having the print industry rethink everything.
Recently, CNBC's Matt Rosoff put together a great analysis on Bezos' philosophy that it's possible to reverse the fortunes of a newspaper that was bleeding millions of dollars a year.
These lessons have implications for radio – especially public radio – in its quest to remain both relevant as a medium, and also financially healthy.
At a Future of Newspapers conference in Turin, Italy, Bezos revealed his WaPo game plan – a bold step-by-step part that includes customer focus, staffing up rather than cutting back, and aggressively monetizing content.
After purchasing The Post in 2013, it actually showed a profit last year, and is slated to do the same this year, up against digital behemoths like Google, Facebook, and the thousands of online media outlets all vying for the same revenue pie.
Here's are a half dozen ways in which Bezos has pulled this off at a media outlet that many wrote off as dead:
1. Focus on the customer, not the advertiser
An important key to media success means being “customer-centric” – so, in radio terms, “listener-centric.” Bezos employed this philosophy with Amazon, building a reputation for customer service. As he pointed out at the conference, “If you can focus on readers, advertisers will come.”
Too often in radio, the emphasis has been on whatever it takes to grab revenue, despite increasing spot loads, the proliferation of live reads, and the endless stream of “value added” to seal the deal. All the while, these moves make for a product that is less listener-friendly, making it more difficult for radio to compete in the digital media space.
2. You can't cut your way to relevance
In a newsroom environment where the only answer was cutting back on reporters and related resources, Bezos provided what he calls “a little bit of runway,” along with the support to take some risks. Since Bezos' arrival, WaPo has hired 140 reporters, as well as beefed up the digital team.
Radio has suffered extreme cutbacks over the last decade, trying to right itself while cubicles and offices have emptied. The result is an increased workload on existing staffers, making it difficult to maintain a quality sounding product. “Burning the furniture” leads to less relevant radio.
3. Complaining is not a strategy
While providing more resources, Bezos made it clear he wasn't a sugar daddy with unlimited resources. From the beginning, the goal was for The Post to return to profitability. Bezos also stressed the importance of accepting reality – not bemoaning the Internet and new technology.
Radio has turned a corner in this regard, with a stronger acceptance of the cards it's been dealt by digital competitors. There is still whining about Pandora, Spotify, and other disruptors, but also greater acknowledgment that radio must effectively compete and win in this rapidly changing environment.
4. Use technology, but don't be a slave to it
Bezos has brought tech to The Post. The CNBC story talks about their development of a publishing tool called Arc, along with the use of data to analyze headlines and reader engagement. Of course, online publishers like Huffington Post have done this for years, and that's the point.
In Bezos' thinking, it's important to strike a balance – not letting data dictate everything, but also being wary of those who ignore real-time metrics that can only help make everyone smarter.
Radio has struggled with data, and has paid the price. Ratings data – while more timely in PPM markets – is simply insufficient for strategic decision-making. And most radio research studies are still perceptual in nature, measuring opinions and attitudes rather than behavior.
iHeartMedia and NPR have advantages in the real time data department with iHeartRadio and NPR One respectively – digital tools that provide a high level of content and behavioral analysis. These are the kinds of resources that allow organizations to better understand media consumption and usage – areas where radio is still sorely lacking.
5. Monetize aggressively
In the area of revenue generation, Bezos has taken a hard line, pushing back against the notion the Internet is a free service. He believes a media business predicated on advertising alone – especially programmatic – would have to be lean out of necessity. And of course, down-staffing eliminates key content offerings like investigative reporting and other projects that are expensive, but lead to reader willingness to pay subscription fees.
Instead, WaPo turned the model around by asking readers pay for the outstanding journalism it provides. There are obviously public radio implications here.
6. Have a mission your staff and your readership can rally around
Some of you reading this post might jump to the conclusion The Post's comeback was heavily driven by external factors – notably, the 2016 election and the rise of Donald Trump to the presidency.
And while WaPo has successfully taken advantage of the world around it during the past couple years, there's a bigger philosophical idea at work. The newspaper's slogan – “Democracy dies in darkness” – has been embraced by both readers and Post staffers.
This is about more than tacking up a contrived mission statement on the wall of the station lobby. It's about a brand having a greater purpose, and communicating it to staff, stakeholders, and customers alike.
Jeff Bezos has accomplished a great deal since launching Amazon.com 23 years ago. The company's has altered the way we buy products, read books, and perhaps is on the way to transforming the way we entertain and inform ourselves.
But turning around a troubled legacy media behemoth like The Washington Post may in fact go down as his most impressive effort.
And for traditional media outlets – like radio broadcasting owners and operators – stealing a few pages from the Bezos playbook wouldn't be such a bad idea.
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