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Michael Kempner

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CNN and the Race for Relevance

Posted: 03/14/2012 4:48 pm

This week, the New York Times reported that cable news giant CNN was in advanced talks to purchase Mashable.

The rumored $200 million price tag may come as a shock, but the idea that CNN would have an interest in purchasing a popular web site is not all that surprising. Some might argue it's been a long time coming.

For the last few years, CNN has been losing the relevance race against its major competitors. While MSNBC and Fox News both planted red and blue flags in their respective corners, CNN remained neutral, relying on its self-appointed position as the "most trusted name in news" to drive viewers.

That strategy did CNN well for two decades, but that was back in the day when trust was all you needed to survive. Today, trust is only part of the strategy. In order to attract viewership and keep eyeballs tuned in, cable news has to matter, to its customers, to advertisers, and to viewers, and much more than the competition.

For cable media, the race for relevance has been not just among the major cable networks but against the rising tide of online media. More Americans get their news from online sources -- and not from the giants like Yahoo! or AOL, but from more niche outlets like Politico or The Huffington Post. To be relevant, CNN recognizes the need to go where the viewers are, much like AOL realized just over a year ago before acquiring The Huffington Post.

Relevance isn't just critical for media brands -- it's critical for all brands. Without relevance, a brand gets lost in the noise of a 24-hour news and social media cycle. Without relevance, there is no catalyst for a consumer or viewer to act. You still need trust, but it's only one part of the equation: Trust + Relevance = Action.

That action can include making a purchase or recommending a product to a friend. In CNN's case, that action means tuning into the channel's content or sharing a video on social media. Relevance is the difference between tuning in to CNN or turning it off.

It remains to be seen if the Mashable acquisition -- if it happens -- will succeed in making CNN a more relevant brand. But these acquisitions tell us something else about relevance -- it doesn't always happen by luck or happy accident. Consider this statistic from the New Yorker: six out of ten YouTube videos that went viral last year were scripted. Not user-generated serendipitous discoveries of a great cat video, but scripted, programmed content, wired for relevance.

What this means is that, with the right data and sound strategy, brands can design their own programs with higher potential for relevance.

But to do this, brands need the right metrics that enable them to understand how conversations and content are shared among their network. Hundreds of millions of pieces of content pass through social media channels every week. Some of this content goes viral, some does absolutely nothing, but the most important content generates sustained dialogue that crosses channels via comments, tweets, links and new generations of related content.

If brands can identify the content and people that contribute most to these conversations, and reverse engineer that process, relevance can be created, built and maintained.

It's important to note that not all relevance is created equal. Relevance can increase when news hits that is particularly negative -- for example, the Komen for the Cure missteps in pulling funding from Planned Parenthood last month. While the organization's relevance surely increased, trust plummeted, destroying the brand equity it once had in spades.

That's because in this world, you need both trust and relevance. So whether you're a start-up looking to make waves or the most trusted name in news, unless you have the most relevant content for the audiences who matter most, you won't really matter at all.