Having That One Go-to Thing AND Promoting It Can Mean Success

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Washington, D.C., had a professional tennis tournament here last week. I went one night, and the crowd was slight. I believe other days were similar. Yes it was hot, but I believe the reason for the small crowds is that no one big incentive was communicated for people to attend. Federer and Djokovic weren't there. No major title was on the line. They weren't giving anything away. There was little gamification.

It needed that one go-to thing.

Conversely, there's a community newspaper in Washington called The Northwest Current that does the most comprehensive events listing that I know of in the city. And you can't get it online. So I always pick it up when I see one. Then once I have it, I read the articles, look at the ads, etc.

This morning I spoke about this with Guy Cecala, CEO and publisher of Inside Mortgage Finance. I know that IMF does a very good job accumulating and putting in order data for the mortgage industry—so good that The New York Times and Wall Street Journal list them as a reference for some type of chart or information on a weekly basis. And I know Cecala loves tennis.

"[That tournament] had a lot going for it—not much else in the area competing with it, some of the top players in the world including some popular Americans, upgraded food choices," he said. "But you've got to be willing to market your product and have a website to support it, whatever your product is—even if it's not as strong as it should be.

"We've learned that for publishers it's great to have the data, but we have to let people know we have it. And we do that on multiple fronts." One of those fronts is the media. Cecala and his staff are available 24/7 for media inquiries. In fact, after talking with me he took a call that came in through the website from a reporter with the Miami Herald.

"Any reporter can call us up and will be funneled to me," Cecala said, "or if I'm not available someone in editorial. I'll drop what I'm doing to send them a ranking or talk to them about something specific. The Wall Street Journal will not just reproduce our top 50 mortgage lenders. They're going to focus on a specific lender or a top five. But people see that and come to our website to see what we do."

Aside from the media push, Cecala says that they market regularly to all their customers and contacts. He gave an example of an inventory of special reports—all less than a year old—that they had on hand this summer. The company made a decision to start marketing those reports using targeted emails, and they sold really well.

A go-to thing for publishers these days can take many forms—data, webinar, seminar, special report, a game or weekly top ten, or a podcast or video series. But to fulfill that role, it needs to be promoted. "You can have the best product on earth but unless you support it through marketing and your website, it's not going to get you anywhere," Cecala said.

For Whit Shaw, president and CEO of American City Business Journals, it's all about the written word. "Our culture and everything starts with content," he told me earlier this year. "The challenge is having so many properties in so many markets spread out across the country. It constantly requires communication between editors, publishers, and ad directors to keep everything on track."

But like the above-mentioned and much, much smaller Northwest Current, what they do still have is print. And by placing publications in local businesses and offices throughout the cities, readers see the quality of the writing. Advertisers follow and now events. "It's an area we expect to continue to grow quickly, as we commit more and more resources to it—both people and technology," said Shaw.

The one word that both Shaw and Cecala use is "culture." It's the culture you create that allows the one go-to thing to emerge. "It's not as easy as it sounds," Cecala said, referring to his company's relationship with the media. It may not have been easy for last week's tennis tournament to better market itself—"it was screaming for an app," Cecala said—but it could have brought a lot more revenue in.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…