Listen to your “guests”

By · Friday, July 9th, 2010

Recently, I attended an interesting conference in New York called MOB — Monetizing Online Business. The conference was organized by colleagues at the Newhouse School.

An interesting talk was given by Thomas Kruczek, executive director of the Falcone Center for Entrepreneurship at the Whitman School of Management, Syracuse University.

On Day Two, Kruczek said he was surprised at how seldom the concept of serving the customer had come up during the initial day. After all, the discussion was all about making money online, and money comes from customers. Those customers include readers and advertisers, but Kruczek was referring in particular to readers.

From the audience, I commented that the traditional media (well-represented in the crowd) really has trouble with that idea. And no one challenged me. Indeed, there was a murmur of agreement.

When I became editor of The Public Opinion in Chambersburg, Pa., in the early ’90s, following my time at USA TODAY, the idea of community journalism was catching on in newsrooms. Some veterans like myself didn’t quite feel that listening to readers and including them — giving them what they wanted — was a new idea. I guess it wasn’t. What was new was that we really were supposed to listen at last, and to genuinely include our readers. To be honest, most of us had gone through the motions before. But with profit margins beginning to fall out of the 30 percent range, and eventually right through the 20 percent range, we were supposed to aggressively take this on.

But I’m not sure anything changed then, or has changed now.

We remain really bad at this, and we really don’t like it all that much. It’s not even top of mind, as our speaker suggested. I’ve heard it all, and still hear it today (which must tell you something, like we don’t get it):

A lot of us like to point to letters to the editor in newspaper print editions, and to online comments at websites, as evidence to support this bullet list. True, as a group these posters and writers don’t always show off our most thoughtful customers.

But we know there are thoughtful customers out there, and we have to listen to them. It’s a tenet of any business, Kruczek rightly said.

“How do we get over our problem with this?” I asked.

Perhaps it’s in the language, he said. “Think of them as guests, not customers.”

I thought that was an interesting way to help adjust our mindset, and think about real, genuine methods to include our readers. Social media provides good tools, but if we genuinely don’t care, what difference do they really make?

So think about it.

How do you treat your guests? Better than your customers, perhaps?

For more, Kruczek’s talk is online, running from around 4:45 to 56:30.

Steve Davis

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