Monday, April 15, 2019

More on the Death of Retail

The economy may chugging along but the retail sector is falling behind.

Way behind. 

As of April, 2019 has seen more store closings (or announcements of store closings) than all of 2018. According to Coresight Research as reported in the New York Times, there have already been 5,994 store closings by April, exceeding the 5,854 stores that closed in all of 2018. The good news: we still have a ways to go to reach 2017's record of store closings of more than 8,000.

There is one bright spot: the number of discount or dollar stores is booming because they are less susceptible than other retailers to e-commerce. (On a recent college tour in upstate New York, one of our team members saw plenty of dollar stores in some of the more rural areas.) 

But total store openings are stalled. There have been 2,641 store openings announced compared with 3,239 openings last year.

As an agency, we don't handle retail clients -- although the head of the agency spent several years supporting a provider of retail technology -- so you may wonder why we're so focused on retail.

We think it's the canary of the economy. There's clearly a shift in how people shop and purchase, and often it's away from bricks-and-mortar stores even as once web-only retailers like Amazon or Warby Parker now open retail locations.

But the trend seems to be more store closings, which leads to shrinking local ad revenues (because shuttered retailers don't take out ads to promote sales), which hurts journalism. In rural area, there's been a decline in local news coverage, according to the Pew Research Center. That's a real problem because that kind of local coverage is unlikely to return.

Behind the somewhat self-interest in the state of journalism, shuttered retail locations means fewer people working, and a potentially emptying out of main street stores and nearby malls. You can see the negative impact even in places like Manhattan's SoHo district, and it makes a difference, not only affecting real estate but communities beyond. A Bloomberg Businessweek article a while back depicted the problems faced by some towns in the UK, where retailers had left, which meant residents had to travel twice as far to buy things. Which meant that new residents are less likely to move there.  And that could cause a further spiraling effect.

None of which is good.

We don't have a solution, and we're not suggesting drastic measures to curtail Amazon and others' market power.

We just think it's an important issue, and one we've been regularly mentioning in this blog for the past several years. We also discuss other topics that impact journalism and PR. 


Monday, April 1, 2019

John Oliver Validates Our Prediction about Robocalls

Back in Feb., we published a blog, 4 New Predictions + 17 Ongoing Trends for 2019 that identified robocalls as "an issue everyone can support. We all get too many robocalls, whether on our cell phones or land lines."

A month later, in March, John Oliver caught up with our prediction.

In fact, he described the situation this way:
"Everybody is annoyed by robocalls. Hatred of them might be the only thing that everyone in American agrees on now."
He then goes into greater detail about why robocalls have gotten more prevalent. And then leads to a hilarious partial solution...at least to get the FCC's attention to the matter so that the agency puts in place solutions to address the robocall problem.

Enjoy!


Monday, March 25, 2019

7 Tips For An Effective Content Development Program

A new client on a short deadline, recently asked us: "How can we (the client) help you (the agency) to go as fast as possible?"

It's a great question, and this blog will address some best tips based on our years of experience.
  1. Make sure you have a clear idea of what you want. That's not always possible, especially when you're trying something new. Sometimes you have to see an initial draft before being able to realize what you like or don't like. But we've found that the clearer you can be about the goals, intent and the role this initiative is playing in your organization, the better the outcome. That's true even if your initial draft takes you down the wrong path. 
  2. Be decisive and clear when you provide feedback. Again, we know this can be difficult, especially when trying something new. But vague comments like, “I just don’t like it” aren’t helpful because it doesn’t provide enough input about what to correct and why. And second-guessing sends mixed signals and typically results in delays.
  3. Plan for convergence. It's important to develop a cross-channel strategy to reach audiences different ways but it sometimes gets overlooked. To reach different audiences across different channels requires planning at the start. Or else you end up with the next issue.
  4. Be aware of mission creep. This can occur during the edit phase when someone says, "You know what would be great? How about if we did …" Sometimes the additional ask is not a big deal, like can you come up with a caption for the photo we now want to accompany the content. But sometimes, an additional ask reflects a change in priorities, an additional element, and moving the goal posts, and that all adds up, delaying when the project will be ready. And that can require unallocated resources -- at the client and at the agency.
  5. Have a clear process to review/approval process. You need enough people to weigh but too many people offering feedback can lead to problems: such as version control (with executives working off of different versions of the document) or differing priorities. This almost always resulting in time lags, especially if someone has to adjudicate contrary feedback (where one exec loves the second paragraph but another hates it). 
  6. Make sure to involve everyone is involved who should be involved. We've seen projects where different functions are not in the same room, even though the project would benefit from their input. In one case, the social media team wasn't connected to a client's biggest announcement of the year; their posts on announcement day were about an upcoming webinar but nothing about the new product. Lesson learned: make sure to different functions are able to contribute and collaborate. These days, you might need to bring in both your CTO and CMO as well as some of your marketing vendors, who by collaborating, may generate better results. 
  7. Take your time but not too much. Once we hand something in, we're often inpatient for feedback. It's one thing if clients say they'll be able to review the document on Thursday. It can be a real problem if we have to spend our time tracking down approvals. (This is often the case if need to get approval from a third-party, who often has other priorities and may be doing our client a favor.) We can estimate the time it takes to research, write, edit and revise a document. But it's difficult to estimate how long and how much effort it takes to get content approved, which is why this can be an important element to address in advance.

We want to do our best work and to deliver something that meets your goals. Especially at the start of project requiring a quick turn-around, it is important at the start clearly define the goals, expectations, timelines, approval process and what to do if there's a problem.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Wall St. Journal Validates Our Ongoing Prediction that Retail is in Trouble

One of the trends we predicted for 2019 is that there will be increased scrutiny about the state of the U.S. economy, which has become the longest recovery in the country's history.

We don't want to jinx it but we've long looked at two industries going through downward spirals: retail and journalism. And the reason we follow both industries is the belief that they are canaries as being early indicators.

The latest bad news for retail was a report that Dec. 2018 holiday sales was the worst Dec. since 2009. According to the Wall St. Journal, a soft retail market raises new questions about the economy. We've also seen other articles reporting more chains are closing stores or shutting down completely. 

Retail is an important sector because it also effects real estate and other businesses because empty store fronts reduce foot traffic to the area, providing fewer reasons to shop at other stores on the block. This is true in the UK, where the demise of main street (known there as high street) stores in some towns means residents have to drive 30 minutes or more to find things they used to be able to get in town. (Bloomberg Businessweek did a story within the past year or so about the downward spiral affect this has had on the general economic health of smaller towns.) But we've seen this happen in big cities too. (The New York Times did a story last year or two about the decimation of high-end stores in SOHO.)

And since retail is an employee-intensive business, when stores shut down, people are out of jobs. And while unemployment is low, fewer stores means fewer employees who may not be able to land another retail job or transition to a job in another industry. 

Fewer local retail stores means fewer ads in local media. And that leads to the problem with journalism.

Keep in mind, journalism as a product is generally doing well. Americans are paying attention to the news, if only because they're getting hourly news notifications on their phones.

But the business of journalism is suffering. 

People are accessing news on the phones, often not paying for content. They're not subscribing -- paying -- for the news and digital ads generate less money than traditional print ads. So news organizations have to contend with demand for news but generally with fewer subscribers and fewer (and less expensive) ads.

Which is not sustainable. 

The result: "Media Industry Job Cuts Nearly Tripled Last Year," WWD recently reported, noting, "A study from an industry outplacement firm said 2018 was the worst year for media in a decade. This year isn’t shaping up so well already." The article provided some unpleasant facts:
Companies operating in news, broadcast news and publishing, television and film and music cut just under 15,500 jobs last year, an increase of 281 percent over 2017 when 4,060 jobs were cut, making it the worst year for jobs in the industry since 2009, according to a study from industry outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas Inc. In 2009, media companies cut about 22,350 jobs.
And this year may be worse. Already, in Q1 alone, according to WWD, "newspapers and digital media companies like Vice and Buzzfeed have revealed layoffs totaling more than 2,000. In January alone, announced job cuts were already up 49.6 percent compared to the beginning of 2018, according to Challenger Gray."

We've already discussed media layoffs this year.

But we feel that with traditional retail and traditional and digital news outlets suffering, the economy could be in trouble.

By the way, another threat to news organizations and media is that the push in digital advertising is to focus on consumer targeting. Big brands continue to spend a lot of money to reach audiences -- but an increasing share of the money is going to providers of digital tools and data in a shift away from media companies. In other words, ad spends may not be decreasing but the amount being spent directly to media companies is decreasing. The media will have to figure out how to charge and be more effective in reaching and cultivating big brands' customers. If they don't, we will see ad dollars decrease even more.

If you have see some silver linings, let us know.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Bloomberg Businessweek & Davos Validate Concerns About Extreme Weather

On Jan. 3, 2019, we posted something unusual for us: a blog post entitled, "9 Political Trends (Without Getting Political About Them)." Readers of this blog know we write a lot about trends but we're cautious about political implications.

We identified trends and issues such as 

  • The state of the economy -- which is getting a lot of attention. In mid-Feb., the Wall St. Journal has been raising questions about the economy based on a worse-than-expected holiday retail season -- the worst since 2009.
  • Brexit -- a topic that even late night talk shows address when talking to a British celebrity. Including Monty Python Eric Idle, who hasn't lived in the UK for years.
  • Climate control and extreme weather -- number 6 on our list (but in no real particular order), and has been validated by Bloomberg Businessweek in an article entitled "Climate and Cyber Risks Top Concerns Facing the World in 2019." We've also looked at Cybersecurity, and have, for years, identified it as a threat and a trend to be aware of. While we posted our list of ongoing trends late this year, you can see it's an issue we've identified the past several years (thus our designation of it as an ongoing trend).
The Bloomberg Businessweek article, which in the print edition was entitled, "What They're Worried About" referring to members of the World Economic Forum at Davos, also included: 
  • Water supply crisis.
  • Major natural catastrophes.
  • Failed climate change mitigation.
It also listed non-weather risks such as: 
  • Increasing national sentiment. 
  • Increasing polarization of society. 
  • Rising income/wealth disparity.
We did not list any of those last three in any of our various trends -- but we feel those last three are very real and need to be addressed, somehow. Unfortunately, we have no solutions for them or the climate trends.

Monday, March 4, 2019

6 Challenges Facing Local Newspapers

Last year, we talked about "Five Challenges Affecting Local TV News." And last month, we talked about the challenges facing digital media ("BuzzFeed, Gannett, HuffPo All (Unfortunately) Validate Our Prediction About Media Layoffs.") This  week, we will look at problems facing local newspapers.

Unfortunately, there's a lot to talk about.


Last week, a newspaper holding company with an unlikely name, Tronc, provided more evidence that local newspapers are facing tough times.

Tronc stands for Tribune Online Content, and it is the country's third-largest newspaper publisher (behind Gannett and McClatchy) and owns 11 daily newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and the Orlando Sentinel. (In June, Tronc sold off the LA Times for $500M.), And last week, Tronc fired 50 percent of the staff of the New York Daily News and staffers at its other papers due to what its CEO said were because "As a public company, we have a fiduciary obligation to balance the interests of all of our constituents: shareholders, employees, readers and community."


Death by a Thousand Cuts?
An Axios article on the topic quoted The Washington Post's Paul Farhi as noting "the NYDN employed 400 journalists in 1988. After a layoff last year, it will 'have a newsroom staff of just 45, according to people at the paper.'"

It's hard to imagine even the Daily News -- perennially described as "scrappy" -- being able to cover the city that never sleeps with just 45 reporters. Or how the Daily News can survive against the New York Post, its longtime tabloid rival.

A number of journalism experts say problems started before Tronc acquired the Daily News (for only $1 in 2017 -- basically the newsstand cost of a single copy of the paper in 2016 -- along with an assumption of liabilities and 49 percent stake in property where the Daily News' printing plant is located. But things got worse after Tronc's purchase, described as ownership without strategy and that Tronc made (and continues to do so) by "making the product worse while making the public pay more."

Problems Facing Local Newspapers
in Tronc's case, some blame incompetent owners who took on too much debt through acquisitions and consolidation. This is a real concern as media giants are merging (AT&T-Time Warner; Disney-Fox, and Sinclair-Tribune -- the former parent company of what became Tronc), with the possibility that the acquiring companies may be taking on too much debt.

Beyond possibly incompetent owners, the main threats to local newspapers include:
  1. Falling ad rates: The common saying is that publishers are replacing print dollars with digital dimes because online ads generate a fraction of the fees charged for print ads. So even if a newspaper retails the same number of advertisers who purchase the same number of ads, digital ad rates are much lower so newspaper revenue will drop. For example:
    • For example, according to the MinnPost, a nonprofit local news site, "In 2011, newspapers lost about $2.1 billion in print advertising. Meanwhile, their digital advertising grew by about $207 million. In other words, they lost $10 in print ads for every new dollar of digital ad money.
  2. Growing reliance on news aggregators and social media: Quality journalism remains expensive to produce but 67 percent of Americans get at least some of their news from social media, according to a Pew Research study. And growing numbers of us access news via Google News and Apple News, which provide free (or low-paying) access to news reported by a third-party. So even if online readership is up, some outlets are seeing revenue drop. Another problem: readers begin to rely on news aggregators instead of the news sources, making it harder for local newspapers to form strong relationships with their readers. 
  3. Readers of Print newspapers (instead of online news sites) are getting older. The population of readers who rely on the printed paper is getting older while younger generations are more comfortable accessing news online for free. Newspapers need to find a way to make themselves relevant enough so that younger readers will pay for access. While the New York Times and Washington Post have seen a surge in online advertising, those two papers are exceptions because of how they've been covering national political news.
  4. Smaller staffs means smaller papers and less ad space to sell. Do you see where this is going? Cutting back the size of the paper or the frequency of publishing a printed version of the paper means that publishers sell less advertising, so ad revenue continues to drop, which leads to more newsroom layoffs, and a worse product. This is a death cycle for local papers. 
  5. Declining credibility. Right now, the entire journalism sector faces a tough time as credibility of the news is being questioned. But newspapers with smaller staffs won't be able to adequately cover their markets. That means they will be publishing a product offering declining value. Under those conditions, circulation and ad rates generally fall.
  6. No strategy to sustainability. The long-term business model has shifted, and no one yet has found a replacement business model that will return local news to profitability. (The Daily News reportedly lost an average of $30M over the last three years, according to the New York Post, including due to circulation declines.) The one strategy that seems to be working for the Washington Post and the LA Times is to have billionaire owners who see the important of keeping newspapers running, and can afford to do so. But there are only so many billionaires who see the value of keeping local papers around. 
The real problem is that local newspapers serve as a check-and-balance of local government and we need local oversight of government.

Some cities are seeing the rise of nonprofit news sites (like MinnPost) and others. But some are very small operations; and you can't effectively cover a big city with just two reporters/bloggers. (In some cases, these bloggers are not much more than citizen journalists, without real journalism experience.) 

So what's the solution?

In an article entitled, "Who suffers when local news disappears," The Cumbia Journalism Review says, given declining resources, the quality of local papers will decline so much that:
At some point not terribly far in the future, even those of us who believe powerfully in the need for a vibrant local news landscape are going to be hard pressed to make a case that many of these outlets should be saved.
For much of this decade, no one has been able to develop a true workable solution. Readers' relationships with their local papers and with journalism in general has changed. And, as with the coal industry, there's no turning things back to how things used to be. 

Certainly newspapers -- as with all news operations -- need to figure a way to ensure they publish quality journalism, coverage that is credible and compelling, and available across different channels (print, online, text, video, social). But they also must find ways to charge for access. A number of top news sites provide access to a limited number of articles per month, so when readers hit the limit, they may be inclined to subscribe. Right now, readers seem to wait out until the next month.

Sustainable local newspapers is important for journalists and good government. But it's also important for marketers, who need credible vehicles through which to communicate their messages.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Bloomberg Businessweek Says To Reduce Loneliness And Anxiety, Throw A Party

Screen addiction is a real thing, and is something that leads to anxiety and loneliness, and is something we've been writing about for several years now.

We've talked about living in an age of anxiety, and that's not diminishing, unfortunately.

We've recommended that when appropriate, companies should consider emphasizing how they can help reduce stress. (Even B2B companies can consider talking about how they help reduce stress for decision makers.) 

We've also noted the rise of mindfulness and apps to help guide people -- last week, three different people urged us to download the same mindfulness app, and it seemed like a cult. (We tried it but had difficulty with it, and kept urging the narrator to speed things up, feeling like the 10-minute session was taking too long. Clearly we've got work to do.)

Meanwhile, Bloomberg Businessweek has a suggestion: "The World Depends on You Throwing a Party. More connected than ever, we are also lonelier than before. The case for being a host." Key quote from the article:
At the very least, let's agree: The more time we spend with our devices, the more time we need with actual human beings."
Interesting, the article notes, retailers and real estate developers are commissioning designs that turn places into gathering places. For retailers, that's an advantage over online retailers. For developers of commercial buildings, offering "lots of greenery, soft seating and even carefully chosen accents and music," are succeeding in "inviting tenants and guests to interact."

So Bloomberg Businessweek is validating our prediction. But in the interest in helping reduce our readers' stress, we're going to keep this blog short so that you can turn off your device, and start interacting with real humans.

Have fun!