Ross Sturley marks the thirtieth anniversary of the release of a sci-fi classic, by taking one of his periodic looks at the present state and likely future of business to business publishing.
It’s thirty years since Bladerunner. This is a terrifying fact. For a start, it means I’m older than 30. It also means we’re significantly closer to the series of events that preceded the action in Ridley Scott’s seminal adaptation of Philip K Dick’s classic sci-fi novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep that made the world so difficult to inhabit, and animals so scarce.
The book’s title would have a different meaning now – and the blockbuster competition would presumably be “i, Phone” rather than “I, Robot”.
Dreams can come true
There has been a recent evaluation of Bladerunner, and the predictions of the future it contained – and hover cars aside, quite a lot seems to be coming true. Robots are being used for increasingly human applications – with military ones being tested by the Americans, and with others taking on some basic elderly care functions. Artificial intelligence has evolved to the point that a computer can win an episode of Jeopardy. And language is indeed converging around the world into a new form not particularly recognisable from any of its roots, although it’s not the strange Hungarian dialect in Bladerunner, it’s an odd form of shthnd wiv ltrs tekn out. Lol.
This article is the third of this nature that I’ve written for InPublishing. Both the previous two have, rather like Bladerunner, sketched out scenarios which could come about. Some have been apocalyptic, others less so, all have concluded that staying close to communities will be the key factor in business to business publishers’ success or failure in the decade to come.
Community, Community, Community
While I don’t plan to revisit the scenarios here (although I will point out that I predicted the breakup of Emap, the ‘for sale’ sign over RBI, and a new generation of emerging publishers) this remains true. I imagine that it will forever be so – the key to being a publisher, event organiser or any other kind of source of information in B2B is providing the forum for community interaction. Rather as a tiny grain of sand provides the basis for a pearl, a great media product will draw the community close, give it purchase, and let it grow.
This single skill is the ‘do not pass go’ requirement, so let’s not worry about it too much. If you aren’t doing that, I’m amazed you’re still reading. Let’s look at other things.
The future is likely to contain change. That much is also true, so what sorts of change might there be?
The Royal Mail seems to be working hard to destroy the print subscription market. Recent price rises have been difficult to absorb, and are pushing publishers towards more digital, less paper-based ways of making money. This would probably be happening anyway (see technology) but nevertheless, it is likely that B2B publishers, except those in particularly luddite markets, or with indirect distribution methods will be migrating to a digital-only future soon.
At this point, the tendency for readers to pick and choose, or customise content, will be irresistible, which will produce further pressure on the one-package-for-many offer which is the traditional magazine-type subscription.
The challenge in this will be to move the readers’ perception of value. If they pay £5 for a magazine, but really only read one of 50 pages, they will believe they should just pay 10p for that one piece. In fact, to sustain any kind of quality, they need to pay the full £5 for the one page, and understand that the value of the other pages has already been discounted to zero in their case. This is tricky.
A whole new transactional model needs to be established, and probably one where individuals order against some agreed corporate or fixed individual account rate, probably paying with an existing account, like the Barclays pay-by-mobile product.
The Apple Newsstand, which promised to revolutionise magazine distribution, has had a smaller effect for most than it might have been thought. Most sales of tablet content are still subscriptions, so this is not yet offering the step change in information transactions that is probably needed to regenerate the publishing sector.
Providing timely, business-critical information will always be at the heart of a B2B media operation. However, its provision is becoming increasingly spread. Journalists are taking more control of their personal brand, as I identified in an earlier piece, and publishers should take care to control this.
However, there is a growing band of other providers of similar information, from people with different business drivers and economic models. Companies who might traditionally be thought of as advertising clients are increasingly becoming content providers. Either directly, or through PR companies they are beginning to publish just the sort of business-critical information which traditionally a market has looked for in its magazines. Market reports, product information, and legislative updates are all commonly posted on corporate websites, publicised in e-newsletters, and, increasingly, peer-reviewed by the market through Facebook style comments, reviews and ‘likes’.
If the role of publisher starts to be more of a comparator of already published information, then, frankly, anyone can do it. This is what has produced moneysavingexpert.com, gocompare and a range of other similar tools. They are not owned by traditional publishers. It is likely that the B2B equivalents will not be either.
There’s a saying that in business, you’re either in trouble, or about to be in trouble. If this is true, magazines are in trouble, and events are about to be.
Things look fine just now, in fact many publishers are acquiring and launching events with a passion. Still, the trend for yield erosion, the expectation of platinum service for bronze price, and an economic pressure on workers to stay in the office and work is making life difficult. This will continue – in the UK, the effect of austerity will be for employers to demand greater productivity from less staff, and this will affect participation in physical events.
Conferences are already feeling the pinch, with many forced into free-to-attend models to keep numbers up. When we can’t give places away, we’ll definitely be in trouble.
The world has gone app crazy. There are over 600,000 in the Apple App Store, with 300,000 added in 2011. Everyone needs an app, apparently, and one loaded with functionality to boot. We have to be able to link from text to live sites, to send articles to friends, to tweet them, to see video content and related information at the touch of a button. Publishers want to provide this level of service because ‘it’s what our readers expect from us’.
This is rubbish. Readers expect a few folded sheets of paper with some information on it that they can then type in to Google and find out more. If an app offers them that, it’s enough for now – look at the Times’ app as an example.
Many publishers get caught up in delivering a hi-spec app which takes them a long time (and delivers late), costs them a fortune (and overruns budget) and is superseded almost as it launches (and would make them look silly if anyone looked at it).
I am reminded of a presentation by a TechCity entrepreneur who attributed the success of his business to their company mascot, the ‘Ship It Squirrel’. A small, playful animal who sat on desktops urging programmers to ship code onto the website every day, even if it wasn’t perfect. Only then, he argued, would he achieve the product innovation progress he needed.
The Ship It Squirrel needs to visit some publishers and remind them to launch things quickly. Get something out there now, for not too much money, and use customer reaction to improve it. Isn’t that what we started doing with Lloyd’s List on the wall at Mrs Miggins olde tea shoppe?
Two years ago, no-one had an app, now there’s approaching a million. So what’s next? What’s the next tech trend?
I saw a piece recently about ‘gladvertising’ – technology which targets ads based on the user’s demographics, or mood. Another classic sci-fi movie, Minority Report, has something like this in it. Imagine an outdoor poster in a shopping centre which sensed you were a 40-something male with two boys aged 7 and 10 and threw up an ad for the latest Fifa Wii game? Or a mobile text messaging service that sensed that two thirty-something women had been shopping for an hour already and would probably need a sit down and a piece of cake about now?
Can B2B magazines do this? Of course. Well, of course, if they are capturing data. Do you know who your readers are, what they read and when, and why? Do you know what’s going on in their businesses – are they winning or losing share? Can you surmise what they might be doing from their activity, behaviour, or what you know about them already? If you can, good on you. When the Gladvertising app turns up, you’re away.
If you can’t though, it may be time to realise that in fact the most important asset of a publisher is their understanding of their readers – their database. If independent journalists, bloggers and clients increasingly own the creation of content, then publishers need to be the best way of putting it in front of the right person at the right time. Data will be everything.
There is huge change in publishing organisation just now. Emap, RBI and bits of UBM are, in practice, for sale. If you wanted to go out and buy a magazine – now’s the time. However, there’s little in the way of finance out there, which is something of a problem. Maybe we could take a leaf out of Brentford FC’s book, and raise money from the supporters (readers) to buy a magazine they believe in from a publisher they have lost trust in? It’s a thought.
Whatever happens, a changing of the guard is in process in B2B publishing. If you want to be part of the new guard, then a change of attitude will probably be necessary.
Nostradamus is living proof that most predictions will come true if you wait long enough. Well, not technically living, but hopefully you get the point. Many of these predictions are just images of the recent past recycled. However, that makes them no less likely to come about. Just because you can’t buy a hover car yet doesn’t mean Bladerunner’s other forecasts are any the less likely.
The secret with apparently far-fetched scenarios is to think what you wish you might have done if you’d known they were going to happen. Usually you’ll find something that is common to half a dozen of them, and actually looks a sensible move.
Whatever, ignoring the future and hoping it doesn’t happen is unlikely to be a successful strategy. If you take that road, in the words of Roy, the strongest android in Bladerunner, you’ll be lost, like tears in rain.