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Why Working Out Who the Paperboys Are in Digital Media Is the Most Important Thing a Business Can Do

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Back in the old days it was simple: reporters wrote stories, sub-editors edited them, printers got them on paper, distribution got the news onto the streets and people bought the paper.

Choosing 'your' newspaper was easy. It went something like this (as described in Yes, Prime Minister)

Jim Hacker: Don't tell me about the Press. I know *exactly* who reads the papers. The Daily Mirror is read by the people who think they run the country. The Guardian is read by people who think they *ought* to run the country. The Times is read by the people who actually *do* run the country. The Daily Mail is read by the wives of the people who run the country. The Financial Times is read by people who *own* the country. The Morning Star is read by people who think the country ought to be run by *another* country. The Daily Telegraph is read by the people who think it is.

Sir Humphrey: Prime Minister, what about the people who read the Sun?

Bernard Woolley: Sun readers don't care *who* runs the country - as long as she's got big tits.

See, simple. Yet the transition to digital, which for some reason still frazzles the mind of hugely paid executives, has blasted newspaper publishing to pieces.

Competition from newer, leaner, more nimble, more relevant and frankly cooler brands is vicious. Choice for readers is vast and only the strong will survive.

When I was on the news desk of a very popular daily newspaper, I would spend my entire working day stressing about which stories should go on what pages.

I used little more than my instinct (and some well crafted market research) to 'copy taste' and select the stories I believed readers wanted to read. I'd often wonder how many of those were actually fully read.

In digital journalism, you don't need to wonder - it's all there in brutal black and white. Any digital editor worth their salt can tell you every single detail about a particular piece. Instinct goes out of the window - cold hard facts tell you if you are right or wrong.

In digital, much more so than in print, writing content you know your readers will actually read is vital - there's no hiding.

But there's one huge missing aspect of being digital which goes beyond the basics of audience, content and digital-first publication - and I believe it is the real reason why old print organisations struggle to win: distribution.

Let's take my analogy from earlier - the old days.

In the old days, distribution was an expensive, time consuming, career building art form. After being printed, newspapers were bundled up so trucks, vans, motorbikes, push bikes, paperboys, station vendors, supermarkets and corner shops could play their crucial part in the distribution of an editorial product.

Distribution managers would work tirelessly across the country to check up on missed drop times, poor print quality, and analyse where there were pickup shortfalls or returns.

Readers would (largely because it was their only option) walk to buy a paper, settle a weekly bill with the local shop for delivery, rip out pages of the paper and share them with friends or keep for reference.

Back in the old days it was simple.

Fast forward to 2013 and look at the distribution network for an online operation? Who are the paperboys? Who are the distribution managers? And when will companies with digital ambitions, who value their content, realise that they must invest more in how they distribute content?

A few years ago (and I'm only talking from about 2006) distribution meant SEO.

Those three dreaded letters still make some journalists shudder, even now.

When explaining SEO to my previous managing director, I often had to speak to him (an excellent operator from the print era) in terms he understood.

"Would you print one million copies of our paper and dump them in reception in the hope people would turn up and take a copy?"

"Of course not."

"Exactly, that's SEO", I would say.

What I was trying to explain to him was that having a website which promoted a product simply though a sexy looking homepage was, to be brutally frank, a bit of a waste of time.

Homepages are not the answer. They are essentially an ego boost for editors and a point of reference for advertisers. Article pages, however, are gold.

They are the things that are shared and commented on, they are the legacy a business leaves on the internet, so distributing them effectively is key. Every article page must act like a homepage.

If we didn't feature on search engines like Google, Bing or Yahoo! we were, er, buggered. When we got a story linked highly on Bing we'd jokingly call it a 'Bing bang.' Hits would automatically follow.

While it seems odd saying it now, if I'd known then what the scene would be like eight years later I'd probably have revised my view slightly.

SEO, while massively important for delivering high traffic, is a false economy.

Back to the mid Noughties, SEO effectively took the place of a punter walking past a news stand, seeing a headline which tickled his/her fancy and making an impulsive purchase because they want to see the news.

However, they may not buy a paper for another month. You can't build a business on impulsive buys, because it means you can't build a valued, loyal and lasting readership.

In terms of distribution, SEO is a basic essential for getting eyes on your product and delivering traffic - but that's all. By doing SEO well you've crossed off one distribution option, nothing more.

The myriad of questions about the long tail quality of the audience should be enough to make any editor realise that search is not the solution to digital distribution.

The key to digital distribution is restabilising the network of paperboys, corner shops and distribution managers in a digital world.

Just as in the 'old days', this is where the business is done. It's where loyal, paying, valued readers interact with your brand - and more importantly, go on to share the information with their network of friends.

In 2013, social media couldn't be more important because it acts as that missing link. In that sense we are all paperboys and corner shops. As editors and readers we all shove articles through letterboxes via Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Rebel Mouse, LinkedIn and other connected social networks.

Posting strategies surrounding these networks could be the subject of a series of lectures, so I'm not going to delve into them here. Suffice to say, posting strategy is not enough.

For any brand looking to win in digital media and to have their content shared, it must master its distribution management and work out who its own paperboys are - success will undoubtedly follow.

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