Search Is the New Circulation

November 21, 2008 

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Recently, I had the chance to speak to two classes of junior and senior public relations majors at Boston-area colleges about changes in the media landscape. I find these sessions to be as enlightening to me as they are to the students because I learn a lot about their preferences and motivations.

With the accelerating collapse of the newspaper industry fresh in my mind, I was particularly interested to understand their news reading habits. “How many of you have read a daily newspaper either in print or online within the past day?” I asked. Nearly every one of the 45 hands in the two classes went up. “How many of you subscribe to a daily newspaper?” I followed up. Only one student raised her hand.

Welcome to Generation Y, the group of people born in the last 30 years who define the future of business and media. Every one of the students in these classes has grown up in a world where information is free and instantly available. The concept of paying for news is as foreign to them as the horse and buggy.

These students will enter the workforce over the next five years and they will shake our assumptions to the core. While they have some brand loyalty, their real affiliation is to information.

What do I mean by that? Well, if you’re like most communications professionals, you probably subscribe to several Google Alerts. This service e-mails you whenever the terms you specify – such as your name, your company name or a topic that interests you – turns up in Google’s search index. Google Alerts have no concept of brand. An article on an obscure website is as likely to top the list as one in The New York Times. When you use Google Alerts, your loyalty is to the topic, not the source.

If you are a TiVo user, you know that you can subscribe to programs based on actors or even subject matter. You don’t care which network carries the program; your loyalty is to the content.

These are just two examples of the ways in which attitudes toward media brands are changing. While trusted sources will always have a special value, we are constantly discovering new sources of trusted information and modifying our assumptions about the value of trust. For some information, we still want to consult the big media brands in order to get the real story, but for less important information we might be satisfied with any source as long as we get the basic facts.

The great equalizer in this equation is search. Computers have no brand loyalty and search engines are tuned to deliver the results that best match our queries, even if the source is unknown to us. Search is, in effect, the new circulation. In the pre-Internet days, we gave publishers permission to get a slice of our attention for a one-year period. This had great value to the publishers because they could be reasonably certain of a known audience for their products.

In the new world, there is no certainty beyond relevance to the terms that an unknown audience may or may not find interesting. This is pretty scary if you’re a publisher.

It’s scary for marketers, too. But it’s also liberating. Next week I’ll discuss some of the implications of the death of media brand loyalty on our assumptions about marketing and public relations.