By Mark Faust, CEO, Echelon Management
With the launch of Al Jazeera America on a U.S. cable network, there is a lot of controversy and discussion about the appropriateness of this news outlet and if they can even succeed. I’ll leave the former part of the discussion to the pundits, but in regards to if and how this news agency could succeed, I do have a few ideas that would apply to any c-level leader of any business.
Al Jazeera America is a business, and if it wants to succeed then it needs to think about what any business would think about.
What is its strategy?
What makes it unique and what is the unique value it can deliver to customers? Who are its customers? What can it offer that no other similar competitor offers?
One cannot forget, that media is in the business of delivering audiences to advertisers. The more audience, the more consistent the audience and the higher quality value that audience has to the advertiser, the more value the media’s product has for its customer, the advertiser.
The questions are the same for any station or news channel, especially the question; how can we garner a significant and consistent audience that is of value to our advertisers? This isn’t hard for a news agency to do strategically if they remember the strategy and remember what will make them unique? To find out what will capture more audience, a media business would benefit from listening to potential viewers and scan the market offerings as to what are the unmet needs and wants viewers have around news.
Some news outlets have benefited from focusing on a political bent in their programming while trying to remain objective in their news reporting. This has worked well for the right leaning Fox and less so for the left leaning MSNBC, despite the latter having conservative commentators and hosts. Some would say that MSNBC is trying to be all things to all people (thus they have no strategy), others would say that there aren’t enough non-conservative viewers to go around for all the non-conservative news media competitors. All this occurs while for over a decade Fox laps up the largest ratings on cable with no competition as their strategy has positioned them to be a unique offering to a large and highly profitable audience.
Another mistake that many stations have made throughout electronic media’s history, is thinking that they are in the production business. Too many think they need to have an eye for creating great shows, whether in news or entertainment. Rather, when a station owner realizes that production is not their business, but instead that they are buying from great producers of content and selling the audiences these gifted producers can attract, they will beat their competition. It is this type of focus we see in successful stations whether focused around news or general programming.
Al Jazeera America has two distinct challenges, first how will they overcome the impression that they are a propaganda tool for Middle East interests or perhaps worse; secondly, they must come up with unique enough programming that will capture large enough audiences of a high enough quality of viewers that advertisers will want to use Al Jazeera America as a marketing tool.
It may seem that until Al Jazeera America overcomes the first challenge they are sunk, but one approach could be in buying well-produced news and reporting programs that would actually make an impression of being pro-American, and of course unique to the other media outlets. If they could make it an asset to be an advertiser on Al Jazeera America as opposed to a potential liability then they may actually be able to have more mass appeal and this strategy could work if the content is unique enough to grab and hold enough of a high quality audience.
There is the high likelihood that the above strategy may be hard to defend though. This is because after any significant success, it is highly likely that Al Jazeera America will come under strong attack by its competition. It is likely that success will be met with efforts to discredit. Similar to what happens to Fox on competitive channels, Al Jazeera America will become the butt of jokes and exposés. So instead of going after the masses, Al Jazeera America may benefit from going after target groups of advertisers who would never flinch as well as viewers who are looking for a distinct offering. If Al Jazeera America can meet viewers needs and wants that are unique and perhaps even impossible for others to duplicate, then at least a certain size audience and targeted group of advertisers may be highly defensible as well as highly profitable. ´
All of the above thought and logic applies to any media outlet. The problem is that too often they forget or don’t know what business they are in. They are in the business of buying and selling audiences. When they maintain that focus and innovate defensible positions of uniqueness, they can have a strong and profitable business and they can have margins that far outstrip much larger competitors.
Owning a news station or any media outlet is a business, business is about strategy, and whoever is strategic and innovative can be successful in the news business. This means many news outlets could be successful, but as for right now, very few news outlets are run strategically and thus, many news outlets are poorly run businesses, but perhaps some of these owners just don’t care.