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At Mega-Conference, making peace with a world that belongs to digital

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If the concept and word “frenemy” didn’t already exist, they would have had to be invented for the 2017 Key Executives Mega-Conference.  

For the message from speaker after speaker, and from many of the 90 exhibitors at the gathering in Orlando, was that it’s digital’s world—and newspapers just live in it. 

Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, managing editor, digital for The Washington Post, put the concept right in the title of his presentation: “Leveraging the Frenemy.” 

“All of us have great histories,” he told the 600 media executives at the Orlando World Center Marriott.  “That has not changed. What has changed is we are in the middle of a communication revolution.” 

A revolution that has succeeded in storming through the gates of legacy media’s treasury. If the Borrell Associate forecast presented at the Mega-Conference is correct, 2017 will be the first year ever in which local ad spend on digital will surpass that of traditional media, as digital increases 22.4% to $80.7 billion and traditional media declines 6.9% to $62.9 billion. 

Borrell Vice President of Research Corey Elliott unloaded one survey result after another showing that local businesses are shifting marketing dollars from legacy media—and even from advertising itself—to Facebook, other social media, search and their own websites. 

 In a survey of its SMB panel members, a little more than 50% said they planned to cut spending on broadcast TV, magazines and radio “a little” or “a lot.” But newspapers will suffer the deepest cut, with 39% planning to cut a little—and 40% a lot. 

But there was another theme that threaded through the 2017 Mega-Conference: There’s no need to abandon all hope. In fact, there are legitimate causes for optimism. 

After reviewing survey responses from local businesses from the 62% who are already spending on Facebook that express an extremely high—90%—belief that Facebook ads are effective, Borrell’s Elliott said that represented an opening for newspapers. 

“Businesses also say they are going to look for outside help” in digital marketing, he said. “Businesses are sick of reps that don’t know anything. As one business owner said, ‘If I have to do one more needs analysis I’m going to scream because y’all should know what our business is when you come in.’”

Between presentations and the vendors in the Exhibit Hall, the Mega-Conference was a one-stop shop for building digital services capabilities. 

In a session entitled “Driving Digital $$$ Success,” for example, Vice President of Sales and Marketing Lana Champion reviewed how Times-Union Media in Jacksonville, Fla., achieved “tremendous momentum in digital services in the last two years.” The keys: Acquiring talent through rigorous hiring processes; managing performance; creating a new and winning culture; and continuing education on digital. 

Newspapers can even win in this digital world by working directly with Facebook, Google and other frenemies, The Washington Post’s Garcia-Ruiz maintained. 

“You can say, if you go on Facebook, you’re going to lose all your money,” he said. And that might be true but what matters is your audience is on Facebook and Snapchat. You can hate Facebook all you want—but figure out how to use it.”

The Post, he added, has used Facebook Instant Articles—a fast-loading feature that allows collaborating publishers to post articles on mobile—to sell subscriptions with some pretty good success. 

“You’ll find the Googles and the Facebooks will work with you,” Garcia-Ruiz said. You have to take the approach with them that you don’t want to lose a penny, and in fact want to make some money.”

Frenemies like that have much to offer newspapers in terms of technology, especially for mobile publishing, Ruiz-Garcia and other Mega-Conference speakers said. 

Gannett, which is now a standalone print and digital media company, is concerned about the shift in dollars in the digital world, Chief Revenue Officer Kevin Gentzel said in response to an audience question during a presentation on its strategies, culture and initiatives.

“I get concerned about the data that’s coming out that shows that for every new dollar moving online—whether to an existing account or a new one—(Facebook and Google) are getting 100% of those new dollars,” Gentzel said. 

Yet Gannet is confident in this environment, too, he added:  “We deserve to be the third choice after Facebook and Google because of the trust and credibility that we have—and they do not. We can help brands, whether it’s a national advertiser like Walgreens or local businesses.”

For more coverage on the 2017 Mega-Conference, click here.

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