The money magic of serendipity

It could be an article they didn’t expect to read on a topic they didn’t expect to like. It could be a treasured or unique insight by a beautiful writer they’d never read before, useful information from an unexpected source, or way of presenting information that provides a light bulb moment. It can even be an ad for a product that they didn’t realise existed, but now realise they absolutely need.

If you cut to the core of it, this more than anything else, is what readers love about their papers – our ability to surprise.

It’s interesting to think about how surprise happens online. It’s harder to be surprised in an environment of hunting what you’re looking for. You seek, you Google, you find. A surprise is unwanted. Social networking gives us the unexpected laugh, insight or photo of someone’s new baby. But it’s not the kind of information you cut out and keep. RSS feeds spam you with info you may find worth sharing, but inevitably, the sheer relentlessness of the volume turns you off. Or you print something out, forget about it and leave it on the printer.

The legacy of the efficiency of successfully searching online has rubbed off on a lot of our thinking. And the hard and harsh days of financial crisis have robbed us of some of our ability to deliver surprise consistently.

But capturing this random interaction between product and reader should be at the heart of our attempts to monetise content across every format, whether it’s how we market our print product, charge for content, or ask people to pay for apps. Creativity generates constant surprises.

Newspaper companies however have taken a rather traditional approach to money making online, seeking to introduce models that work elsewhere and simply reproduce them. Advertising, subscriptions, pay-per-view – we’ve trotted them all out and been a little underwhelmed by the results. And our fear has cut into our ability to astonish elsewhere.

Our marketing these days no longer surprises (free CD or DVD with every edition, yawn), templating of sections creates a visual sameness that deadens the senses, and our retail presence in the very businesses created to sell us, put bluntly, absolutely sucks. (Just how attractive is a dumped pile of papers?) No wonder lottery companies are taking over and newsagents want to simply walk away.

At the INMA World Congress in New York last year, a presentation from the New York Times talked about how the newspaper focused on creating serendipity in all of its new products – whether online, as apps, or in print.

The desire to let readers ‘bump into’ content resulted in the NYT building an app that allowed readers mobile access to every book review they’d written, for use in bookstores. Or compiling restaurant reviews for a dining app or wine reviews for a wine app. Creating opportunities for readers to access it exactly when they wanted it, and be surprised and delighted with the results, was the New York Times monetisation strategy – and not a bad one at that.

Some Australian publishers have gone down this path to a limited degree. But there’s more in this. Certainly there’s more than just charging people a small amount to be ‘entertained’ in a market that is itself tiny.

Changing how newspapers regard data is vital in this conversation. For centuries, newspapers have written and published stories, distributed them, and used them as fish and chip wrapper. Say the word “data” to any journalist and most will run a mile – claiming its words they love, not numbers. For too many, this attitude does not change when they become editors. Spreadsheets are just annoying things that accountants use to bludgeon them at budget time.

But data is not about numbers. It is the essence of everything we write – a vast repository of information that is a snapshot about living in our cities, our lifestyle choices, the state of our schools, suburbs, hospitals and crime waves.

Sucking the data out of the stories – or seeing the stories as data in themselves – and creatively visualising this information to create a wider context will create new opportunities for serendipity.

Hans Rosling, data superstar and founder of the Gapminder Foundation was recently interviewed in the online Google magazine, Think Quarterly.

“My basic idea is that the world has changed so much, what people need isn’t more data, but a new mindset,” Rosling said.

“The problem is that companies have a strict separation between their IT department where data sets are produced and the design department. Getting people used to … animated data is, to my mind, a literacy project.”

When newspaper companies succeed in breaking down the silos between our IT departments, online teams, designers, marketers and journalists, the surprise and delight that will explode from such creative mixes will cause spontaneous serendipity.

And magic will happen on our bottom lines again.

Kylie Davis is the National Real Estate editor at News Ltd and former owner, publisher and “entreprenette” of The Village Voice newspapers.

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