Wednesday, 22 September 2010

5 bad habits of publishers

Publishers are still wringing their hands about how to react to the 21st Century. That some of their problems are self-generated is widely recognised, but only a few seem to be self-aware enough to do something about it. The following list gives some examples of where businesses have made changes for the better, but also a couple of examples where they continue to cling to their outmoded certainties. This is, by no means a complete (or even objective) list of these habits - but more the result of what I have experienced over the last few years.

Bad habit 1: publishers still insist that the value of their product/brand is predicated by the print item instead of looking at a holistic approach to customer needs.

What they did:  Emap has overturned its view about what a subscription buys. The old view was that the print item was the leader and that all other services were ancillary to the experience of consuming the print content. The new view has it that the subscription is to a holistic range of B2B information. In Retail Week, for instance, they have bought and re-vamped Retail Knowledge Bank to provide a background data service on the retail industry. Everything is now behind a subs barrier - but the sub buys access to the whole range of products, both print and online.

What happened: Well it's still too early to tell but the drop off from free to paid unique user levels has been less than the worst modelled case and is proving surprisingly resilient.

Bad habit 2: insisting that because an editor can create a publication they can, ergo, be capable of running a business based on that publication (contentious I know, but there are UK publishers who are making this mistake every day, cf Emap, Telegraph Media etc)

What they did: Emap got rid of the commercial management layer of their publishing division. 

What happened: Within a year this decision was effectively reversed (although the publishing director title was replaced by 'Market Manager' to make it seem less like a volte face). Some of the market managers are ex editorial - but they tend to have strong commercial management sitting beside them.

Bad habit 3: Insisting that the value of an article is dictated by the effort taken to create it, rather than a calculation based on the reader's needs.

What they did: Perhaps the best example of this is the FT freemium paywall model. They give away the first 10 articles and then get a sub. the assumption is that as you move beyond 10 items in a month you are proving the value of the content to yourself and will therefore be more willing to continue to pay for it - thus setting the value as a customer function rather than an editorial function.

What happened: By the end of  the first year they had an average 120,000 subscribers. In the second year they announced a series of fairly hefty price increases and a switch to focus on selling annual, rather than monthly subscriptions (this on the back of a 22% rise in subscribers). Certainly a moderate success comes from letting users ascertain their value from the product.

Bad habit 4: Not distributing content through a channel appropriate to the customers' need for that content. For example one might say that in a B2B environment there are at least three steps: 

1. An announcement that something has happened/is about to happen that will affect the sector (clearly timeliness is crucial, therefore probably a digital channel)
2. Thoughtful follow up and comment on what the event means and how the customers might react. (Longer content to be consumed in slow time and probably a print channel item). 
3. Data and stats that underwrite the customers decision making process about how they might plan to react to the event. (Data is almost always best served online)

What happened: This is the biggie, I'm not sure that anyone has nailed this properly yet.

Bad habit 5: Not recognising that each channel has a fundamentally different set of demands for content architecture, definition and style. Multi-use content has to be multi-form content.

What they did: Emap appointed web editors to handle the content online who, although they reported to the editor, were given an explicit and wide ranging responsibility to develop the online audiences through developing content. There were the inevitable conflicts between on- and offline staff about when and where news should be broken and how best to manage this. The result was a reasonably widespread acceptance that online was the best place to break news but a decision could be made to hold some stories (big scoops for instance) back for print to satisfy commercial drivers.

What happened: In 12 months Emap doubled unique users and page views rose 400%. The awareness of the potential of digital as a channel grew enormously (in parts of the business where this might not have been otherwise true) and provided the basis of the switch to holistic subscriptions (see #1 above).

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