Have you talked with a customer recently?

To encourage OJR readers to apply for our 2010 News Entrepreneur Boot Camp, I’m writing again on some of the things you need to know, and skills you might need to develop, to become the successful publisher of a thriving news website.

Much of what you’ll learn at the camp, should you be one of those selected to attend, focuses on mind-set. The skills necessary to run a news website are remarkably similar to the skills needed to work as a reporter. But the mindsets of a successful entrepreneur and a newsroom reporter, unfortunately, are very often quite different.

To that end… have you talked with a customer lately? (Or a potential one?) By “customer,” I mean a person who writes – or might someday write – you a check to fund your site. (Your current boss does not count!) It could be an advertiser, a subscriber or a non-profit foundation. You can’t publish a website – or run any business – without customers, and if you’re even just thinking about doing that one day, you need to learn what your potential customers are doing… and what they want.

So for my post this week, I offer not some provocative opinion but an assignment – some entrepreneurial homework. Find some people, at least one, who you think might someday, possibly, provide some financial support for that website you might start (assuming you don’t have one already). Then start a conversation.

Ask how they are reaching their audience now. In what other publications are they advertising? Where else are they placing ads? Are they using direct mail? E-mail? Where did they get, or build, a subscription list?

How are they using social media? Do they have a Facebook page? A Twitter account? A blog? What kind of business are they seeing from those efforts?

How are they using this advertising and direct audience communication? To build brand awareness? Brand affinity? To let people know about special offers, or to distribute discounts? Are they using social media and other forms of direct audience communication for customer service? If so, how? And how is that working for them?

For foundations and other investors, ask what other efforts they now fund. Why those? Are their current grants having the effect that they wished? What are they looking for now in considering future grants?

Do any of these questions sound familiar to you? Might some of these be the same questions you’re asking about your own efforts?

Publishers and their customers, whether they be advertisers or non-profit funders, remain citizens of the same communities. Their common interests as members of those communities bind them in more ways than their particular roles separate them.

As a publisher, or a would-be publisher, you need to know the needs of your customers. So you might as well start learning them now. Most businesses that have employed news media in the past to communicate with an audience are just as confused now as news publishers. They used to have a reliable communications medium to reach their audience and now… many of them don’t.

Sure, some have figured this out. And some of those now prosper. Just as some journalists figured out this Internet thing years ago and have built nice little (or big) businesses for themselves. But many remain lost, looking for a new solution to reach the audience which will supply the customers that they need.

Just like you.

Remember what I said about the “skills necessary to run a news website [being] remarkably similar to the skills needed to work as a reporter”? Well, here’s one example: All this assignment requires is interviewing. Journalism 101. Easy, right?

And don’t get hung on up the ethics of talking with potential future advertisers, either. You’re not promising anyone anything – no preferential reporting, no free ads, heck, not even a discount. All you are looking for is information, and, one should hope, the beginning (or extension) of a community relationship.

I would even agree to share what you find with the folks with which you talk. As I wrote earlier, many of these advertisers remain as confused and eager for information as you might be. From personal experience, I’ve held on to advertisers that I know I would have lost because I shared with them information I’d learned from other campaigns on my site about what types of creatives appealed to my readers and what didn’t. Sharing information shows goodwill and concern for their success within your community. (FWIW, I never share specifics about competitors, but I do share trends.)

If you remain concerned with the propriety of this assignment, start by approaching people running businesses and foundations you respect and admire. Since you have a choice, why start with folks you don’t like? You’re more likely to gain valuable insight and build a productive relationship with people you respect, anyway.

So what’s the mindset change here? It’s not in how you get this information; it’s in what you will do with it. You won’t simply write up a story, publish it and let it go… with little or no concern for what happens next, save for how this might lead to another piece in the future.

As a publisher – as a news entrepreneur – you’ll use this information to find an unmet need in your community (a “pain,” we’ll be calling it at the boot camp), as well as a channel through which to meet that need. You’ll take this information and complete it, by using it to build a service of value to your community.

That’s a change in mindset that distinguishes reporters from publishers. Again, I’d like to invite all OJR readers to apply for this year’s camp. Let’s work together to build more great news publications, to serve more communities in need.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.