This post was published originally on the old Newspaper Next site on the N2 Blog, Aug. 30, 2007. It was one of several posts in my API days dealing with the Newspaper Next project, an API partnership with Clayton Christensen. I blogged last week about Christensen’s most recent insights on the news business, Breaking News, in the Nieman Reports. I have updated the links. Thanks to Elaine Clisham for reminding me of my contributions to the N2 Blog.
At a recent reception, a colleague scorned efforts by the newspaper industry in the mid-1990s to appeal to young adults.
I could join that colleague (a former newspaper editor) in criticism of many things newspapers have tried in pursuit of young readers, but he was way off in one point that he made: He said newspapers were crazy to pursue nonconsumers. Who, he asked, ever succeeded by trying to sell to nonconsumers?
“Can you imagine the automobile industry targeting people who don’t drive?” he asked.
In a social setting where I didn’t feel like arguing, I let the comment pass. But it’s a point of view that inhibits innovation.
Let’s flip that editor’s question around: What business ever grew without winning over some nonconsumers?
Think about telephones: How many teen-agers had telephones when the cell phone industry started? Those early mobile phones – expensive and huge – went to moms and dads who could afford them and needed to stay in touch for their work. But the cell phone industry saw the potential in nonconsumers. As the product improved and dropped in size and price, wireless companies developed family plans and clever commercials targeting the teen audience. And now what teen doesn’t have a phone?
In the 1950s, young people weren’t consumers of radios either. Radios were bulky and expensive. But Sony targeted nonconsumers with its new transistor radio and Baby Boomers became avid consumers.
Or take the editor’s example of the auto industry: Toyota got its initial foothold in the U.S. market by offering a cheap car for people who couldn’t afford new cars. They did drive, but they were nonconsumers of new cars.
A key concept of API’s Newspaper Next project to teach new innovation models to the newspaper industry is that we do need to build audience with nonconsumers and develop business with merchants who don’t advertise.
The editor was right, though, that many newspaper efforts to attract young readers have been misguided and unsuccessful. Too often we have just tried to persuade them to buy the existing products that they were already ignoring. We’d add a column or a page or a section geared to high school students or young adults. You don’t win over nonconsumers by persuading them to buy the products they have already rejected.
The Newspaper Next approach follows the principles of Clayton Christensen‘s “The Innovator’s Solution“: Spot opportunities by identifying valuable jobs you can do for those nonconsumers. Develop a new product that provides a solution to a pressing job in the nonconsumer’s life and you have a new consumer.
That’s how you grow audience.