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The Broken Customer Experience of Media and Publishing

By Augie Ray | April 25, 2016 | 2 Comments

Publishers have traditionally focused on the quality of their content rather than their customer experience, but trends in technology and consumer behavior are changing that. Two recent occurrences made me think of how vital customer experience is to the future of individual companies in this category and the concept of an indepedent and trusted news media.

The first of these occurrences was reading earlier this year about one newspaper’s problems with delivery as they switched distributors. My friend Josh Bernoff wrote about the troubles from both the professional and personal perspectives (since he was not getting his newspaper as expected). Even in this digital age, physical distribution of the newspaper matters, because media organizations, like most companies, must serve their existing customers while finding ways to attract new ones with evolving digital models. And it matters in this particular industry because digital ad revenues have not come close to making up for the 65% loss in print ad revenues newspapers have suffered in the past decade.

Publishers’ desire to increase ad revenue can come into sharp conflict with users’ expectations, which brings me to my second recent occurrence that brought the customer experience of media to mind. Last week I visited a tech site to read an article, and I honestly felt as if I was in a digital jungle hacking through the spam undergrowth to get to my destination. My experience on this site followed this tortuous path:

  • Close a pop-up ad in a new window.
  • Close an overlay ad that obscured the content.
  • Start reading–momentarily–before a video push-down ad appeared at the top of the page, forcing my content off the bottom.
  • Scroll down to continue reading for fifteen seconds before the push-down ad (which was playing unseen above the top of my window) disappeared, causing the content to scroll once again off the page.
  • Scroll up to continue reading.
  • At this point, the site launched yet another overlay. This one asked me to subscribe to the mailing list. To make matters worse, closing the overlay required me to click a statement along the lines of “No, I don’t care about the upcoming trends in tech.” Does this publisher think its users are so simpleminded they can be manipulated into registering because of an aversion to clicking that phrase?

I left the site without reading the article. After 30 seconds, I’d read just two paragraphs and was forced to take five separate actions because ads either blocked the content or chased it off my screen. I will not return to this site. In fact, I hope no one does.

Desperate times may call for desperate measures for publishers, but the customer is still in charge. Because of experiences such as this, large numbers of consumers are adopting ad blocking software. And, of course, social media rather than publishers’ websites is increasingly the source of news for many people; over 40% of social media users now say they get their news from either Facebook or Twitter.  Facebook is going even further; the social network is not just serving up links to articles, it is taking over the hosting and serving of content as a way to control the user experience (and generate revenue).

The rise in ad blocking and third-party distribution has encouraged media sites to consider new forms of Native Advertising–paid media that appears as organic content–which further impacts their customers’ experiences. In one recent study, just 8% of subjects were able to identify native advertising as a paid marketing message, raising questions about required disclosure. The even bigger question is if native ads might may have an impact on people’s trust in news media, which is already at historic lows. While an ad about celebrity fashion that includes links to designers’ sites may be welcome to many consumers, will readers be as happy to learn that articles about global warming or food safety were sponsored, paid for or written by energy and agrochemical brands? Time will tell.

Action, reaction, and counteraction: Customers shift to digital, media ad revenues decline, publishers make ads invasive, consumers install ad blockers, publishers go native–and where it ends remains to be seen.  Is it just me, or does this sound more like a description of a battle between adversaries rather than a collaboration between brands and consumers that builds trust, loyalty, and advocacy?

The answers for publishers are not easy, but some media firms are turning to customer experience approaches to consider their future. Typical CX processes can serve the industry well, permitting publishers to identify key audience segments, gather data about customer sentiment and experiences before, during and after interacting with their websites and apps, and define a set of metrics that mix concurrent results (clicks and revenue) with leading metrics (such as trust, repeat visits, and subscriptions.)

I find the intersection of customer experience and publishing especially fascinating, in part because of my belief in the power and necessity of an objective and free press. All brands can succeed or struggle over questions of trust, but the low level of trust consumers have in the news media is a crisis for the “Fourth Estate.” It can be easy to forget in a world where 800,000 live viewers tune in to watch interns put rubber bands around a watermelon until it explodes, but the future of an informed citizenry depends not just on what news publishers deliver but how they deliver it. Smart publishers are seeking ways to improve their customer experience and not just their ad revenue because both are essential to the future of media.

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2 Comments

  • To those annoying popups – doubly annoying if already subscribed, brought to the site by that link! – I’ll add fake lists and galleries. Anything that requires the user to click, click, click page after page so the media/blog gets its numbers and eyeballs for those ads; I give up on those sites as soon as I realize that’s what the ‘content’ really is.

    You’re right it’s a battle and one the consumer will continue to fight to have on their terms. We’ll block banners, not register for paywalls, we’ll FF thru DVR ads, when I’m streaming on my iPad on the treadmill, commercials = water break. We want the content, not the ads; the media wants ad revenue for producing and sharing that content; marketers want to promote, sell their brands. No clue, whomever figures this one out I’ll tip my hat. FWIW.

    • Augie Ray says:

      Thanks Davina. I just scratched the surface of the CX problems–I also hate those listicles where people must click for each item (just so the site can serve new ads). In the end, I think consumers will accept paywalls (and already are for everything from WSJ to Netflix), but it is up to media to produce content people will want to pay for and make the value evident. Or, they can reduce the cost of the news so that ad revenue can cover more of the costs. Or they can come up with additional and nontraditional sources of revenue–events, consulting, data, etc. In fact, all three are the solution.

      In some respects, I think we complicate the discussion of media, in part because of the needs of marketers (and not consumers) and in part because the answers are simple but painful. Every year I see a shot of the media area at the Super Bowl and I think, “We’re all watching the same game–why do 500 journalists need to be there? What does one guy see that the fellow (or gal) two feet to his right did not?” In the past, newspapers all sent their own reps because they could afford to, but do we need 500 journalists covering one game? Do we need individual journalists representing 500 local newspapers covering the same news in Washington? Do we need reporters covering neighbourhood beats?

      The answers to these questions are not objective–there is no “right” answer–but depends on what consumers value and are willing to pay for. In the days of localized newspapers and paper delivery, the economics permitted lots of local journalists assigned to cover national news. In the days of CNN.com and Google News, the economics aren’t there. So we’re seeing the readjustment of media–it feels like a disaster inside publishing because the changes are substantial, but it’s still just about resizing the staff and realigning costs to the things people value in the days of free news.

      And the point, here, is that while anyone can understand publishing’s desire to increase ad revenue with increasingly annoying and interruptive ads, this is not the path to success. Consumers simply have too many options and the distribution of content is too portable. The faster media can realign its costs and find additional sources of revenue, the faster they can emphasize the customer experience of their sites rather than maximize ad views.