International workshop on
Media interactivity: economic and managerial issues
Neuchatel, Switzerland, 30-31 October, 2009
Interactive media and new customer roles among magazine and
Miia Kosonen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Hanna-Kaisa Ellonen (email@example.com)
Lappeenranta University of Technology
School of Business
P.O.Box 20, 53851 Lappeenranta, Finland
Immediate and on-going communication is a new quality in the relationship between
publishers and their audiences (Chung, 2007, 2008). Interactivity is a constitutive feature
of the Internet. It is particularly human (i.e. interpersonal) interactivity that new media
enriches by providing applications such weblogs, discussion forums and commenting
spaces. However, it also challenges traditional media as it provides users more options and
allows them to participate in producing content.
Despite the growing enthusiasm about the potential of interactivity to revolutionize
publishing, there is a lack of studies concerning how and why news publishers apply
interactive features (Chung, 2007). It is particularly the content of online publications that
has been in the focus of empirical research, but the background factors that lead or do not
lead to certain instances of interactivity have not gained much attention. Thus we believe
the current study will advance understanding within this field.
In previous research, two distinctive streams regarding interactions within online media
can be identified. The first examines and classifies the provided interactive features or
modes, and motivations for their use (e.g. Chung, 2008, Kenney et al., 2000, Strube et al.,
2009). The second focuses on how journalists perceive the role of online media or, even
more generally, how the Internet affects journalism (e.g. Singer, 2003; Ruggiero, 2004;
Chung, 2007, O’Sullivan and Heinonen, 2008; Thurman, 2008; Fortunati et al., 2009). For
instance, Chung (2007) identified three categories regarding online news producers’
perceptions on interactive features of the Internet: innovators, cautious traditionalists, and
purists. What is lacking from the above work are investigations and categorizations of the
new roles of customers in this context.
The new roles of customers are inevitably linked to the roles of media professionals. If
customers are to partake e.g. in producing content, how does that affect the traditional roles
of journalists, for example? We suppose that given the complexity and novelty of the issue,
a variety of possibly conflicting views will exist in media organizations. Indeed,
Achtenhagen & Raviola (2007, 2009) have already noted the Internet has brought new
tensions to newspaper companies. In terms of establishing interactive media services and
benefiting from them business-wise, we believe it is first essential to unravel the different
underlying tensions and concerns regarding customer interaction. Hence, our study focuses
on the challenges related to the adaptation of interactive services among print publishing
companies, both within newspapers and magazines. We ask how publishing companies
perceive the new roles of customers, and which kind of tensions does customer
interaction through Internet-based channels provoke.
We conducted an empirical qualitative study among Finnish newspaper and magazine
publishers, being leading-edge companies in Finland in terms of establishing innovative
solutions to their websites and thus allowing us to investigate how interactive media and
new roles of customers are perceived within publishing companies. Two newspapers and
three magazines were incorporated in the study.
This paper is organized as follows. We first discuss the theoretical background on
interactive media and customer roles. Thereafter, we introduce our empirical setting,
methods and data. Then the results of the empirical study are presented. Finally, we will
discuss our findings, followed by concluding remarks and potential future research
2 THEORETICAL BACKGROUND
Interactivity is seen as a defining feature and key advantage characterizing new media
(Morris and Ogan, 1996). In previous studies regarding the interactive features of online
news services (Chung, 2007, 2008), interactivity has been approached from two
perspectives: human, i.e. user-to-user, and medium, i.e. user-to-medium (Massey and Levy,
1999, Stromer-Galley, 2000). Human interactivity in particular remains a key issue when
studying the implications of new media, characterized by emergent online groups,
communities and networks where social relationships are mediated by communication
technology (e.g. Wellman and Gulia, 1999).
Human interactivity here refers to communication between two or more users relying on
online communication channels on both sides, for instance, when sending and receiving
e-mail, exchanging opinions in discussion boards, or commenting weblog entries. Hence, it
is interpersonal in nature. Medium interactivity, in turn, is interactive communication
between users and technology. It is based on what the technology allows users to do, for
instance, to navigate on newspapers’ website using hyperlinks. (Chung, 2007)
Through interactivity, the online environment allows customers to participate in a number
of activities, such as generating ideas, designing and testing products (Füller et al., 2006),
giving feedback (Williams & Cothrel, 2000), and helping and supporting other customers
within communities (Nambisan, 2002). Prior research on customer roles on the Internet has
mainly focused on customer participation in new-product development (e.g. Thompke and
von Hippel, 2002; Dahan and Hauser, 2002; Jeppesen and Molin, 2004; Fuller et al., 2006;
Sawhney et al., 2005). Nambisan (2002) introduced a typology of four customer roles in
• Buyers of the product.
• Users, contributing into product testing, and providing product support to peer
• Resources, providing information to companies and supporting innovation
• Co-creators, contributing into the design and development of new products.
While this classification is able to differentiate between the different levels of involvement
(buyer being the most passive, and the co-producer the most active role of participation)
regarding customer roles, it may not be ideal for the exploration of customer roles in the
media context. First of all, very often the online offerings of media companies do not
require subscription or any form of purchase. Therefore, not all customers are buyers of the
product in the traditional sense. Second, the typology focuses on new-product
development, where Nambisan (2002) admits the customers have eventually played a
rather limited role. We argue that current research fails to acknowledge the potential of
customers to support the development of continuous creation products, such as newspapers
and magazines and their websites (e.g., Picard, 2005).
In the media context, Ellonen & Kosonen (2010) noted how customer participated in a
variety of tasks in publishing companies’ websites ranging from providing ideas for new
articles to exchanging information about their values and needs and enticing new
customers. In virtual customer communities, customers may simultaneously act in a variety
of roles; buyers, users, resources, and co-creators (Kosonen & Ellonen, 2007).
As mentioned earlier, the new customer roles are likely to have an impact on the roles of
media professionals, and are likely to provoke tensions between opposing views in media
organizations. Tensions are defined as “two phenomena in a dynamic relationship that
involve both competition and complementarity” (English, 2001, 59). Therefore, tensions
are closely related to paradoxes (e.g. Lewis, 2000; Poole & van den Ven, 1989) by
representing seemingly opposite but simultaneously occurring demands (Achtenhagen &
Raviola, 2007). In practice, they are the perspectives, feelings and practices that “signify
the two sides of the same coin” (Lewis, 2000, 761).
A classic example would be Leonard-Barton’s (1992) paradox between focusing on core
competences at the risk of their turning into core rigidities. Slotergraaf & Dickson’s (2004)
study gives and empirical illustration how one type of capability can simultaneously be
considered as a core competence supporting company performance and as a core rigidity
and lessening performance. Other typical organizational tensions are e.g.
autonomy/dependency and global/local.
When tensions arise in the organization, they are like to go through reinforcing cycles
(Lewis, 2000). That is, when people try to resolve the tensions, they get trapped in
exacerbating the tension. Thus, while tensions might trigger the change, they might also
inhibit change. Therefore, managing tensions requires capturing the potential of the tension
to enable dramatic change.
In the media organizations, marketing and journalism have represented two opposing core
values and cultures in newspaper organizations (Gade, 2004). Achtenhagen & Raviola’s
(2007, 2009) studies illustrated how some journalists perceive new technologies as
heralding the end of good journalism, while print circulations are falling and audiences are
shifting to online channels. Gilbert's (2005) study noted the tensions in how newspaper
professionals perceive their online operations - both as a threat and as an opportunity at the
In this study, our objective is to understand how media professionals perceive the new
customer roles on the newspaper and magazine websites, as enabled by interactivity, and to
explore what kind of tensions these new customer roles provoke in media organizations.
3 RESEARCH DESIGN AND METHODS
In order to identify the new customer roles and the tensions related to new customer roles,
we decided to collect data using methods that enabled the representatives of the publishing
industry to express their viewpoints and concerns. Hence, we employed a qualitative study
drawing on semi-structured interviews within newspaper and magazine publishers.
When selecting the publishing companies, we paid special attention to their effort in
systematic and long-term development of consumer-targeted online services. Being
leading-edge companies in Finland in terms of establishing innovative solutions to their
websites, we could suppose the selected companies would allow us to investigate how
interactive media and new roles of customers are perceived within publishing companies.
Two newspapers and three magazines, the latter focusing on a special area(s) of interest,
were incorporated in the study.
Our informants represented four organizational groups: management, chief editors, editors,
and online service developers. Altogether, we made 31 interviews in May-August 2009.
Table 1 illustrates the position of informants. The participating magazines had limited
resources and therefore no separate resource for online service development, but the
editors and chief editors acted in both roles simultaneously. Newspapers, in turn, had
separate resources for these roles.
Table 1. Interviews conducted in publishing companies
Organizational group Newspapers (2) Magazines (3) Number of interviewees
Managers 4 3 7
Chief editors 4 2
Editors 4 9
Online service developers 9 9
Total 21 10 31
The interview questions covered issues such as the current online offerings for customers,
the recent development of online offerings, customer groups, and forms of customer
communication. The wording and order of the questions varied because we wanted to
follow the lead of the interviewees. The interviews were purposefully informal and
conversational in nature, as it has been suggested that media managers tend to respond
more positively to a conversational style (Hollifield & Coffey, 2006).
We analyzed the data using the Atlas-TI software. We conducted an inductive analysis,
representing an exploratory approach, in order to provide a data-grounded understanding of
the phenomenon; identifying the roles of customers as users of interactive media and
classifying the related tensions.
Three rounds of analysis were conducted. Firstly, we coded the data thematically using
customer roles and the related tensions as a point of departure. Hence, the objective of this
analysis round was to find the relevant parts of the data for further analysis. Secondly, we
identified recurrent themes, grouped them and established upper-level categories. Finally,
on the third round we focused on making comparisons between groups of informants
within each identified category.
Reliability and validity are traditional concepts used for evaluating the quality of research,
but are most often associated with quantitative studies. The quality of qualitative research
is not thereby unambiguously evaluated, however (e.g., Denzin & Lincoln 2000, Kirk &
Miller, 1986). Reliability in qualitative research refers to accuracy in efforts and methods
(Shank 2006). Therefore, in order to maximize the reliability of this study, our aim was to
provide detailed enough information regarding the research process that would enable the
reader to follow the researchers’ reasoning (cf. Eskola & Suoranta 1998, Yin 2003).
Validity, on the other hand, refers to the degree to which the findings are interpreted in a
correct way in qualitative research (Kirk & Miller (1986, 20). In this study, we aimed at
building a chain of evidence (see Yin, 2003) with the use of Atlas-ti program. Also, the
three rounds of analysis and the interpretation of the results was double-checked by both
We could claim that traditionally, newspaper and magazine publishers have seen their
consumer audience in three roles: as readers and subscribers, and also as users of
applications incorporated in websites. In other words, the focus has been on information
broadcasting and medium interactivity. In our understanding, it is particularly human
interactivity that is manifested in the new roles of customers. Based on our inductive
analysis, we identified six new customer roles in relation to interactivity.
First, in addition to reading newspapers and magazines, customers give feedback about
their content or e.g. editorial policy definitions. In principle, this is not a new role: readers’
opinions and wishes have long represented a source of information for editorials. Yet,
novelty here refers to the depth and variety of feedback. Our informants from all
organizational groups outlined how the Internet has enabled a revolutionary change in
terms of establishing contact between customers and publishing companies: it has lowered
the barrier for readers to contact editors and also given rise to a wider variety of feedback
channels such as discussions forums and news comments. It is also a new role in a sense
editors now have channels to hear thoughts of customers on an on-going basis in contrast
to coincidental responses and comments.
“It is so much easier nowadays to contact the media, such as newspaper, there is no such
threshold than in the earlier days. People contact us even in the least of issue, they are no
longer ashamed of expressing themselves.” (Chief editor)
We could term this role as customers being Agents, who eagerly observe their
environment, present their opinions to editors, and comment journalistic policies, content,
online service usability or technical functionality. By listening feedback from customers,
publishers get concrete ideas to improve their offerings, and also get to know their
customers better. Many interviewees described how publishing companies have only
recently learnt to understand the needs of customer and to “hear their voice”:
“What we at least have learnt is that you have to listen users.” (Developer)
“We get feedback from customers and we also want to collect feedback, it is the only
means to keep awake.” (Manager)
Agents may also present tips for writing stories and send e.g. photos or video material to
the newspapers/magazines. Internet-based channels have enabled customers more
opportunities, reach and speed in assisting newspapers and magazines in their core task –
producing journalistic content. What characterizes the role of Agents in terms of
interaction, is the flow of information from customers to the company, the latter eventually
keeping back the right for deciding what is published and what is not. Another
characteristic is that Agents interact proactively, thus giving feedback on their own bat.
Second, customers are Dialoguers. When interacting in such a role, information flows are
more two-way: customers and publishing companies engage in mutual dialogue, in contrast
to Agents, where customers submit feedback and content to the company. Dialogue takes
place e.g. through on-going posting and commenting in editorial weblogs, and through
company initiatives where customers are asked to provide feedback and engage in
discussion with company representatives. In such a mode of interaction, direct and
on-going relationship with customers is established, as the following quotations illustrate:
”We engage in dialogue with customers, and when planning major changes, we also ask
for their comments. As we’re on the Net, we get constant feedback. It is practically a new
thing, or a fully new dimension in our work.” (Chief editor)
”In weblogs… the relationship with the audience becomes closer, there you can establish
true dialogue between the author and the reader.” (Editor)
Like Agents, the role of Dialoguers came out in every group of informants, yet with slight
differences about the objectives of customer interaction. Whereas editors and chief editors
naturally emphasized on-going dialogue about journalistic content (news, stories,
columns), developers were more concerned in establishing contact with customers in order
to improve the online services, by asking feedback and ideas directly from users. A
common denominator of every type of dialogue was that customers and publishers are now
closer to each other than ever before.
Third, customers are Debaters who actively participate in discussions in the forums.
Whereas the role of publishers is more distinct when engaging in dialogue with customers,
debating refers to interaction established and maintained mainly by customers themselves.
The role of the publisher is more like to set the general “rules of the game” and to provide
platforms for customer interaction. Yet debating was seen to provide various benefits to
publishing companies, such as concrete ideas for improvement, ideas for new services,
news tips, contacts to people, and more generally, potential trends in customers’ interests
and use of online services.
“We have created discussions, our audience engages in conversations there and they are
increasingly participating in it. The forum is highly active, and also focal to our identity.”
”We have valuable conversations, good content which is nice to read but which can also
be exploited for other purposes in our papers.” (Editor)
”It is our core task, to listen to what people talk. We enable and steer the discussion, it
provides us trends and ideas.” (Developer)
In every organizational group, discussions were seen as a focal part of the publishers’
product concept. Whereas editors and chief editors emphasized the close connection
between news and discussions, both supporting each other, managers highlighted how
interesting discussions create loyalty among customers and provide publishers an
additional channel for feedback. Finally, developers underlined the technical issues and
how smoothly the implemented solutions support customer interaction. They also
emphasized the benefits deriving from actively following the discussions. All in all,
discussion forums were seen to allow customers an opportunity to interact directly with
Fourth, customers may take a role of Messengers who spread the content of newspapers or
magazines, link to the content on their behalf, and thus may attract new customers.
Interestingly, this role only came up in the interviews with managers and developers, and
only by a very few notions. Being a constitutive feature of social media (e.g. Salmenkivi &
Nyman, 2007), the idea of user-driven content sharing may thus far remain unfamiliar to
representatives of the publishing companies. Yet it also provides them opportunities, as the
following quotations illustrate:
“We can harness our users to spread news and other types of content.” (Manager)
“In my understanding, it is how people want to use the Net, they want to share things with
their friends.” (Developer)
Fifth, customers interact in a role of Testers. For instance, so-called pilot groups or online
panels present opinions and exchange ideas about products and services, allowing the
newspaper or magazine to further develop them. This is seen of particular importance as
both the target groups and the areas of interest become more fragmented. Again, the
Internet has allowed publishers to more easily reach the intended target groups and, most
importantly, the most active groups of customers. What differs testing from general
customer feedback (the role of Agents) or company-initiated collection of customer
feedback (the role of Dialoguers), is that customers now concretely engage in using and
testing a certain product or service feature, and the whole process is systematically
organized by the publishing company’s side.
“In magazine X’s website, we have organized a pilot group of customers for testing. We
ask them opinions about the potential applications which we are planning to implement, or
the content, what do they think and what kind of features they would appreciate.”
“We make beta-testing with different target groups, for instance, about user interface.”
“In technical stuff…it is vital that you have independent contributors or assistants there,
who know whether it works or not. We present their comments in public and they of course
appreciate that. It creates commitment.” (Developer)
Through engaging customers in testing, publishers get to know their preferences better and
may improve the online services more rapidly and flexibly. Two types of initiatives for
testing came up in the interviews: online panels can be applied for developing the whole
product concept, both print and online, and online pilot groups for testing and developing
certain applications. Respectively, it was particularly managers and developers who
discussed customer interaction regarding this role.
Finally, customers may become Content-producers, who add content to online services.
Whereas Agents also provide content to publishing companies e.g. by sending videos or
photos, as Content-producers customers directly add content to the online services and not
only submit material to be considered for publication. When acting as Debaters, customers
also produce content for publishers’ and other customers’ benefit, but in the role of
Content-producer the spectrum of content is broader and does not limit solely to
exchanging opinions. Further, the generated content is immediately in use by other
customers and the company. For instance, customers may assess and rate content, write
supporting notes, and add information to databases.
Sense of community was a widely applied concept when discussing content-producing. It
was something that customers were seen to create by nature if they were given
opportunities to interact with each other. Both managers and developers were yet
concerned about how publishers’ online services eventually support this objective. One of
the developers described how they should further develop their online services:
“User generated content and user interactivity, in some form, it should support sense of
community and allow our readers more opportunities to participate in what is going on
there [in our website].” (Developer)
However, there were also online applications that were seen to support this type of
customer interactions conveniently. As one editor described the logic of creating sense of
community on the Internet with a gaming application:
“The Net… you get around there, click and buy, then read a story, buy new players,
exchange them… There is sense of community to some degree and competing with each
other to some degree, all that kind of stuff, all our content supports it.” (Editor)
Developers described how the culture towards user-generated content is slightly changing
and becoming more favourable among publishing companies. In particular, they have
become more aware of the role of dedicated, highly active customers, and knowing what
they appreciate. Thus publishing companies now more willingly produce content together
with customers, instead of only targeting content for them.
”People want to do things themselves, so that others can see what they have done, we are
like a gallery for all that.” (Developer)
In some of the interviews, also the role of co-developing services with customer was
discussed. However, for clarity we would like to distinguish between producing content,
testing products and co-developing them: whereas in the former cases customers may add
content to the service or they are given testing opportunities, in the latter customers gain an
open interface to directly modify the product (e.g. Thomke & von Hippel, 2002, Füller et
al., 2006). Such fully open mode of development does not seem valid for the newspaper
and magazine publishers studied here; customers rather take an assisting role. Table 2
summarizes the identified customer roles.
Table 2. New customer roles enabled by interactive media
Direction Roles Examples
Sending photos or videos
Testing online service features,
Commenting news and specifying
Adding information to databases
Linking to interesting articles
Adding information to databases,
sharing experiences with other
customers, giving ratings
In our understanding, when playing any of these six roles, customers contribute to value
creation processes and support the media organizations’s objectives of creating value both
for the firm and its stakeholders. However, it seems that publishing companies are not able
to harness the potential built into these new customer roles, and we suspect this has much
to do with the ambiguity of the internal changes needed.
5 DISCUSSION: TENSIONS PROVOKED BY NEW CUSTOMER ROLES
As evident from the above, different professional groups in the publishing companies put
different emphasis on the identified customer roles and also differed in their views about
the related opportunities and risks. Hence, a number of tensions related to the new
customer roles seem to prevail in publishing companies. Let us elaborate on the tensions in
the following six sub-chapters.
5.2.1 The tension between the traditional role of editors vs. the new role as a facilitator of
A prevalent theme regarding customer interaction was the lack of editorial participation in
the discussion forums or news commenting. Many of the interviewees emphasized how
they know customers would appreciate that; they have received very positive feedback
from customers regarding active discussions with the representatives of the newspaper or
magazine. For instance, editors were described as “safeguards” or “big brothers” with
whom customer could share their concerns, and who have access to things and places
where the general public does not. Yet the idea of active participation does not seem to
realize. We could suppose one reason is attitude towards open discussion with customers.
Managers described the attitude of editors as follows:
”Editors seem to have reservations about engaging to the discussion by name, for
instance, about a story they have written. I think it is an issue that should be changed.”
”If the discussion forum is the most valuable part of the service, there should be less
content-producing to the website and more engagement to the discussions, facilitating it
and participating actively.” (Manager)
As a result of inactive participation, the credibility of online discussions was seen to suffer,
as well as the perceived level of expertise. Another reason for the lack or participation
could be the traditional roles of journalists in producing content. For instance, editors
respond to customers when they are asked, but do not take a proactive role in facilitating
discussions. As the editors themselves pointed out, the importance of engaging in active
discussions is widely recognized but the daily work routines prevent this. Hence, it is
particularly lack of time that seems to prohibit participation.
“In a perfect world where there would not be as much productive pressure, some of us
could go there and open the discussion, even if no one had directly asked us anything.”
According to the developers, better understanding about the nature of interactive online
services would require on-going participation and presence. Yet the culture among
editorials is different: they are used to a situation where work gets ready in one stroke,
after it has been published. Across all organizational groups, the publishing-companies’
ability to understand the nature of the Internet interactions was questioned, relying too
much on the logic of print publishing:
”Our most significant weakness is that we do not understand the nature of the new
medium, we do not operate Net-like on the Net. We should take advantage of its benefits,
flexibility, speed and interactivity.” (Chief editor)
“An editor does not appreciate such work [discussing] in a similar vein because it is a lot
different. It is not that I write a story, then I publish it and then I will have a coffee break.
You must be passionate about it, getting there to see what others have commented.”
Thus in many instances, customer interactivity practically means discussions in the forums,
nurtured by the customers themselves. Altogether, this tension has arisen from the new
roles of customers as Debaters and Dialoguers. It is manifested as reactivity, resulting from
time pressure and suspicious attitude towards engaging in public discussions with
customers. Inactive participation by the company’s side could lead to decreasing
interactivity on the website and ultimately with the false conclusion that customers do not
wish to participate in discussions. Therefore, the managerial challenge is to build a culture
where the new role of editors is valued in the organization and ideally lead the way by
showing an example by active online participation.
5.2.2 The tension between existing organizational structures vs. demand for new
structures, responsibilities, processes, and technology
Secondly, we identified a tension related to creating internal structures and modes of
operation that would support customer interaction. Even when customers are highly active
in producing content or engaging in discussions for their part, the company eventually
lacks ability to integrate the related knowledge and ideas into its processes. As a result, the
advantages of interactive media remain under-utilized from the publishers’ side.
”What we should do better are the readers who in principle are very active and high in
expertise… we could do much more to benefit from them, hear their experiences and
All organizational groups were rather unanimous in their perceptions about the challenges
regarding internal structures. For instance, many of our interviewees described a situation
where interactive services “live their own life” and the company’s attention is elsewhere.
In other words, services supporting customer interactivity are implemented – often because
other newspapers or magazines seem to have them, as one of the developers pointed out –
but the company lacks concrete plans how to benefit from the services and how to develop
“The most difficult part is the further development and elaboration of the service. And
editors are not the most long-span people in the world, on the contrary.” (Editor)
In some cases, the interviewees outlined ideas how customer interactions could be
facilitated in order to support the content-creation process and online service development,
but thus far they remain rather speculative.
“These are only my thoughts, I haven’t spoken with the management, but… I find it very
interesting, harnessing the social Net, taking the online audience along from the very
beginning of making a story, and throughout the process. I mean, like crowdsouwcing.”
“The best companies have on-going beta versions, their users actively engage in
developing the online services. And I hope we will be able to do that in the future.”
This tension is also related to the wealth of information that customer interaction on the
Internet enables. The key issue is no longer how to receive enough feedback, but what to
do about it, how to systematically evaluate its content and how to identify the most integral
“But the issue is how we manage to harness feedback to actual development of our
services. You should be able to filter it, you should be able to assess its relevance…”
In summary, this tension is manifested as lack of attention towards interactive services,
rigidity in establishing new services and developing them further, and lack of systematic
processes to manage customer feedback. This is pervasive in a sense all organizational
groups were aware of them. In addition, all the identified new customer roles (Agents,
Dialoguers, Debaters, Messengers, Testers and Content-Producers) seem to fuel this
tension: practically every type of customer interactivity that carries a promise of having an
on-going relationship with customers online challenges the print-product oriented type of
organization. The managerial challenge here is to put more effort and resources into
building the necessary structures, while not cannibalizing the organizational structures that
are optimized for the print product.
5.2.3 The tension between being closed vs. being open to the voice of customers
This tension refers to losing control over customers due to increased use of interactive
media and, in particular, social media. Newspapers and magazines no longer “hold the
agenda”, as it is increasingly defined also by customers themselves. This long tradition of
being safe from the opinions of the general public also came up in the interviews,
manifesting attitude towards customer interaction in publishing companies:
”It is not easy for all people here to stand if someone from the audience dresses down on
your work, in public. I think it is a part of this work, if you are in public position, then you
should be able to accept both compliment and praise.” (Developer)
“If we ask readers’ opinions… Of course we would truly need to be willing to change, even
if we completely disagree with readers… We just have to listen to what they say and act
accordingly, I think it will be kind of a difficult thing for us.” (Developer)
Another instance of this tension was the tendency to downplay online services and content,
even when they remain more popular than stories in print newspapers or magazines. While
many of the interviewees considered such attitude to characterize the older generation of
editors, others saw it the other way round: in some instances they were actually the most
eager to publish online and get feedback from customers. The following quotation also
illustrates the attitudinal side:
“It was like ’let them be, it’s just the Net and nothing more’. But there are more people
there than our print products attract, so they should also be noted somehow.” (Developer)
Across different organizational groups, newspapers and magazines saw themselves rather
uncourageous in allowing customers more power in terms of what is publishable, and
accepting the self-emerging nature of online interactions. Yet this tension was most salient
in the interviews with developers, as they have a “box seat” in establishing interactive
online services and understanding the demands they set for publishing companies.
Further, this tension is eventually related to the difficulty of finding a balance between
whose voice publishers are to listen and whose not. In other words, when publishers more
openly receive feedback from their audience, they have to decide when customers’
comments lead to action and when they do not need to do so. The tension is not only about
preserving the traditional roles of journalists, but also the openness of communication. For
instance, as one of the developers described, if ideas are openly discussed with customers
on the Internet, there is a danger that competing newspaper gets all the benefit as it has
more flexible organization to implement the novel solution.
In summary, this tension is manifested as trivializing the content and nature of online
interactions, withdrawing from open dialogue with customers, and unwillingness to react
to customer feedback. Indeed, we see this tension to arise from all the identified customer
roles, as they call for acknowledging the role of having active customers instead of passive
receivers of information filtered by publishers. Again, the managerial challenge related to
the fear of losing control and sense of ownership is to feed an organizational culture and
related practices that position journalists closer and more equal with their readers without
belittling the prestige of journalistic work.
5.2.4 The tension between active vs. inactive customers
Further, lack of participation from customers’ side also raises tensions regarding customer
interactions. Many interactive services only attract a small number of active people and the
publishers feel they are incapable in fostering customer commitment. As noted earlier,
newspapers and magazines do not fully use the knowledge and ideas of their audience,
even when the applied online channels would in principle allow that. According to the
interviewees, one reason is that the amount of actual interactions remains minor and the
company lacks vision on how to mobilize customers to participate and produce content.
This tension appeared most salient in the group of online service developers, whose role
and position calls for detailed understanding how customer behave online, and respectively
the means how to foster customer interactions. One of the developers described how the
term ”user-generated content” makes the content-creation process sound easy from the
company’s part – users do it on their behalf – but yet the actual workload is far from such
”Even if we think that user-generated content is ’made by users’ and made on your behalf,
well yes, but it also requires a whole lot of effort to activate people there.” (Developer)
Further, higher levels of customer interaction would require appropriate means to motivate
them to participate, such as awarding active contributors. Even if there were successful
cases regarding e.g. beta-testing of an online service with customers, the key concerns
were that the company is lacking general understanding how to facilitate and motivate
different types of customer interaction, and recognizing the fact that customers actually
need to be concretely esteemed.
”It has been very difficult to understand here that if we want to get our customers to
participate, and to promote the feeling that our services are truly valuable, we have to
provide them feedback and openly regard what they have done.” (Developer)
”You must create the feeling that others see it, there is always someone who reacts.”
Referring to the customers’ roles as Messengers and Dialoguers, the interviewees also
described concern about how the publishers do not fully use the potential of active users
and readers who would spread the content:
“You should do right things there [in social media]. All such things, how we spread the
content and make our customers to spread it. In addition, Google and other search
engines, how visible we are there. These are the two most critical issues in this business.”
”It is not an end in itself that you are in Twitter or Facebook, if you just pump out feeds
there, I think it is a huge mistake. The key idea in social media is being interactive.”
All in all, this tension derives from publishing companies’ capability gaps in terms of how
customers behave online and how they focus their attention. It is manifested as an inability
to facilitate customer participation and to harness the full potential of customers spreading
and creating content. Respectively, the tension arises from all new customer roles but from
the customer community-oriented roles (Debaters, Messengers, Content-producers) in
particular. In other words, the more customer-to-customer type interactions are (see Table
2), the less controllable it becomes from the company’s part. This calls for subtle means to
encourage and motivate customer activity.
5.2.5 The tension between the expected quality vs. the nature of customer interaction
One of the management-level interviewees crystallized the change related to the Internet
audiences as follows:
“We have seen a new tension rising, in other words our audience in social media, and how
they affect our editorial content. Nowadays, the general public may express their opinions
in the discussion forums, about our news, editors’ attitudes, or communication in general.
I think social media serves as a superb channel for us: now we can have direct feedback
from consumers, what do they think about our product.” (Manager)
Interestingly, all informant groups expressed such a positive tone towards the
Internet-enabled interactions by customers. Yet there are differences in what publishers
actually expected from customers: while reasoned feedback is highly appreciated, other
types of interaction are necessarily not, particularly among editors. Let us elaborate this
argument more in detail.
The appropriate policies for hosting online discussions raised much debate in every
organisational group and there is no consensus about the right or wrong. One of the key
issues is registration vs. anonymous discussion. Another critical topic is moderating and
how it is executed; changes in hosting and moderating policies have caused confusion
among users. The interviewees also expressed much concern about the culture or tone of
online discussions. For instance, it is too often stuck in certain topics, runs totally off-topic,
or involves racism, insults and masses of provocative messages. The tension thus arises
from the fact that online discussions are highly valued by publishers, but their logic does
not fit with journalistic ideals of good content. Companies also need to cultivate the
positive brand image and cannot publish illegal content and provocations. The following
quotations illustrate the controversies regarding online discussions.
”There has to be a system with which to follow the discussion so that it meets the quality
criteria.” (Chief editor)
“I am so old-fashioned that I would like to see discussions with real names, but I don’t
think it’s possible anymore. Nowadays it is pseudonyms, preferably.” (Chief editor)
”It is not easy to get good discussion. It requires strict moderation… good moderation.”
”I thought we could have more customers to participate, but there are so many thresholds,
such as that they are forced to register.” (Developer)
”If we think about the discussions… It’s still haunting there: each message is read
beforehand and it is either accepted or not.” (Developer)
”I think it is a good indicator how we haven’t been able to create any discussion culture
there. Rather it is a constant war of what is accepted and what is not accepted, and our
users celebrate if a provocative message every now and then gets published.” (Developer)
”It is totally absurd… The thing that we have three anti-editors, whose mission is to stamp
content and destroy content that users have produced.” (Developer)
Altogether, the editorial line about good content differs remarkably from developers’
perception of valuable content. What is of essence here is who eventually sets the frames
for which is acceptable and how to find a balance between opposing viewpoints: too strict
policies are seen to exaggerate the problems caused by open debate and also erode the
establishment of a conversation culture (developers’ view), while it is practically
impossible to adopt such policy where all type of content by customers would be allowed
on publishers’ website (editorial’s view).
Respectively, the perceptions about how to best nurture customer relationships online
differed remarkably among the informant groups. Whereas online service developers were
concerned about “getting closer to the customer’s thinking”, understanding how they
actually behave on the Internet, some editors described how they first and foremost need
information on which topics are of interest for customers. This concern was also prevalent
among management and chief editors: the Internet was seen as a source of on-going
feedback from customers. In other words, while the former implies a need to understand
how customers want to interact online – developers referred to “netizens” and their
behaviour – in the latter case the key question is what the customers want to read stories
about. The threat is that publishing companies only focus on delivering journalistic content
over online channels and while suffocating with this task, end in undervaluing the
human-interactive nature of online media. Indeed, as one the editors described:
“The only way to get committed customers online is high-quality content. When we know it
is good, we also show respect to our customers. --- I think our core strength online is the
content. But… the problem is that it is not unique. We don’t have anything special there.”
The tension between journalistic standards and customer-driven interaction thus leads to a
paradoxical situation. By engaging in online discussions, customers create communities
that are unique in their tone and content, whereas the editorial content may not provide
such unique value to the service. Yet the publisher cannot tolerate any type of debate, as
they also have to take care of legality and the limits of freedom of speech. Hence, finding a
balance between the two – control and freedom – remains a focal concern.
In summary, we see this tension eventually derived from the collision between journalistic
ideal of high-quality content and the role of customers as Debaters and Dialoguers.
Newspapers in particular have faced long and heavy struggles in defining appropriate
policies and culture regarding the discussions and their moderation. In managerial terms, it
seems necessary for the media organizations to be able to set different standards and
expectations for the quality and nature of print and online content.
5.2.6 The tension between customer loyalty vs. customers’ fragmented use of interactive
Earlier, when discussing the tension about being closed vs. open to the voice of customers,
we noted the company-internal attitudinal challenge regarding the position of newspapers
and magazines: in line with the development of interactive media, they no longer hold
control over readers and define their agenda alone. Finally, the tension between customer
loyalty vs. fragmented media use refers to customers’ attitude towards newspapers and
magazines. It derives from the general perception that customers now have a variety of
opportunities regarding media choice and channels of interaction. As a result of engaging
in social-media-enabled networks and sharing content with peers, they are seen to manifest
less loyalty to a single newspaper or magazine brand.
In line with the increase in the supply of interactive services and the rise of social media,
customers are also seen to attach to more entertainment-type of content, and search for
lighter information than before. This characteristic was associated with younger consumer
audience. Newspapers, in particular, have long been in a situation where they have enjoyed
a stable and safe position on the market – a position that social media on its part has
challenged, as many of our interviewees underlined.
This tension most notably arises from the role of customers as Messengers. Our
interviewees described a variety of situations where the newspaper or magazine “falls
through the net” as customers have a variety of channels to interact and share content
directly with each other. Overall, newspapers and magazines now compete with other
media not only regarding customers’ time and attention, but also in terms of the content
produced by other media and the customers themselves.
“What people do, they hang around on the Net, on Flickr, YouTube, Facebook, they want
have a good time there… We simply don’t have any that kind of stuff to offer to our
Again, this tension was basically related to the different use culture of the Internet in
comparison to consuming journalistic content:
“The Net is awfully fast, things just come and go.” (Developer)
“People may not come directly to our site, instead, they pop in here and there.”
Another example of this tension is that while publishing companies need to ensure that
they gain visibility through search engines – as one interviewee put it, for many customers
Google is the internet – they may simultaneously weaken as a brand: customers are
redirected to the online services by Google and may not be aware that the service is a part
of newspaper or magazine.
In summary, we see this tension to derive from the increased opportunities of customers to
use interactive media, produce and share content, particularly in the role of Messengers.
This, for its part, is seen to contribute to the fragmentation of media use and expressing
less loyalty towards newspaper or magazine brands. In managerial terms, the fragmented
media use calls for practices to foster customer commitment, many of which have been
discussed in earlier sections.
Having discussed the tensions raised by new customer roles, Table 3 summarizes the
identified tensions and the respective roles of customers.
Table 3. The tensions provoked by new customer roles
Tension Which new customer roles
provoke the tension
1. The traditional role of editors vs.
the new role as a facilitator of customer interaction
2. The existing organizational structures vs.
demand for new structures, responsibilities, processes, and technology
3. Being closed vs. being open to the voice of customers Agents
4. Active vs. inactive customers Debaters
5. The expected quality vs. the nature of customer interaction Dialoguers
6. Customer loyalty vs. customers’ fragmented use of interactive
Further, Figure 1 summarizes the managerial challenges raised by the tensions. As it can be
seen, the new customer roles provoke managerial challenges and risks related to the
amount of actual interaction, the quality of interaction and the attitude towards
interaction both internally in media organizations and externally in relation to their
Figure 1. Challenges related to managing tensions
This paper investigated the new customer roles enabled by interactive media, as perceived
by newspaper and magazine publishers. Secondly, it unravelled the tensions arisen by these
new roles of customers. We identified six new customer roles – Agents, Dialoguers,
Debaters, Messengers, Testers and Content-producers – and examined the related tensions,
regarding editorial roles, organizational structures, degree of openness, level of customer
activity, nature of interactions, and online media use.
The theoretical contribution of this paper is twofold. Firstly, it provides a categorization of
new customer roles within newspaper and magazine publishing industries, as enabled by
Inability to harness
interactive media. This categorization is valuable for media researchers, as it complements
the traditional customer roles of reader, customer and user by six other roles enabled by
interactive media. The categorization could also be applied to other online non-product
development –oriented virtual environment, where Nambisan’s (2002) typology falls short.
Secondly, our study unravels and classifies the underlying tensions regarding customer
interaction and thus makes a contribution to the field of media research by investigating the
background factors that are related to the establishment of interactive media services and
features. It is important for media managers to note that while new customer roles
empower them to take a more visible role in the value creation, the internal tensions within
media organizations may be the bottleneck for leveraging the potential. This sets
challenges for media managers not only to identify the tensions, but also to use them as the
catalyst for drastic change (cf. Lewis, 2000).
Based on our study, some future research directions can also be outlined. Firstly, as our
study focused on the insights of the representatives of the publishing companies, it would
be of interest to further refine and elaborate the identified customer roles so that the actual
customer interactions would be investigated. Secondly, the new customer roles could be
linked to different types of interactive features, as identified in previous studies of
interactive media. Finally, managing the tensions arisen by the new customer roles
provides an interesting avenue for future research.
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