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Case Study: Diversify into Search? You Must Be Kidding!

There has been much written and spoken of late about the decline of traditional media—specifically, newspapers and magazines. There has also been an enormous amount of discussion and hand wringing about what these traditional media companies and properties should, or can, do to save their printed skin.

The first (and often the only) option many explore is simply doing or building something, anything, on the Web. Such a move, while rarely a comprehensive solution to the key issue at hand, is a brilliant means to lay bare the presence or absence of a sound business model. Even worse are companies that do understand the business they're in but don't know how, or are unwilling, to step away from it or build upon it.

Think local newspapers with their content placed online. These companies appear to view themselves as providers of content, their content, through their distribution network. The approach many have taken has simply been to expand their network to the web, oblivious to or unwilling to accept the fact that this model is no longer competitive.

One traditional media brand, however, has approached this conundrum in an innovative way. The Financial Times, owned by Pearson PLC, is a highly respected global brand known for thoughtful business content, analysis, and perspective. The reputation it enjoys and its strategic approach to its business are such that the newspaper and its Website, FT.com, have weathered the storm better than many traditional media properties.

That said, the business clearly recognizes the importance of building its digital media presence in strategically thoughtful ways. The Financial Times elected to execute that strategic progression with a tailored approach to search—one that builds upon the print and online presence within which the FT has excelled.

Specifically, the FT has developed a business-focused vertical search tool, Newssift, which serves as a branded platform for content from thousands of sources. It employs proprietary semantic search technology to conduct business-focused queries based on relationships and context, not traditional keywords. The result is a tool that encourages discovery and exploration and understands how critical companies, topics, locations, people, and business themes are interrelated.

With the introduction of Newssift, The Financial Times has positioned itself particularly well to both weather the turbulence in the traditional media world and expand its presence in a meaningful way. Which begs the question: Just how did it manage to get there?

Pearson needed a burst of innovation to push or pull it into new, more technologically driven and promising markets…so the company simply asked for it. An internal innovation fund was established, and the challenge to Pearson management was to develop business plans for novel, solid business ideas for the company to fund. A winner was selected and is now known as FT Search, the company which recently introduced Newssift.com into beta.

But why search? Why enter a market dominated by a handful of strong companies and littered with product failures? The process the FT engaged to reach this conclusion and position Newssift is relatively simple, though not often followed by traditional media companies, or even successful online businesses:

• Know or discover what you do well. What business are you really in and how good at it are you?

• Know what you and your brand mean to consumers and advertisers. Expensive examples of misreading or ignoring the answer to this question are legion.

• Seek out unoccupied territory in successful, growing, and profitable markets or segments, or in those with potential.

• Develop a meaningful, sustainable difference with a solid, targeted, and efficient business plan to support and grow the effort. This is often where new technology brands fail. While the underling technology is often unique, it loses meaning if it neglects to address a need or create a market, or if it has no strategic, revenue-generating business plan attached.

You need only travel down this list of criteria when examining both successes and failures to quickly see where preparation was insufficient.

Newssift relies on the FT brand name to leverage its awareness and reputation in the financial and business news arena, so as to accelerate trial and the credibility of the offering. The launch and successful development of this business offer Pearson PLC and the FT the benefits of diversification in a number of different and important ways.

First, Newssift offers not only expanded content, but a technology platform of benefit to consumers, advertisers, and The Financial Times. It expands the breadth of insightful content and analysis the FT is known for. This offering is of critical importance as it expands both the brand meaning and offering in a strategically sound way, a move that a number of traditional media companies have found elusive.

Second, the product offering is a new opportunity for the business community as it presents business and advertiser technologies that are truly unique—consumer-driven semantic search and contextually placed advertising. Both are bright spots in what many view as a dreary media environment.

Third, the semantic technology employed may be able to offer a platform for the entrance into other categories or applications, with the vast content holdings of Pearson PLC as a logical and likely starting point.

The uniqueness of the product and what seems to be a strategically sound approach promise a good chance at success. The Newssift introduction has also served to initiate new relationships with potential partners and advertisers as a result of the nature of the site.

But this has not been a chance occurrence. Rather, it is the result of the insight provided by broadly defining a user base to encompass far more than simply users of the site, as well as seeking to discover an unrealized opportunity consistent with the legacy and benefits of an established brand and business.

John P. Greenleaf is the chief marketing officer at Financial Times Search.