Why publishers need to start with why – now more than ever

Simon Sinek: Start With Why Ted Talk

It’s likely you will already have heard of Simon Sinek. The author, speaker and self-proclaimed optimist has become something of a business social media stalwart with his inspirational quotes about leadership and eminently shareable video clips about how to be better at pretty much whatever it is you do.

But it is Sinek’s seminal 2009 book Start With Why and his subsequent Ted Talk on the topic which seem to have had the most profound effect on people. And it is the concepts about understanding the ‘why’ of your organisation rather than what you do or how you do it which seem to me to be crucial to creating and sustaining a successful media or publishing business.

If you’ve not read Start With Why – and I strongly advocate that you do –  the central message can be neatly summed up in this quote:

“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe”

Sinek uses Apple, the Wright brothers and Southwest Airlines as examples of those who have a strong understanding of their why which resonates with those around them and propels them to success.

But in many ways publishers are even more closely linked to this concept of ‘why’ than any of these examples – and yet many seem to have lost sight of this over the last decade or so. Fundamentally, a publisher exists to provide content to its readership, whether that be online, in print or via broadcast media. That is its ‘what’. ‘How’ it does that will include operational elements such as its Content Management System, its printing presses and the technology it uses – as well as the people it hires to do the jobs it needs them to do.

None of this is enough, though.

For as long as publishers have existed, it has been the ‘why’ which has created the connection between publisher and audience. “I read newspaper X because it aligns with my political views”. “I watch broadcaster Y because it has the best sports coverage and I love my sport”. “I subscribe to magazine Z because it helps me be better at the job I do”. All these statements and many more besides talk to the ‘why’ people choose to consume (and often pay for) the publishers with who they have that relationship. There is an alignment between why that publisher exists and who those people see themselves as.

And yet the rise of the internet has seemingly led many in the industry to lose sight of this. In the race for scale, content became a commodity and the ‘why’ was lost. You could read the same bit of content on multiple publishers and be hard pressed to tell the difference – even between those on opposite sides of the political spectrum. And, worse, the eyeball-centric digital advertising ecosystem nudged publishers to prioritise getting clicks over generating true engagement from the people who valued them most – and who the publisher should value most.

Things have changed in the last few years and this scale for the sake of scale approach has largely now been accepted for what it was – a meaningless pursuit for a bucket of advertising money that was never really there – but much damage has been done.

And this is why the so-called pivot to reader revenue has been vital. It has forced the industry to go back to that crucial question of why. Why will someone pay for access to my publication? Why will they decide to pay for our product over someone else’s?

But it shouldn’t just be publishers with paid subscription as their business model who should be asking that question. Even those who rely on advertising should still frame decisions based on what would convince their audience to ‘pay’ in some form or other – whether that is with money, data or time.

And now in an era of disinformation and fake news, publishers more than ever need to go redouble their efforts to building and maintaining that trusted relationship with their audiences. They should be constantly asking their audience what they want and checking in with them to understanding if they are delivering or not. User research, audience panels, surveys, prototype testing. These are all powerful ways to measure whether your publication’s ‘why’ is resonating strongly enough.

To misquote Simon Sinek. Readers don’t buy what publishers do, they buy why they do it.