Can Facebook save digital publishing?

September 26th, 2014

As I’ve said before many times, Apple and Amazon are not friends to subscription publishers. They either don’t understand the subscription publishing model, or, understanding it, they want to undermine it.

The problem is that subscription publishing relies on a relationship between the publisher and the subscriber. It’s not a one and done thing like buying a book.

Apple and Amazon insist that the subscriber is their customer, and that simply doesn’t work for the publisher. The problem is not the 30 percent remit! It’s the subscriber information.

What subscription publishers need is a platform on which to post their digital content where they can retain the relationship with the subscriber. It’s really a simple thing, but apparently nobody wants to do it.

Evernote would be a good model. Evernote has a great platform for viewing content online. All they would need to do is add a “my subscriptions” area, where the subscriber could add the login information for all his publications. Evernote would authenticate the subscriber with the publisher’s API, and the publisher would provide the content through a feed.

Simple. Elegant. Perfect.

But Evernote won’t do it because it would spoil their relationship with Darth Vader (aka Apple).

It’s a shame, because this Evernote concept solves a couple real problems.

First, it gets publishers out of the software business — where they do not belong. Publishers are in the content business. They can’t be worrying about tweaking their technology every time somebody comes out with a new phone or tablet, or changes their OS.

Second, the reader doesn’t have to download a different app for each of his publications. He simply has a place where he keeps all the stuff he wants to read. (In this example, Evernote.) And … there it is. Easy.

Third, it helps Evernote because all the publishers would be promoting them, and their software would become the default reader software.

Still … nobody’s doing it. Oh well.

But today I read that Facebook is courting publishers.

There’s no reason why Facebook couldn’t take on the role that I outline above for Evernote. Facebook could become the reader’s interface.

This would be even better than my Evernote model because publishers could allow readers to share content (with certain limits, I’m sure) which would help the publisher extend his audience. It would help Facebook because they could charge some nominal fee for the service they’re providing to the publishers.

Imagine logging into Facebook not only to see what cats are up to these days, but to find out what Sports Illustrated says about the Redskins, what Brew Your Own says about Belgian Strong Ales, and what Knight Kiplinger says about investing.

People would never get their faces out of their phones.

Uncategorized What do you think?

Time for publishers to get REAL

September 25th, 2014

(No, I’m not shouting. REAL is an acrostic. Read on.)

I was speaking with a publishing colleague recently about the need for a digital strategy. I came up with a generic list — something any publisher could do — but it didn’t scan, so I worked on it until I could put it into a convenient, memorable acrostic — REAL — which stands for
Reject hype,
Embrace niches,
Adapt your strategy and
Listen to your customers.

Reject hype

Have you noticed yet that the iPad hasn’t fundamentally transformed the magazine marketplace? Have you noticed that print is not dead, that there are still newspapers, that some people still read books, and that bloggers haven’t replaced the need for actual experts?

The breathless hype about the digital revolution always reminds me of the Segway.

There’s a class of people out there who are always hyping something. Everything has to be transformative, and it’s always different this time. Unfortunately, those are the people who are usually asked to do keynotes, so … we deserve it.

Don’t listen to the hype. No, you won’t be left behind and replaced if you show a little caution before jumping on the latest fad. Good business practices still apply. Don’t pay much attention to the “transformative” people and chill a little.

Embrace niches

FM radio didn’t completely replace AM radio, and satellite radio hasn’t either. Vacuum machines have not been the death of brooms. They’ve simply found their own niches.

Despite all the predictions, print isn’t dead. What’s happened is that as readers have other options, print is ending up in a smaller niche than it had when it was the only choice. That’s perfectly understandable without crazy predictions about fundamental changes.

My own preferences may be illustrative. I like to clip web articles to Evernote so I can read them on my smart phone, but I read books on the Kindle app on my iPad — unless it’s a book I intend to take notes in, in which case I read in print. Almost everything productivity-related I do on a real computer — either a laptop or a desktop. (I prefer not to use the on-screen keyboards when I can avoid it, and nothing beats a mouse.)

It’s not so much that people are completely moving from one thing to another as that they’re fine-tuning what they do — when, where, and on what device.

This requires publishers to embrace the reality that their customers are going to be doing things their own way. You can’t force them into something.

Another aspect of these developing niches is that different behaviors and expectations seem to predominate. People behave differently on iPads than on smart phones, and on Pinterest than on Facebook.

Adapt your strategy

These new niches require successful publishers to adapt their efforts to all these different mediums.

The people who subscribe to your publications and the people who visit your website may be two very different audiences. Same with Facebook, Twitter, desktop vs. smart phone, etc.

This is enormously frustrating because the publishing model is essentially “write once, sell many times.” In the past that meant finding a happy medium that appealed to all the elements of your audience and creating one product.

What the digital revolution has brought us is fragmentation. Now, all the subgroups in your audience are doing their own thing their own way, and they expect you to serve them in a way that’s appropriate to that medium.

The good news is that you have the opportunity to reach new people in each of those niches, but that may mean uncomfortable changes. If you choose to stick with a brand image that doesn’t work in some of the new niches, your competitors will steal your business in that niche and you’ll be left with an ever-decreasing audience.

Listen to your customers

Listening to customer needs has always been important, but it’s even more crucial now when you have to serve all these different niches. This may mean that you have to change the way your brand is perceived.

The more options the consumer has, the easier it is for him to just pick up and go elsewhere. You’re not the Soviet Union and you can’t force people to stay with you. You have to make your customers happy or they’re just click away.

It’s always been true that products have to start with customer needs, but now the expression of those needs has become far more complicated. It’s not just “I need this information,” but I need it this way, this time of day, so that it integrates with this other thing, so I can have it in my pocket, so I can read it while I’m getting my coffee, etc.

The good news in all this is that fragmentation can mean more sales. I’m sure General Mills is selling far more Cheerios now that they have a million different versions of the product. But I’m sure the transition from “all oats all the time” to sprinkles and jelly beans and whatever else they put in there these days was very tough.

Uncategorized What do you think?

There is no digital transformation in the publishing industry

August 7th, 2014

For the simple reason that there is no publishing industry.

This article — Is Print Really Killing Publishers? — makes the point very well.

There is no such thing as “the” publishing industry, only publishing industries.

“Digital transformation” is a chameleon term in the publishing industries. It can be about web sites, digital editions, apps, e-newsletters, or shiny new object of the week.

He’s exactly right. Any generic talk about “digital transformation” in the publishing industry is misguided and bound to mislead. Radically different rules apply to news weeklies, romance novels, art books, legal services, etc., and it’s very important for publishing professionals to keep things separate.

The fact that lots of paperback readers have moved to kindle does not mean that lots of magazine readers will move to iPad. Different rules apply.

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Remember when it was apps, apps, apps?

August 1st, 2014

Beware the flashy trends, especially when they are mostly promoted by developers who want you to spend money with them.

A few years ago everything was “develop an app.” If you weren’t developing an app you weren’t one of the cool kids. You wouldn’t be allowed to sit at the right lunch table. You were just so backwards. You were infected with “old-school thinking.”

“Old-school thinking” means things like looking before you leap, and expecting a return on your investment.

Well, apps have generally turned out to have been a waste of time and effort.

Publishers have their doubts about the App Store reinforced by tales from other app developers.

Uncategorized What do you think?

Tweak the failing page on your A-B tests and test again

July 24th, 2014

In optimizing your website, sometimes you want to test something simple, like a red button vs. a blue button, or one kind of product image against another. You should be testing those sorts of things — often.

Other times you want to test a complete redesign. Those are also worthwhile, but it’s harder to know how to interpret the results.

If you’re only changing one thing on a page, any change in response can be attributed to that change. When you’re changing a whole lot of things, you don’t know which element caused the change in response.

Let’s say you test a new design against your current design and the new design loses. You might be tempted to give up on the new design and stick with what you have. But that may be a mistake. There may be one small thing on the new design that’s causing it to lose in the test.

Before you give up entirely, try tweaking the new design a few times. You may find that a small change makes all the difference.

Uncategorized What do you think?

Match.com for business?

July 8th, 2014

Please don’t misinterpret this post. I am not saying the idea I’m going to describe is a good thing, but I do think it’s a possible way to make a lot of money by doing something slightly questionable. Or perhaps despicable. You decide.

I despise personality tests. Myers Briggs, the little online “are you conservative or liberal,” and all that stuff — they drive me crazy.

Or, rather, they fascinate me, but I despise the way people use them. They’re used to put people in buckets. It’s basically an acceptable form of racism. “You’re an ISFJ, you wouldn’t understand.”

In my experience they are always a barrier to understanding people, not an aid. I have never once seen anything good come from one of those things, but I have frequently seen them abused.

Having said all that, they’re clearly the rage, and it’s fairly obvious why. They combine science and narcissism in a way that’s bound to appeal to the modern person. You can imagine somebody who has no interest in finding a date signing up for one of these things simply to find out what kind of a person he is.

So then, here’s the business idea. Invent an easy, accessible way for a company to use something like this in hiring. Sure, there are things like this, but read on.

First, a little background.

I was at a SIPA conference once where a guy told a story about a bunch of people who went for a job interview with Southwest Airlines. About ten people were sitting in a waiting room, and somebody came in and said Southwest tended to be rather casual in their interviews and offered everyone a Hawaiian shirt. They had a dressing room with shirts in every size, and everyone was welcome to go try one on. Some did, some didn’t.

A few minutes later somebody came in and said all the people who didn’t put on the shirts could go. It was a test to see if they were willing to fit in with the corporate culture.

It seems somewhat unfair, but there’s also something to it. Corporations do have cultures, and some people don’t fit. Some large corporations realize this and work that sort of test into their hiring process, but smaller companies typically don’t have the time or the resources.

Hence, hire-the-right-personality-types.com (or something like that).

Here’s how it would work. All the owners and the existing employees would take personality tests. Management would indicate which employees are the stars (i.e., more like this please) and which are the duds. The service would determine if there’s a particular profile that correlates well with success at that company. Potential hires would take the test, and the results would be one of the characteristics used in making the hiring decision.

I think such a service could make a lot of money, although I hate the idea. Here’s why.

These tests ask things like “when faced with A, would you prefer to do 1 or 2?” Like everybody else, I have my preferences, but I am also willing and able to do things the other way if that is what’s required, and I’m fairly good at figuring that sort of thing out. I can work with pretty much anybody.

But the tests don’t care that much about flexibility. They don’t want to know if you can lead, follow, or get out of the way, they want to know which one you tend towards. They want to put you in a bucket and tell you what you’re good at and what you’re not good at.

Maybe there are tests that take that sort of thing into account, but in my experience they’re more interested in classifying you than in finding out how flexible you can be.

I went through one of these pop-psych management stupidities one time, and the moderator sorted everybody into four groups, then told us how well we would work with the other groups. My group (according to the magical sorting hat) couldn’t work very well with Hufflepuff — or however he named the group to our right — which had two of my direct reports, who were some of my best friends in the company. I worked with them just fine.

Worst still, the CEO spent the next two months treating everybody according to the little groups they had been placed in. It was awful, until he realized it was nonsense and moved on.

Obviously not everyone is as incompetent as the guy who ran our little shrink-a-doo, but that seems to be the way things work.

So, while I hate the whole concept — I think they are destructive of morale and constitute a “scientific” form of racism-by-another-name — I think somebody could make a fortune selling it.

Uncategorized What do you think?

So much for the tablet saving everything

May 12th, 2014

How many more of the breathless predictions about the tablet are going to fail?

It’s been obvious for a long time now that the tablet isn’t going to save the magazine. In fact, it’s been a money pit that publishers have been all too willing to waste their time on — for very little return.

Sure, some publishers are doing … I wouldn’t say well, but you could say they’re doing okay on the tablet. But overall it’s been a big waste.

Now we hear that teenagers are reading less and less despite the tablet.

But wait! Wasn’t the story that if we put things in a new, more “immersive experience” (add buzz words and such here) that we would be able to reach new digital audiences? It’s not that those young folk aren’t interested in serious stuff, it’s just that you need to add video and chat and social sharing and jelly beans and kittens.

The tablet is here to stay for many reasons. It’s an incredibly convenient device for some things. I check the weather every morning on my tablet, and I often check my email or look things up on the web while I’m watching TV. It’s great for getting recipes (or listening to Pandora) while you’re cooking, and I always use the mash / sparge calculator on my tablet when I’m brewing beer.

It also has serious limitations. It is not a productivity device, and the screen glare does make it hard to read — although it’s convenient to be able to bring along a hundred books on one device.

Tablet magazines are cool for about the first five minutes, but you quickly realize that a paper magazine is simply better.

I’m not anti-tablet. They have their niche. But that niche is not going to save publishing. I don’t even think it’s going to help.

Uncategorized What do you think?

5 wasted years: How the “print is dead” mantra has distracted publishers from the real work

February 19th, 2014

Here’s a hopeful article: 6 Things Digital Natives Should Know About Print

It’s hopeful because I’m seeing more and more articles like this — by people who are realizing that all the “digital revolution” kids were just trying to sell us something, and that print is neither dead nor dying.

2013 was the year print forgot to die. It was the year our industry seemed to reach consensus that, for many years to come, we will derive much of our profit from putting ink on paper.

This post title says “5 wasted years.” I just made that up. I don’t know if it’s five or six or what. But that we’ve been wasting time is indisputable.

The “print is dead” mantra has so permeated our brains that in our meetings, conferences, and publications, we’ve stopped talking about how to be successful with dead-tree editions or the implications of the latest print-related developments.

Right. We’ve been wasting far too much of our time and resources on the 3 percent.

Consider this. Imagine how different publishing would be today if all the time and effort and meetings and talks and agonizing about “digital” for the past five years had been spent on improving renewal rates. Does anyone doubt that the time would have been better spent?

Don’t get me wrong. The world is changing and digital is a big part of the mix. (Generally speaking that means print + web — not tablet editions or apps or any of that “feed the consultants” stuff.)

But we have to keep things in proportion, and it’s my feeling that the hard times the publishing industry has been through the last several years have been exacerbated by losing track of the core business.

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The migration from paid print to ad-supported digital

February 3rd, 2014

When it comes to magazine publishing, print revenues have been flat or declining. Mostly declining. There are some exceptions, but overall the industry is losing ground.

The Big Hope was that people would migrate from print to tablet, and that tablet publishing would become a new source of revenue. Or at least something to slow the decline. Or at least worth the effort.

It hasn’t turned out that way. Tablet magazines have been a huge disappointment. A few companies have made a decent go of it, but generally speaking the results are bland, at best. People simply aren’t that interested in reading magazines on tablets. Of course the “it’s a new world” people think that this will change and all of a sudden everybody’s going to be reading magazines on tablets, but I, for one, will believe it when I see it.

There are reports that “digital” revenues are up for many publishers, and sometimes people falsely assume that refers to an increase in tablet subscriptions, but generally it turns out that the “digital” revenue is coming from good old-fashioned ads on websites.

Presumably people used to buy magazines because they were interested in the subject, or liked the pictures, or something. Has the world suddenly lost interest in all such things and is now only interested in videos about cats? I don’t think so.

I have a couple theories about what’s changing and why, and what publishers should do about it.

Tablet development is distracting from real product development: Magazines come and go in the normal course of business because the world changes. People’s interests change, markets change, etc. In the old days publishers would deal with this by changing their content to suit new markets, or starting new magazines on new topics.

The “it’s a new world” folk have convinced publishers that the real need now is to adapt to digital — by which they usually mean “create an expensive app.”

I think it’s very likely that some of the effort that should have been focused on making sure the content is still meeting readers’ needs has been re-purposed and is now focused on trying to move everything to digital. IOW, magazines are losing readers because they’re not paying enough attention to the old-fashioned idea of matching content to a changing market. They’re forgetting tried and true business practices and chasing digital will-o-wisps.

In support of this theory I note that there are magazines that are thriving — yes, even in print — because they’re writing what the readers want.

The solution is obvious. Don’t forget to do the normal business of publishing.

“Always on” consumers don’t think in terms of issues: Like many people these days, I have some sort of electronic device with me almost all the time, so if I’m on the subway and want to read about fishing, I can do that. I don’t need to wait for a magazine to arrive — either in the mail, on Magzter, or whatever. To the extent that people rely on “always on” content, the issue-based subscription doesn’t seem that important.

Note that a digital issue doesn’t solve this problem. The “always on” consumer doesn’t want to wait for a new digital edition any more than he wants to wait for a new print edition.

This doesn’t mean that publishers should abandon the idea of an issue and simply move to constantly updated online content. The solution is to create a link between the issue-based service and the “always on” service. The simplest way to do this is to make the magazine and the website work together so that each one reinforces the other.

The people who want to stay in print can stay in print, and the people who need a daily fix can visit the website. The publisher needs to make it a coherent brand experience so that whether the reader is browsing an issue or browsing the website he thinks of the publisher as the source for his chosen type of content.

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Be careful applying one A-B test to another product or market

January 28th, 2014

I recently did an A-B test on a web page where one panel showed the product and the premium and the other panel showed a picture of our esteemed chief. The chief won.

Then I duplicated the test for a different product on a very similar page. This product goes to a different market, and this time the product plus the premium won.

It would be nice to say different rules apply to different products and markets, and that’s probably the lesson we should take from this. But sometimes I’m tempted to think that the universe is inherently weird and designed to drive us all crazy.

Uncategorized What do you think?