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By Thomas Baekdal - November 2017

The Elusive Direct Relationship with Your Readers

The internet was supposed to solve one big problem. It was meant to eliminate the gatekeepers and allow everyone from everywhere to connect directly together.

And for a while this was how the internet worked... but then came 'the platforms'.

The result is that, today, one of the most persistent trends in the digital space is how hard it is to get people to connect with publishers directly, because people are spending less and less time deciding what to see.

The number of choices people have has created a form of 'choice paralysis', where it's getting almost impossible to make people say: I choose to read you! And we also see that those who come to us from other channels (like Facebook) have a much lower level of loyalty than ever before. The intent just isn't there.

The platforms that are all around us have been exceptionally efficient in convincing people not to care about what they look at, in exchange for an endless stream of low-intent content snacking.

Meanwhile, another trend very clearly tells us that the loyalty for those who do connect directly is many times higher.

The result of this is a difficult but important challenge, because this means that it's getting more and more important to convince our readers to connect with us directly, but it's getting harder and harder to actually get them to do so.

So, what can we do about this?

Well, the answer to this is the same as always. Focus on creating that all-important direct connection. This has not changed. It's just 10 times harder to do than ever before...

But let's look into that some more.

The supermarket

I have already written many times about how the internet platforms have become 'supermarkets' (here is an article from 2014). It's a perfect analogy for what is happening today, and I will summarise it briefly here.

A supermarket is somewhere you can very conveniently get everything you need in just one place, but it's also somewhere you mostly only get the things you don't really care about.

And you see this very clearly when you look at the type of products that you find in a supermarket. Almost all of them are products that you wouldn't be able to sell in an exclusive store.

For instance, you wouldn't go to a paper towel store, or a shampoo store, or a store that only sells tomatoes or spaghetti.

You still need to buy these products, and you want them to be good, but they are just not important enough for you to dedicate your time to. In other words, they are all low-intent products that you just want to get efficiently.

Online we see the same effect.

Facebook is the classic supermarket in that it's a place where you can find everything, and everyone has a need for consuming content every day. But you don't actually connect with anything, instead you just pick out content as quickly as possible.

Here is one example. Do you remember the brand of spaghetti you purchased the last time you went to the supermarket?

I don't...and I don't really care. I just remember that it was whole grain organic spaghetti. I don't care if it's made by one company or the other, because they are all the same anyway.

This is like Facebook. Do I remember what publisher published the last link I clicked on? Nope!

I just remember that it was something that caught my interest. In fact, as I'm writing this, I cannot even remember what the last link was about.

This is what supermarkets do. They eliminate the need to think, which is why they are so effective at dominating public consumption.

In comparison, the way we behave when we have a specific need is entirely different. And here is an example of that:

About a month ago, I bought new vacuum cleaners. So how did I do that?

Well, if I didn't really care about what I got, I could have just gone to my local supermarket and picked up something cheap. But, in my case, this was not good enough.

I had been suffering badly from allergies as the result of a combination of dust and pollen in my home, and my old vacuum cleaner didn't have a HEPA filter. I was getting so frustrated with sneezing every day that I decided to go 'all in' and buy whatever I needed.

The result was that I bought 3 machines.

First I visited NYT's Wirecutter directly, to see which one they recommended, and then I decided to go to iRobot to pick one out. I did this because I know that in order to fix my allergies, I would need to vacuum several times per week, and I really don't want to do that manually.

So, buying a robotic vacuum cleaner was the perfect choice.

In fact, I picked two. I picked an iRobot Roomba for vacuuming the floors, and an iRobot Braava for washing them... which is just the perfect combination for my allergies.

Of course, while robots are ideal for everyday use, they can't do things like vacuuming my furniture or my bed, so I needed another very good vacuum cleaner for that.

And since Dyson has a very good reputation for that (and is also the 'upgraded' choice on NYT Wirecutter), I went directly to them to pick one of their options.

This was not cheap, but, compared to suffering from allergies every day, it didn't matter. And, my allergies are no longer bothering me.

The reason I tell you this story is that it perfectly illustrates the difference between just using the internet like a supermarket, and using it to solve a need, and the impact this has on how people behave.

I would never go to Facebook to solve a need or to get informed. Facebook is a place that I go to when I don't have a need. When I want something specific, I will make a specific choice of where to go.

Obviously, the case of buying a vacuum cleaner is a very 'high-order' type of need. But the concept is the same.

If you want people to come directly to you, you need to be the result of people making a specific decision. And the only way that this can happen is if you are doing something that makes people choose you, rather than just consume random content.

This has a pretty big impact on the editorial strategy, because almost all traditional publications are designed around people not deciding what content to read.

The old print magazines were like that too. The most successful print magazines were always those who had a wide mass-market appeal, where people could buy a magazine with 150 pages of random stories.

Look at women's or men's magazines, fitness, and food magazines, etc., they are random in their focus.

And today we see the same thing. When I look at a magazine today, I see that the editorial profile is to publish about 20 articles per day about a wide ranging list of topics. But by doing this, you are specifically creating a type of content that people don't have to pick.

In other words, you are creating content that only works in the supermarket.

So, we see this trend that people are making less and less direct contact, and in the media we often blame this on people, and the platforms. We even double up at times, and blame this whole thing on the 'millennials killing reading'.

The real problem, though, is with ourselves, because we are not creating content that is worth picking, because it's not related to any specific need.

Take a publisher like Cosmopolitan, and look at the articles they publish.

Do any of these articles solve a specific need? Would you choose to go directly to this and pick it?

No, of course not.

These articles are great for the kind of supermarket consumption that we see on Facebook, where people are just bored and casually scrolling down their newsfeed, and they come across one of these articles.

This is content designed for people who never really connect with you.

So, the problem with the decline in direct traffic isn't really because of Facebook or other people... It's on us. We, as publishers, aren't giving people content that they would pick.

The problem today, however, is that because this has gone on for so many years; because almost all traditional publishers create content this way; and because Facebook works the way it does; we have created a culture in our society where the public has forgotten what it means to pick something.

The result is that, even if you do create something that is worth picking and visiting directly, it often isn't enough to make people actually do it, because people are so used to not doing it.

It's kind of like asking people who are used to buying everything from the supermarket to suddenly dedicate the time to come and visit your speciality store in another part of the city.

You have to offer people something really spectacular to convince them to do that, and it's the same with content online.

I mentioned NYT's Wirecutter before, and it's a perfect example of this. Wirecutter is one of the few sites today that is still able to generate most of its traffic via people making a choice to visit them. Either via direct traffic where people are looking for a specific review, via intent-based search, or directed and recommended by 'word-of-mouth'.

The reason they are able to do this is because they have taken the necessary steps to push past this barrier of indecision that most other publishers face.

They have done this by creating very high-level reviews, where each one is not just a quick 500 word article, but a 9,000 word review that took days or even weeks to write.

And when you start to think about the media this way, you realize that there are a lot of niche publications and new media startups that work this way. Through their more specific focus, they are able to get people to connect with them directly in ways that most other publishers have lost.

It's all about this focus of creating something for people to specifically choose.

We also see this with the digital natives on YouTube or Twitch. Many channels are just something you watch because you are watching it like TV and not really thinking too much about it. But there are also channels that you follow specifically because they help you in some way that makes you pick them.

And when this happens, you will turn on notifications for that channel to make sure you never miss a thing, you will support them on Patreon, and many other things.

This, again, is the difference between optimizing for the 'supermarket' and optimizing for people who actually make a choice to connect with you.

Direct isn't always a direct visit

Mind you, when I use the word 'direct' I don't necessarily mean getting people to visit your website as a direct visit, because that depends entirely on what it is that you publish.

If you publish daily, direct visits to your website might be possible if your value is high enough. But if you are merely posting once every two weeks, the frequency of new content is simply too low for people to remember when to visit you.

A good example of this is this site. With Baekdal Plus, I write 25 reports each year (each about 35 pages long), which means that I publish a new report about once every two weeks.

So, I need to remind people when to connect, and the way I do this is via my newsletter.

Remember the example of how hard it would be for a speciality store to convince people to come to it, instead of just going to a supermarket?

Well, an easy way to fix that is to turn the concept upside down and instead go to where people are. We see this with many of the new startups today. They know that just being on a platform will kill them, and that they need to do something that creates a more specific direct service. But since they can't get people to come to them, many of these new startups are now offering to come to you.

Email newsletters are the same thing. It's a direct relationship where I'm coming to you, instead of you having to remember to come to me.

And every publisher has to adjust their strategies to create a direct model that works for them.

NYT's Wirecutter, for instance, wouldn't work just with direct website traffic, nor as a newsletter, because you don't need to see a review every day. Instead, their model is defined around that specific moment when you need answers, so their most important direct channel is search.

It's the same story with Amazon Alexa. It too is built around creating a direct relationship around very specific moments when you need something.


Google Now is built around a mostly proactive service, where it will try to anticipate what you need, and make that available to you, so that you don't even have to ask for it.

So, creating a direct relationship can mean many different things, and can happen via many different channels, but it's always about solving people's needs instead of being a random thing that people see when they are bored.

As a publisher, once you start to think this way, an entirely new world of publishing becomes available to you. A world where a much more lucrative form of monetization is possible.

So, my advice to you, is to stop creating yet more articles for the supermarkets of the internet, and start doing something better.

Be there for when your audience really needs you, instead of just creating content for when they are bored.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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