The inquiry is alarming on a number of levels. First, because it has taken nearly two decades after the commercial arrival of the Internet for many newspaper executives to seriously tackle the seminal existential question facing their business. Second, because this question already has been addressed actively for years by businessmen ranging from the brass at Walmart to the butt-crack plumber under your kitchen sink. Third, because the question presumes there is a simplistic, one-size-fits-all answer that, once revealed, will serve for all time.
Here’s my Yoda-like response:
The answer is there is no single answer. There are many answers. It will take many questions to find the right answers for you. And the answers for today will be challenged over time by the new questions necessary to discover the answers for tomorrow.
The reason there is no single digital strategy is that every market is different, and each business possesses a unique array of strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
The reason there is no enduring digital strategy is that the marketplace is kinetic. The solutions that work successfully today almost certainly will be overtaken in the not-too-distant future by new technological and competitive disruptions that we cannot imagine today. When the iPhone was introduced six years ago and the iPad arrived three years later, each created whole new ways of getting and giving information. The next big iThing — whether from Apple, Google, or a gaggle of ramen-gobbling geeks in a garage — is bound to change things all over again.
Successful strategic innovation in this environment isn’t easy. It requires managers to undergo the out-of-body experience of realistically and unemotionally evaluating their business, even if they don’t especially like what they see. As demonstrated hour by hour in Silicon Valley, this requires tireless market reconnaissance, unflinching objective analysis, rigorous self-assessment, the discipline to challenge existing assumptions, and the fortitude, if necessary, to sacrifice existing lines of business to invest in potentially better ones for the future.
The reason American newspapers failed to adapt to the digital age is because editors and publishers didn’t want to change, fighting furiously, instead, to preserve traditional revenue streams and editorial prerogatives at a time their readers and advertisers were moving on. With advertising revenue today less than half what it was seven years ago, one can only hope the industry is ready for something new.
For those who are, here’s how to start thinking strategically:
- Get a grip. Accept that your business will be affected by three enormous forces you can neither escape nor control: changes in technology, changes in consumer expectations, and changes in the ways companies spend their marketing dollars. A good strategic plan will bend those forces to your advantage, tai chi-style.
- Get real. Before you can think about articulating a plan, take a realistic look at the internal strengths and weaknesses of your legacy business, as well as the external opportunities and threats that exist (or are likely to emerge) in the marketplace around you. This is called a SWOT analysis, and it seldom fails to produce an abundance of appealing, appalling, and ambiguous choices.
- Get set to self-destruct. As you sift through the strategic possibilities, seriously consider ideas that could cannibalize your existing business, because they may, in the fullness of time, turn out to be better than the business you are in. In 1995, the management of The Boston Globe nixed a modest investment that would have secured a big stake in a little start-up called Monster.com. As subsequently reported by the Globe (http://tinyurl.com/monstermiss), the managers felt a low-priced online job site would damage their highly profitable print recruitment business. We all know the rest of that story.
- Get creative. To select the most promising paths among the many potential choices revealed by the SWOT analysis, rank them in order of promise and feasibility. Test the assumptions underlying each idea, asking whether the critical factors necessary for success are realistically within your grasp. Remember that the quickest way to go wrong is to substitute your intuition for unbiased market research and bottoms-up financial analysis.
- Get going. Armed with solid research, develop clear product specifications and a well-conceived marketing and sales plan. Launch as soon as possible with a good-enough product to test the market’s response. Gather customer feedback, analyze the results, and refine the product as necessary in successive releases. Feed good ideas and kill the bad ones.
- Repeat. Disciplined planning and execution are ongoing, iterative, and forever. So, as Yoda would say, “Started, let’s get.”
Alan D. Mutter is a former newspaper editor and Silicon Valley CEO who today serves as a strategic technology consultant for media companies. He blogs at Reflections of Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com).