Over the last decade, the digital revolution has seen many publishers divest themselves of magazine brands as the climate became too challenging. Not so Mark Allen Group, which has instead spent the past ten years acquiring new titles and working out how to sell content to a growing international audience. Matt Cianfarani, executive director of the group’s newly created division, MAG Digital Resources, has been at the forefront of this process.
Cianfarani has enjoyed a long career with the family-owned publishing group. A few years ago, he moved from being the publishing director of Mark Allen’s well-respected medical titles, which include the British Journal of Nursing, the British Journal of Hospital Medicine, and the Journal of Paramedic Practice, to a new role as digital director for the entire group, before taking up his current role overseeing the new division, which will house the group’s subscription digital products and act as an incubator for new publishing models.
When Cianfarani first took over digital, Mark Allen Group was on the acquisition trail, buying specialist titles from other publishers. While some of these magazines had well-developed digital strategies, others did not. “Invariably it meant building new websites. We did some ourselves and off-shored some to India. I learnt a lot about digital publishing and quickly,” says Cianfarani.
Around this time, Cianfarani started talking to other publishers, including the British Medical Journal, who were already pretty far down the digital route and had an interesting digital development strategy. He explains: “Our nursing publications are very close in spirit and feel if not quite as huge in scale [as the BMJ]. They were very helpful to me. One of the things I learnt about was a way to put our journal content onto online platforms.”
The BMJ uses HighWire Press’s ‘Intelligent Publishing Platform’, but Mark Allen Group opted to use a similar platform developed by another Silicon Valley company, Atypon, whose publishing platform ‘Literatum’ is home to 40% of the world’s English-language scholarly and professional journals. “We are not an academic publisher, we tread this interesting line between a B2B and an academic publisher,” says Cianfarani.
Developing a journal platform has shifted the publisher’s focus from the UK to the rest of the world. Cianfarani explains: “What was very much a UK revenue model has flipped to become an international revenue model. It became obvious that once we had built the digital platform, there was great opportunity to sell this content around the world. The next thing to do was to put together a strategy to do that.”
Their response has been to establish a variety of different sales networks in different territories. “English speaking countries do well for us especially places like Australia, as well as Scandinavia, Europe, Asia and the Middle East. The US project is in its infancy but we have got a few good sales,” says Cianfarani. Latin America is the only part of the world where the company has struggled, because of the language barrier, although they have still managed to increase sales in the region.
Mark Allen Group also has a global agreement with EBSCO Information Services, the leading provider of e-journals and research databases to libraries. “It’s an opportunity to sell content to people who could never have bought it. What is lovely is that all this great content can be sold direct,” says Cianfarani.
Subscribers include libraries, hospitals and universities, as well as pharmaceutical companies and UK government departments such as the Department of Health and Social Care and the Department for Education. Cianfarani reveals: “The holy grail is consortia deals: such as groups of hospitals that purchase together in an effort to get a better price from us.” He admits that securing these subscription deals can take a long time. “It can be a 12 to 24 month process, so we have to be willing to play the long game. The decisions aren’t made lightly. You’re talking about setting prices for three to five years and 90% plus renewal rates. There are often multiple stakeholders who are informing a decision,” he says.
When it comes to editorial, most of Mark Allen’s titles still produce in print first. All of the content is then off-shored and converted to XML, although the new MAG Digital Resources division will trial new systems of production including XML workflow. While the company still believes firmly in print, Cianfarani says the digital platforms have helped to inform the group about the kind of content that people are finding useful, by looking at what articles are downloaded the most. “That helps our content development strategy,” he says. For example, the MA Healthcare titles in the UK have recently focused on topics such as obesity and diabetes and they are able to help NHS libraries and similar bodies identify what articles on these subjects are attracting the most attention.
The company currently has 30 journals on its digital platform, which are available in three formats: as single titles; as collections – the format which offers the best cost per download; and as archive content. “These days, the medical library space is changing. If a library is spending money on getting rid of print copies, they still want to own that content. They can buy these perpetual access back files. It’s a completely new revenue stream for us. We increase the size of our archive by digitising more content each year,” says Cianfarani. The more recent the archive content, the more valuable it is.” Something 40 years old might be of interest to a social scientist, but not of much interest to a working health care professional, so our previous three years’ archive is going to cost more than buying from 1999-2010,” he explains.
While the healthcare division has been at the forefront of its digital platform building – “because that was a better trodden path and we had existing customers” – the publisher’s portfolio of 65 titles covers a wide range of subject areas, ranging from education to music, including the leading classical music reviews magazine Gramophone, acquired from Haymarket in 2013, and Songlines, covering traditional, contemporary, folk and fusion music from around the world, which was bought by Mark Allen Group in 2015. It has also recently acquired Community Care, the leading brand for social work professionals, from Reed Business Information. Buying the former print magazine, now a digital-only, subscription-based resource, has completed a circle, as Mark Allen, the chairman of the Mark Allen Group and a former journalist, was the founding editor of Community Care in 1974.
Whatever the specialism, Cianfarani believes “discovery is the key” when it comes to attracting new subscribers. “The obvious big discovery tool is Google. You can click straight through from Google Scholar and bypass all the access.”
Content is at the core of what the company does. “What consumers want from us is the right content at the right time in the right place, that means on their mobile phone on the way home: podcasts for paramedics; videos for nurses and midwives,” he says.
With this in mind, MA Healthcare recently launched CPD Launchpad, a training platform which allows healthcare professionals to access journal content and to monitor their training progress at the same time. Usage data for all of the content on Mark Allen Group’s digital platform is harvested by the subscriber organisations themselves in line with industry-approved measures. “Usage in a university is going to be higher than in a hospital because working health care professionals don’t have so much time to read content. Our pricing is according to that,” says Cianfarani.
Events is another important growth area for the company. The next step is to use those events to create more content. “What I would love to do is to take more of the professional talks we have and turn them into videos, because video content is more and more important. Our conferences are ready-made pieces of content. That’s an opportunity that we haven’t realised yet, but we want to start to look at,” he says.
In recent years, Mark Allen Group has been on the acquisition trail. In 2014, it acquired Findlay Media, allowing it to branch out into the manufacturing and engineering industry with a portfolio of publications and events. The following year, it bought The Airports Publishing Network, a specialist publishing and conference business for the global ground handling industry, as well as George Warman Publications, which added dentistry titles to the group’s healthcare portfolio.
The group has also bought a number of individual titles from its competitors including the 125-year-old Optician magazine as well as Community Care from RBI, six magazines from Haymarket, two from Wiley-Blackwell and one from EMAP.
Cianfarani enthuses: “We publish great content that we really believe in. We absolutely believe in print, we didn’t just try and destroy all our print brands. I think the publishing industry ceded a huge amount of ground to Google etc. We trod a little more carefully. We never gave away what we believed in. Those who did give it away, we often bought them. When we buy people, we buy these great individuals who know all these things and bring all these new skills. What we do see is the cyclical nature of things and we are a bit calmer.”
He adds that when it comes to information you can trust, big platforms like Google and Facebook haven’t yet proved themselves to be trustworthy. “These big platforms haven’t been tested yet. These old publications have and they are really trusted. Fake news is a good opportunity to remind customers why they are trusted.” At the same time, however, the company is not forgetting to look to the future: “You can’t just bury your head in the sand and say no-one is going to be on their mobile phones. The next stage for us is to focus on creating new digital resources, delivering information in different ways: interactive, multimedia, mobile – the business is looking to invest more in these areas.”