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Why consumer publishers should be more like B2B

B2B publishers were quick to understand the opportunities the digital world had to offer, with many successfully re-engineering their business model. Consumer publishers, who have generally been slower to grasp the digital nettle, can learn much from their B2B cousins, writes Julian Fagandini.

By Julian Fagandini

When an invitation to the Publishing & Media Expo (P&ME) at Earls Court in February dropped stealthily into my email inbox a little while ago, it caused me to cast my mind back to last year’s event and to wonder whether attitudes in the publishing community, and particularly the consumer publishing community, might have progressed in the intervening period.

In 2013, P&ME took place alongside three co-sited marketing events in exhibition spaces which were adjacent to each other and yet also subtly separated by archways crewed by attendants with barcode scanners. Like two reasonably friendly national territories, willing to reduce their respective passport checks, but not quite so sure of each other as to open their borders to uncontrolled migration in either direction just yet.

As I toured the aisles of all four exhibitions, I found sharp contrasts, and not just in the fact that the three marketing events were lively, vibrant, busy and ambitious, whereas P&ME seemed largely to lack any of these characteristics.

More fundamentally, the words and phrases which kept assailing me from all sides in the marketing expos were "relationship marketing", "conversational marketing", "social marketing", all driving into "lead management" and "revenue creation". All of those forms of marketing require "content" in a wide sense of the word and are highly driven from the demand side of the equation. On the other hand, the words and phrases which were more prevalent in the publishing expo were "content management", "multi-platform publishing", "ad sales management", all, it seemed to me, rather old hat stuff that has been around every industry event since the first dotcom boom and all basically driven from the supply side of the equation, from what publishers do within their own organisations, rather than fundamentally considering what consumers and advertisers want from "publications" now and into the future.

Authorial loyalty

There are some consumer publishing brands that have such cachet that they are beyond even "edited" or "curated", they are almost "authorial" in their market status. Obvious examples would be The Economist and Private Eye. But these are relatively unusual in having true customer loyalty to their editorial style and point of view in much the same way that some authors have an immensely loyal following to their books. The readers of Stephen King and Terry Pratchett and suchlike will always buy their next books, are pretty insensitive to price increases, and will be pretty tolerant of a fall in quality for at least a period ("it's a temporary blip, they'll be back on form next time").

I would contend that the same is true of "authorial" publications. They can still wholeheartedly concentrate on what in terms of content, attitude and tone they uniquely deliver to, and for which they are valued by, their readers, with whom they have an almost emotional bond.

But this is, unfortunately for the many, not the position for most consumer publications. These simply don't, whatever their owners and editors might think, have this degree of loyalty. They are primarily valued by their audience for their utility in delivering something practical and informative, or something glossy and entertaining, but rarely, very rarely, something that cannot be replicated elsewhere. And, once they get caught in a cycle involving some combination of advertising leakage, cover price increase, editorial cuts and readership decline, they can end up on a slippery slope before they know what's hit them and be in the unenviable position of "well, if I wanted to get out of this, I wouldn't want to be starting from here".

So, what is the answer for this majority of consumer publishing brands that do not have the magic "authorial" loyalty? There's no one "silver bullet" answer but I think there are two mindset shifts that consumer publishers would do well to take on board.

Joining the workflow

The first is a historical parallel, a lesson from the world of business information publishing, and business data and information services, over the past twenty or so years. Major business information publishers, particularly but not exclusively those in industries heavily driven by quantitative and structured data, such as finance, insurance, tax and accounting and, to some extent, legal, realised pretty early in the evolution of the web that their worlds were changing. No longer would they be able to generate high profitability just from sourcing and aggregating critical data sources, and adding keywords and other metadata to them. Web search engines would increasingly undercut their differentiation, and their ability to charge, in these areas.

Publishers such as Reuters and Thomson (both prior to and after their merger), Bloomberg, Reed Elsevier and Wolters Kluwer began to understand that they needed to get into the minds of their clients in terms of how they worked, what information they used to make decisions, when and how they used it and what tools and analytics they needed to use that information more effectively and efficiently to make better decisions faster. These publishers moved to supplement their product mix typically by acquiring and integrating (albeit for sure not always successfully) software companies, sometimes positively, sometimes defensively, sometimes strategically, sometimes tactically, sometimes planned well, sometimes in near panic. But, where done well, these software companies were keyed into enabling and improving the core value chain activities in the client industries of these publishers.

Many commentators would say that one of the shrewdest UK operators in this market over the past twenty years has been dmg::information (and I have to declare an interest in agreeing with them as I was Head of New Media at DMGT Group during the mid-1990s). In addition to having a great business development team, operating under the direction of Martin Morgan, the now Group Chief Executive of DMGT, dmg::information also had one great advantage, or perhaps more properly, it also lacked one great hindrance. It had almost no legacy business publishing activity to get exercised about "protecting". It was predominantly a new entrant and it acted like one. In particular, dmg::information built its business strategy and implementation in each new vertical on foundations of business-critical content melded with workflow systems, analytic tools and decision support. The result: B2B now provides more than three-quarters of DMGT Group profits and the proportion continues to rise. Furthermore, DMGT has applied key elements of the formidable growth philosophy learnt in dmg::information alongside the populist editorial ethos of the Daily Mail to forge MailOnline into one of the most successful consumer online franchises that has emerged from a traditional consumer publisher, and one which, building on the dmg::information experience of growing successful global businesses from a US platform, has been encouraged to take a very different view of its geographical potential than has often been the horizon for many UK consumer publishers.

So, traditional publishing has become only one element of the B2B mix. The best providers have become nigh on inextricably embedded within the way their clients operate, with a loyalty founded on must-haveness that they could have only dreamt about when they had only content to sell. They are no longer just sources of data that can be switched in and out at relatively low cost and risk; they are mission-critical. They are no longer just "publishers" at all; they are "solutions providers". And they no longer really sell products to their clients; they are in the services business.

This is the first mindset shift that consumer publishers need to truly and fully embrace and the analogue of business workflow in business publishing is consumer behaviour in consumer publishing.

All the things in fact that were being talked about non-stop mere yards away from the participants in the 2013 P&ME expo in the three marketing exhibitions on the other side of a thin partition wall. The latter was an area where consumer brands (aka advertisers) were falling over themselves to engage with marketing practitioners who were telling them they understood perfectly how to enable the consumer brands to engage efficiently and effectively with consumers. This seems to me to be the language, and the reality, that consumer publishers need to adopt as quickly as they possibly can else they will increasingly be seen as relics of a bygone age.

Learn from retailers

Of course, consumer marketing tends to mean "retail" in one form or another which leads directly into the second mindset shift that consumer publishers need to learn to love. Not that consumer publishers need to get directly into "shifting boxes". But they do need to go vastly further into consumer behaviour data, analytics and tools to give advertisers and retailers much more of what they need to reach consumers, to influence them, to persuade them, to drive their preferences and to call them to action efficiently and effectively.

And, yes, using that same consumer behaviour knowledge to tune content and editorial to maximise reach to target audiences, not just to "publish on every platform to everybody" as I heard people talking about on a number of stands at P&ME last year, and which misses the point entirely. The future is not about scatter-gunning everybody; it is about the complete reverse. It is about understanding and hitting target audiences more precisely than has ever been done before.

But, consumer publishers had better watch out, because retailers, and their canny contract publisher partners, are not newcomers to the idea that content can be a great gateway to long-term consumer relationships and they are quickly realising that data can transform the much-maligned and joked-about "customer rag". In the old days, it was easy for real publishers to look down on them. After all, people paid for real magazines but retailers had to give away theirs. Then, the web comes along, and, lo and behold, everyone seems to be in the same "free content" boat in the digital age. So, whilst retailer magazines like those produced for such as Waitrose and Tesco, Net-a-Porter and ASOS, may not be viewed quite as "proper" magazines yet (being still too much "product pushers" and not enough "trusted commentators"), it may not take too much to change that landscape. And the people who run retail certainly understand consumer behaviour a lot better, and have a lot more consumer behaviour data (albeit primarily of their own internal subset of the real world), than consumer publishers do.

So, what’s the bottom line? Well, simply this, all (cough, so much encapsulated in just three letters) consumer publishers need to recognise is that consumer behaviour is their equivalent now of what business workflow was to business publishers twenty years ago and get moving more than sharpish on embedding and integrating all the components needed to deliver desired consumer behaviour really well through the multiple media of consumer publishing.

By the time this article reaches the hallowed pages of the printed InPublishing magazine, the 2014 Publishing & Media Expo will have taken place and I will have walked the aisles, listened to the chitchat and spoken to the exhibitors. It seems that P&ME has this year been fully merged in with the three marketing-based shows at the event. So, it will be interesting to see whether this means that the "reaching consumers" ethos of marketing will properly reach out, touch and change the publishing community in attendance so that the latter will increasingly look, think and act beyond its traditional silo of "pushing content". If it has, it’s about time and it’s just a shame that too many publishers didn’t get that imperative five or more years’ ago.