What’s Next Issue 23 is Up (Finally!)

Better late than never. The latest issue of my free What’s Next trends report is now up at www.nowandnext.com (just click on the orange box on the top left on the home page).

If you’re the busy type here are just 3 of the 75 stories…

1. The Future of Journalism

It is widely assumed, especially online, that physical newspapers are facing imminent extinction. In Britain approximately 70 local newspapers have closed since the start of 2008 and newspapers are facing a continued decline in advertising revenues (especially job, car and home classifieds). There are the issues of declining circulations and ageing demographics too. This is worrying because newspapers are not just another consumer product. Newspapers, at their best, are part of a system that seeks to make individuals, and especially institutions, responsible for their actions. Autocracies function perfectly well without quality newspapers. Democracies do not. The death of local newspapers is problematic on another level too. Despite what you read online, many people don’t own PCs or iPhones (especially the poor, the old and the immobile) so local papers are an essential part of local community life.

So is it all doom and gloom? I think not. First, on a local level, low-tech media will enjoy resurgence until online access becomes truly universal. Hence, physical leaflets and local newsletters will both thrive as will noticeboards in coffee shops and newsagents. Second, there will be a shift towards payment for high-end, original analysis online. Rupert Murdoch recently revealed that he intended to charge readers for access to premium content online within the next 12 months. If this works, others will follow. This is a brave move, especially as most people think that digital content should be free. But this could change.

At the moment news aggregators essentially rip-off news creators but this could cease if publishers start to take legal action for copyright or ‘fair use’ infringement. In other words, newspaper publishers might start moving in a similar direction to music publishers, proving that aggregators (even individual bloggers) are systematically reproducing content without adding editorial value. The music analogy works on another level too. If the media is becoming fractured and fragmented, then trusted sources will become key. News brands could be extended into other areas with additional revenue streams.

What’s most likely, in my view, is that news and information will polarise, thereby satisfying both creators and the consumers. ‘News’ — that is the immediate reporting of events — will exist primarily online and access to this will be free. In contrast, serious analysis and commentary, for which I’d expect an increasing thirst, will hide behind micro-payments or, more likely, will continue to exist on paper as part of paid-for weekly, monthly or even quarterly digests and reviews. As for ageing demographics this could be a blessing in disguise.

The blogosphere was buzzing recently when Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, issued a report by a 15-year-old web-savvy intern called ‘How Teens Consumer Media’ — shock horror, teens ‘can’t be bothered’ to read newspapers. Call that news? Teens have generally never read newspapers. But teens grow up and develop a desire to make sense of the world. Furthermore, when teens get much older (65+) they have a lot of time and money on their hands. This is a perfect demographic for newspapers. In short, the crisis facing journalism is largely spiritual rather than financial and it is the issue of content, not the Internet, which is key.

At the moment a great deal of media content is PR driven. Moreover, there is widespread distrust of the mainstream media caused, in part, by recent events such as the distorted reporting surrounding the Iraqi invasion. Solve these problems and, hey presto, there will be a future for journalism.

2. Delayed gratification in retail

You might think it quite normal that somebody puts off cleaning their room. But would they put off having a free massage? It seems they do, if the deadline for taking it is too far ahead. According to behavioural economists, people think they are more likely to enjoy a free gift if they have plenty of time to take advantage of it, but in fact, they are less likely to do it at all. People actually exercise too much self-control or “self-command”.

The disciplined self wants to put off pleasures, while the hedonistic self wants to have them now. So when someone receives a gift card for a massage that can be taken any time this year, the disciplined self takes over and commits to having the pleasure later. But tomorrow never comes, at least, according to a couple of experiments with undergraduates where ten of 32 people redeemed their three-week cake coupons but only two of 32 used their two-month pass. Similar behaviour is seen among residents in a tourist area, who are far less likely to go and see tourist attractions than visitors who have limited time. The reason is because people focus on future gains and don’t see future costs but, because they already see current costs, they put things off now.

Researchers use the word “hyperopia”, which describes the way people use excessive far-sightedness and keep on delaying pleasures while overweighing necessity and virtue in the present. In other words, they think the future will be great, so they don’t enjoy themselves today. However, they may regret hoarding their time or money later.

The message for retailers is to use promotions where there is a clear justification and the time to use them is limited. This ensures that people have a good reason to overcome their hyperopia and their inertia. Examples are a free pass on your birthday, charity benefits, and quickly expiring gift cards for accessories when someone has just bought some clothing. The advantage of gift cards is that people tend to buy something they wouldn’t normally buy and often add their own money to them. So it just goes to show, we’re not as greedy as we think.

3. Under-performing teams

Over the past 30-40 years the idea of using teams has become so ingrained in our culture as to be almost invisible. Nobody in their right mind, it seems, would dare to challenge the thought that working as an individual could ever as productive or efficient as working as part of a team. But is this really the case? According to J. Richard Hackman, a Professor of organisational psychology at Harvard University, the answer is that it depends.

The first reason that teams can under perform is that they are typically too large and suffer from what Hackman calls “ambiguous boundaries”. For example, in one study less than 10% of team members were able to agree upon who was actually on their team. Excessive size causes problems with co-ordination and also with motivation. Why do some teams get so big? One reason is that the desire to be inclusive often means that people are put on teams purely to avoid confrontation. The ideal size for a team, according to Hackman, is “in single figures” but teams of 20-30 plus are commonplace. As for networks and online teamwork the same rules generally apply. Virtual teams can be difficult to co-ordinate and suffer from what Jo Freeman calls “the tyranny of structurelessness”. A lack of physical contact, especially at the all important first meeting, can also cause major problems.

A second reason why teams often under-perform is that they are changed too frequently. Great teams can be decades in the making. But how do you stop long-lasting teams from becoming flaccid or complacent? One answer might be to very slowly rotate individual members, but a much better way is to introduce deviant thinkers from time to time. This notion is similar to the idea of having a “thinker in residence”, someone who is willing to say or do things that other people are not. A third and final issue is resources. There is a widespread belief that large teams will have access to greater resources, but the reverse is often the case. Large teams soak up time as well as money and it is precisely the lack of such resources that can create the sense of urgency and focus that are so critical to success.

More at www.nowandnext.com

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