Punching above your weight!

Lack of IT resource is a frequent gripe of the small and medium size publisher. They produce great content for a loyal audience but below-par digital publishing platforms, often developed in-house, are inhibiting growth. But as Abacus e-Media’s Ian Eckert and Dan Murphy tell James Evelegh, help is at hand…

By James Evelegh

Imagine a publishing world where you are able to control every aspect of the reader experience on your site, where your website automatically reformats itself to fit every screen, where you can redesign your home page or add new content sections quickly and easily, where you can experiment with paywall, metred and gated access strategies – all this without any input from your web developer. A world where you can see a complete picture of each reader and tailor your content and marketing strategies accordingly; where your website doesn’t fall over every time Google releases a new version of Chrome or the EU changes its VAT rules. A world where you don’t live in fear of your web developer taking a two-week holiday, let alone and God forbid… leave!

The good news is that this is reality for a lot of publishers; the bad news is that those publishes are the big boys with big resources. For most small and medium size publishers, the above is a pipe dream.

Until now, that is.

In April, Abacus e-Media released a new platform, Webvision Cloud, which Ian Eckert, managing director – audience development, and Dan Murphy, marketing director, expect will be a game changer for the SME publisher.

In a nutshell, says Ian, it’s a cloud-based, end to end, out of the box publishing solution where the content and audience management functions are fully integrated. It is, adds Dan, a complete publishing and customer experience tool kit, with enterprise level functionality but priced and packaged for the SME publisher.

Abacus has been developing software since the 90s and has been mainly focused on the publishing market in that time. The company has a headcount of 65, based in offices in London and Portsmouth.

Five years ago, the company was the subject of a management buy-out, financed by a group of angel investors that included two of the biggest names in publishing – Martin Durham, former managing director of Haymarket Media and Graham Sherren, founder of Centaur Media. Abacus prides itself on being a publishing led digital services company and both Ian (ex IPC Media, UBM and Portsmouth & Sunderland Newspapers) and Dan (ex Financial Times and Informa) also have strong publishing backgrounds which means that they find it easy to anticipate publisher requirements.

Over the years, the company has focused its attention on providing enterprise level publishing solutions for large publishers like Centaur, UBM, Thomson Reuters and EMAP, but its products and services were beyond the budgets of SMEs. The company began to realise that there was a large swathe of smaller publishers who had exactly the same needs as the larger publishers, but not the resources and IT infrastructure.

Could they create a publishing platform for the SME? Developments in cloud technology and advances in online design and information architecture were the big enablers and … Webvision Cloud is the result.

The key pillars

The headline constituent parts of the Webvision Cloud package are: a responsive website, a multichannel content management system and a customer and subscription management database. What, I asked Ian and Dan, were the core principles underpinning the development of Webvision Cloud.

1. Digital first, but not only

We’ve all seen examples of the print tail wagging the digital dog with content and staff silo’d between the two. Digital must be placed at the heart of the publishing operation, with print positioned as one part of digital, not vice versa.

2. Configurable by business people, not techies

A cornerstone of the new system is that it is designed to be used by the people who create and market the content. “With Webvision Cloud”, said Ian, “a publisher can, for instance, create a new section on their website, decide the layout, navigation, access and pricing within minutes, without any technical input.”

3. Template driven

For some in the publishing world, ‘template’ is a dirty word, conjuring up images of homogeneous, me-too websites. Times have changed and the use and deployment of content components (which can be of any size and dimension, contain any number of different content types and combinations, and be easily placed and repositioned on the page) enable the creation of websites of infinite variety. What the template allows a publisher to do, says Ian, is to be in full control of the presentation and layout of their site.

4. Responsive design

Websites are now viewed on an ever increasing range of screen sizes. It is imperative that the user experience is excellent on each and that your website is built along responsive design principles. Sites built on Webvision Cloud are…

5. Integration between content and audience

Without full integration, a publisher will not be able to personalise or limit access to content to the individual user, and that, increasingly, is becoming the norm in digital publishing. It’s also a prerequisite for a single customer view.

6. Comprehensive functionality

Err… this might sound obvious, says Ian, but the ability of the system to do all the things a publisher might want it to do was central. “Abacus has been serving the content and audience needs of some of the biggest publishers in the country for over twenty years. It’s hard to imagine any publisher requirement that we haven’t provided a solution for before, and this experience has all gone into the creation of the platform.”

This all sounds pretty compelling and I ask them whether they’re expecting a bit of a stampede of SME publishers.

“Certainly, we do think there is pent-up demand. The response from the publishing industry so far has been very exciting and we expect the first new sites to go live over the summer, but changing publishing platforms is a key decision and publishers have a number of things to consider,” says Dan.

The buy vs build conundrum

“Most SME publishers have”, says Ian, “already invested quite heavily in their website and, as they see it, don’t want to spend that money all over again! There is also a quite understandable perception that ‘our requirements are unique and that no off-the-shelf package will be able to cater for them as well as a system we build ourselves’. There is also a belief that open source platforms are the answer.”

But, as Dan points out, there are a number of inherent risks in the ‘build’ route. Publishers will often use an underlying free open source platform, like WordPress or Drupal, then on top of that pay a developer to build the all-important publishing-specific functionality and integration, often building in modules from other suppliers. Obviously the publisher will fund the customisation, but equally importantly, they have now in effect, become part of a customer base of one. They will not benefit from enhancements made by other users of the system they have created, because … there aren’t any!

The fact is that these platforms are designed to be used by developers, and so most changes will require recoding and redesign. This can be expensive and make it harder to react quickly to changing circumstances or new opportunities.

You are also reliant on the web developer. In the end, you are left with the complex task of managing programmers and that is not a core competency for most publishers.

Inevitably, the decision often boils down to cost and it is important, says Dan, when comparing costs of ‘buy’ vs ‘build’ options, for publishers to take into account the ‘total cost of ownership’. Publishers need to factor in all the costs: developer costs (including projected costs, remembering that web development never stands still and it is unlikely that your annual developer costs will ever go down), server hosting fees, software licenses, staffing costs (if you use an in-house IT team) and your own time spent managing the developer relationship, specifying enhancements and testing their work. The biggest hidden cost can be the future cost of upgrade. One of the major benefits of using Webvision Cloud, with its software-as-a-service technology, is the continuous and transparent upgrades, which means that publishers will always be running on the latest version of the software.

“Unless, for some reason, you genuinely want to build a programming team, we think this all adds up to an overwhelming case against building your own system. Publishers’ skills are in providing compelling content, not in developing software…”, says Ian.

Don’t let tech be your Achilles heel

Publishers, large and small, have two main assets, continues Ian, their existing audience and their expertise. This should make them invulnerable, but it doesn’t. Audiences are becoming more demanding – they see the excellent sites served up by online retailers and subscription services like Netflix and are becoming increasingly intolerant of inferior user experiences. There is only so many times you can serve a pop-up subscription offer to an existing subscriber before they start to get irritated.

The customer experience bar is being set ever higher and all publishers face the threat of technically savvy, nimble disruptors entering their markets and stealing share. Publishers need a technology platform that is an enabler, not a millstone around their neck.

The publishers that succeed, says Ian, are those that use data wisely, think on their feet and act fast, place digital at the heart of their business and who manage to keep the techies at arm’s length.

Talk to us

The excitement felt by Ian and Dan is palpable. They both clearly see Webvision Cloud as a game changer for the SME. “At long last”, says Dan, “with Webvision Cloud, SME publishers now have the ability to build a successful digital publishing model using the same tool kit as the big boys. It’s a huge opportunity. With an on-boarding process of only 4-6 weeks, making the switch to our new platform is not complicated. If you’re a publisher looking to get more value out of your content and audiences but not 100% confident that your current platform is up to the task, then we’d love to hear from you.”

Abacus e-Media

Chancery Exchange, 10 Furnival Street, London, EC4A 1YH

Dan Murphy, marketing director


Tel: 020 7766 9817

Ian Eckert, managing director – audience development


Tel: 020 7766 9810