16:01 PM

Lessons From Cisco's 'the network' - The Corporation As A Media Company

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Earlier this week I popped into the Grand Hyatt on Union Square (above) for Cisco's celebration of the first anniversary of publishing "the network" an online publication that employs a large group of top editors and journalists.

Autumn Truong (below), Senior Social Media Strategist at Cisco, first told me about the imminent launch of the media venture back in September 2010. But it took an additional nine months before it was ready.

Many of my readers will know that I've been writing extensively about how every company is a media company--even if they make diapers or ball bearings, they are constantly publishing through a multitude of channels and today, those channels are publishing back to them. Every company needs to be able to talk and listen, and to master our two-way media technologies and publication platforms.

It was Cisco that was the inspiration for my "every company is a media company" credo. Back in 2005, I had just left the Financial Times, when Dan Scheinman invited me over to Cisco to see what they were doing. I was amazed.

But allow me to back up a bit. At the time, Mr Scheinman was head of corporate communications and head of M&A at Cisco. He was easily one of the most powerful people in Silicon Valley, spending several billion dollars a year to acquire companies.

He was effectively head of "propaganda" and acquisitions -- a killer combination and totally unique to Cisco. So I was extremely pleased and impressed that he wanted to meet me and let me know what Cisco was doing.

In 2005, Cisco was leagues ahead of any other company in terms of making use of the media publishing technologies available. It had several hundred RSS feeds, blogs, and it was hiring top journalists to produce high quality content about Cisco and its markets.

What blew me away was when Mr Scheinman shared with me the numbers, the traffic to its own sites. It was greater than the combined traffic to several of the top industry trade publications. Wow! I thought: what happens when Cisco starts to cut back on the tens of millions of dollars it spends in advertising with these publications?

Here was Cisco as publisher and publication! What other companies will start doing this, at this level?

I decided I wouldn't write about this insight until later, because I wanted to see if this was a real trend, I didn't want to make it into a trend by writing about it. My scientific and journalistic training put me into observer mode, instead of protagonist mode. Sure enough, it soon emerged as a real trend, (and not because I said it was, which is an important distinction).

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So, has Cisco's "the network" been successful? Maybe, depending on what metrics are being used and their interpretation.

"We pay very close attention to who shares our content because that is by far, still the best compliment anyone can pay. and it's the best metric," says Ms Truong (above).

I've often said readership is not about numbers but who is behind the numbers.

My traffic on SVW or my column on ZDNet is tiny in comparison with the seven figure traffic of some of the popular tech sites but I'm constantly amazed by who reads my articles. I'm constantly amazed and impressed by the senior execs and those in the trenches, that will seek me out at events and they want to talk about some of my articles that made a mark in their world. "We were all passing your article around the office the other day," or when senior execs of some of the largest companies in the world reach out. It's heady feedback, but it's what keeps me going. I wouldn't know that if I were just looking at my Google analytics.

However, not everyone understands this distinction. Most bosses want numbers, large traffic or sharing numbers, because that's how they think success in corporate publishing is best measured.

But Cisco is different, probably because it, and its key executives, started earlier than others. I've known John Earnhardt, Director of Corporate Communications, for many years, he is an early blogger. When I spoke with him at the anniversary event, he said that success of "the network" could be measured in single digits, very single.

"Even if just one person finds our content compelling and important, that's success for us," he said.

My reply was, "Really? One person?"

"Yes, because if that person is a key decision maker and controls a large budget, we've done our job," said Mr Earnhardt.

And he is right. If you can reach a key decision maker like that, you can probably do the same for their counterparts in other organizations, too. Buying millions of dollars in network equipment and other IT systems, will easily pay for the cost of producing a unit of media content.

Cisco has done a great job with the quality of the content in "the network" but it could be better distributed and better promoted.

I spoke with a person from a large PR firm hired by Cisco more than two months ago to figure out a way to raise the profile of the Cisco publication. Apparently, they are still figuring things out, which is surprising because I can think of several immediate things that could be done today, and a long term strategy, too.

Cisco, unlike media companies caught in the storm of disruption, can afford to take its time, at least to a degree. It's fortunate that it doesn't need to make money from its media content through advertising, or subscriptions--as a regular media company would need to do.

Media is a loss leader for Cisco (and for media companies too, but they have nothing else to sell). Cisco can gradually get better at becoming a media company.

The key aspect about "every company is a media company" is that once any company realizes that this is true, it's just the beginning. It now has to learn how to be a media company.

Cisco is hiring award winning journalists and broadcasters, it can afford to hire the expertise it needs. And it is learning by doing, by publishing its own media ventures.

I look forward to the continuing evolution of Cisco's "the network" and to the evolution of corporations as media companies. And I hope to continue to play a role in that process, through my articles, and by continuing to advise some of the world's largest corporations, such as Intel, SAP, and others. These are truly fascinating times.