USA Yesterday

August 30, 2010


Last Tuesday, David Brauer over at MinnPost got the scoop on a new hire we made as we continue to formalize and invest in our Content Marketing capability. On Friday, USA Today announced a dramatic restructuring they said would “usher in a new way of doing business that aligns sales efforts with the content we produce.”

In other words, USA Today and Fast Horse are now competitors, and I predict one of those brands won’t survive another decade as a result. Here’s why:

Once seen as an innovator, USA Today is in a death spiral as ad revenue has plummeted, and aggressive competitors are cutting into their circulation. Without a major strategic shift, USA Today would ultimately die a slow death as consumers continue to find new and largely digital ways to get the information they want, when and where they want it. Hence the announcement that USA Today plans to lay off about 130 people and shift resources away from its print newspaper and into digital content.  The strategy is sound. But it won’t work, in part because USA Today faces a huge branding problem. 

See, people still think of USA Today as newspaper you grab at a hotel or airport. It was what you read when you wanted to get a quick scan of current events while traveling, and for many years USA Today cornered that market with their ubiquity. In short, USA Today didn’t have an infomation quality advantage, they had an information occasion advantage. The newspaper didn’t necessarily offer a better news product, it just had the advantage of being available everywhere. Then those pesky little mobile devices like the iPhone and iPad came along, and suddenly the traveler had unlimited information options while on the go. Virtually overnight, USA Today began competing with anyone putting content online, and unfortunately for them, there is no shortage of media companies, marketers and even individuals who are offering better and more relevant stuff. You used to be able to count USA Today’s competitors on one hand. The New York Times. The Wall Street Journal. That was about it for national newspapers. Now their competitors number in the thousands. Many, many thousands. It gets worse.

As USA Today broadens from news into custom content, they will have to convince marketers that they understand their brands and audiences, and that the “McPaper,” as it was nicknamed, can create relevant, quality content that can help sell stuff. That won’t be easy because the competion for content marketing will  increasingly come from agencies. That’s where we come in. More and more brands are acting like their own media companies, and we’re placing some big bets they’ll continue to recognize that shops like ours are the ones with the expertise to help them navigate this new media landscape. Advertising, PR, interactive and marketing agencies have the ability to tell stories and aggregate consumers in some very sophisticated new ways, whether it’s through social media or search marketing, and we have the advantage of being able do so with a deep understanding of how great brands are built. We won’t just create content. We’ll create content that is well intergrated with the rest of the marketing mix.  And it will move the needle. It’s what we’ve always done.

If that’s not enough, USA Today will be competing on our turf with one arm tied behind their back. That’s because they will have to assure those who view them as an objective news organization that they can keep a bright line between their news and business operations. I think the content play will hurt USA Today’s credibility on the news side, further hastening the McPaper’s demise. And given the fierce competition they’ll see on the content marketing side, I also think it’s very unlikely their new venture will ultimately generate the kind of revenue they need to save the brand.

USA Today will be gone within a decade, killed off by the mobile devices they thought would save them. And as agencies continue to move aggressively into content marketing, I’m betting that we’ll also be partly to blame. Stay tuned.