We can be sure Jeff Bezos will try many things with the Washington Post. One could be drawing inspiration from Amazon’s fabulously successful Prime service. (First article in a series) 

Changes at The Washington Post’s will be the most watched media story of the coming months and, perhaps, years. Why? First of all, with the iconic Watergate saga, The Post epitomized a historic high in print journalism. The episode combined the fierce independence of a great media company, the courage of two people — namely Katherine Graham, the paper’s proprietor, and editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee — who together bet on the tenacity and energy of two young reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. For my generation, these times are part of the mystique of great journalism.

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The grand old days (credit: Washington Post, Watergate Files)

Second, The Washington Post was sold (for cheap, only $250M) because it faced a certain death. Its weekday circulation fell by 60% since 2003 (still 472,000 copies today), and the advertising-loaded Sunday issue lost more than half of its audience (more details in Alan Mutter’s coverage). As for digital advertising, The Post has been unable to compensate for the in print advertising hemorrhage, gaining only $1 in digital while at the same time the print ads were losing $16 — similar to everyone else in the business.

Like most of its peers, The Post was far too slow in its shift to digital journalism, leaving an open field to new, more agile ventures such as Politico, a pure digital player that even managed to snare talent form the historic newsroom. Eventually, management got around to adjust all dials in the best possible manner (see a previous Monday Note on the subject) — alas without inverting the trend.

But the main reasons to watch Bezos’ next moves remain his appetite and proven ability to reinvent aging business models. He did so with the retail business, energized by two of the celebrated obsessions that became religion in his company: maximum efficiency applied down to the minutest of details, and an unprecedented care for the customer.

Can these two ingredients apply to the  news business?

As for customer care, in general, the press has a long way to go. As both a heavy consumer (my many digital subscriptions) and a long time media professional, I can offer many sorry testimonials to the media industry’s backward customer service. From order fulfillment (weeks in some cases) to client-support, media lies at the polar opposite of the digital industry, especially Amazon. From day one, I’ve been a paid subscriber to the Wall Street Journal and an Amazon customer. After gross overcharges for my subscriptions to the Journal, its customer service repeatedly failed to even to grant me an explanation. I finally gave up: As soon as my subscription is over, I’ll walk. Fortune Magazine has been landing in my physical mailbox for many years; sadly, it is apparently unable to provide the codes required to enjoy my subscription on Apple’s Newsstand. Again, I gave up. Another example outside the news sector: Canal+, one of the largest paid-for TV network in the world (I’m not a customer): according to several customers and two consultants I spoke with, the network’s main strategy to retain subscribers is the use every possible trick to prevent them for terminating their subscription. “Even death might not be enough to exit the service”, joked a media professional…

If Amazon had behaved like that, it would have never become the retail behemoth it is today. It started in 1995 with no credibility — actually, it even had a negative image stemming from the suspicion surrounding online shopping at the time. Like others, Amazon had to build its reputation one customer at a time. I was an early adopter and, today, my reliance on Amazon keeps growing steadily (there were a few glitches along the way, quickly fixed.)

Why mention customer service? Evidently not by reason of the need to take good care of a digital or print subscriber — that should be the bare minimum. But because a media outlet such as the Post will eventually sell many other products and services beyond news; therefore, instilling a strong customer service mentality will be a prerequisite to expanding its business into other areas. Also, the move to digital raises the customer care standards bar. More for the Post than for any other media company, customers will use Amazon services as the benchmark of quality.

My bet is Jeff Bezos will use lessons from Amazon’s Prime service. For Monday Note readers outside the United States, Amazon Prime is a special service from which, for an annual fee of $79 (€60), you get free two-days shipping, free video streaming and the right to borrow Kindle titles in a catalog of 350,000 (I can hear writers and bookstore owners faint…) The least we can say is that it worked: more than 10m people joined the Prime program (including a couple of friends of mine who quickly dumped their cable subscription — call it collateral damage…) And that’s just the beginning: Amazon expects to reach 25m Prime customers by 2017. Even more interesting: when you cough up eighty bucks a year to use the service, you also tend to buy more, that’s the juiciest psychological facet of the Prime program. See how it works for the famous tech writer Farhad Manjoo (who wrote an interesting piece in Slate If Anyone Can Save theWashington Post, It’s Jeff Bezos

 I was recently looking back at my Amazon order history. Before 2006, the year I first signed up for Prime, I placed less than 10 orders per year at the site. Prime completely changed my shopping habits. In my first year with the service, I placed 46 orders. This year my household is on track to quadruple that.

These macro level numbers confirm the success: the Amazon Prime customer spends much more than a regular one: $1224 (€930) vs. $524 (€400) per year. Furthermore, Prime accounts for one third of Amazon’profits (see a detailed story by FastCompany on the matter). In short, an immense product line, served by a near-perfect execution (an Amazon order is shipped about 2.5 hours after you clicked the “Place your  order” button), augmented by a psychological incentive smelling of free, fast and convenient all conspire to generate both high ARPU and loyalty — two outcomes newspapers economics are starving for. How can such reasoning apply to our industry? Can the antique “bundling” systems benefit from it and, as an example, open the way to new super-subscriptions? What tools can Jeff Bezos leverage to pull this off?

We’ll explore answers in further columns.

frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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