The three problems with publishing

I’ve said it a ton of times already, as have many others in the industry – traditional publishing models are in trouble. Someone asked me this week what I think can fix publishing, and although there are some parts of the broken industry that are going to be difficult to repair, I do think that there are three major things that would help.

First, publishing is broken because media and publishing companies don’t have a way to effectively account for their audience. In one traditional publishing model, specifically in the B2B controlled circulation print publishing world, publications require subscribers to fill out a qualification form. Qualification forms are long, multi-point questionnaires that ask a series of data points that help the magazine figure out if the subscriber is a qualified recipient of the magazine. (See an example here) Basically, to qualify to receive a print magazine for free, a subscriber would fill out this long form that asked various demographic questions, as well as information about the subscriber’s budgets, number of sites that they had purchasing power over, and how many people they influenced at their job, etc. Those forms are then used to determine who qualifies to receive a free subscription of the magazine. If the subscriber has enough purchasing power, they get the magazine. The publisher is then able to use this data to provide a subscriber profile to potential advertisers, who then decide to run ads in the magazine based on the demographic profile of the subscribers who are receiving that magazine. All of which was qualified and audited based on the qualification forms.

As the online shift has happened, things have changed. Where the Internet allows for audience measurement (IAB Guidelines [PDF]) in a way that print publishing never did, it isn’t necessarily measuring the things that are going to help publishers succeed. While the Internet allows for a great deal of measurement, the measurement is in metrics such as page views, time spent, number of page views and the like. These data points are valuable to advertisers, but don’t provide any information into the specifics of the audience that is visiting that site. So a site like CleanRooms, (just as an example, not to pick on that site specifically), which is micro-targeted to people who care about contamination control technology, can show its advertisers that its website was visited x number of times in June, but can’t provide details on exactly who it was that visited the site. Advertisers know the reach of their message, but they can’t be sure of the targeting.

This has caused a weird content dilemma. Instead of focusing on creating the content that will serve their audience specifically, publishers have begun creating content that will attract the MOST readers, because they are measured by page views instead of audience specifics. This is the first thing that has to change online. The model that the qualified magazines used where they were able to provide specific data on exactly who is visiting their site – the audience demographics – is essential. This is particularly an issue with B2B publishing where the goal has always been to reach the right audience, not necessarily the broadest audience. (This is less of an issue in consumer publishing where the goal was to reach the largest number of possible people.)

The only way to overcome this challenge is for publishers to move this audience development model online – so that they are capturing details and data about their audience. Not only is it vital that they are able to prove exactly who their audience is, but the ability to capture their contact information and permission to continue to contact them in the future is also vital. It is with that contact data and permission, just as it was when publishers were able to send subscribers print magazines, that the publishers are going to be able to build their audience, get them to build affinity and be an effective media partner to advertisers.

The second issue is the way that advertising is being as audiences move from print to online. With the print publication, advertisers were content to know that their message was being read, reviewed or at least seen by the right audience. With the move to online, advertisers are looking for measurability. Google has changed the online media industry not only by providing a low-cost online advertising channel for marketers, and not only by allowing publishers to generate simple revenue by running advertising on their sites, but also by pioneering the idea of return-on-investment (ROI) and pay-for-performance media. No longer are advertisers satisfied to buy advertising on the same basis as they did in print, just to reach a specific audience demographic. (Remember, there’s some question as to whether online sites are reaching the same demographic that their print counterpoints were reaching.) Advertisers are now flocking to ROI-based advertising channels like search marketing and lead generation. The issue is that publishers are having a side effects of viagra difficult time figuring out how to offer these types of programs to their advertisers, but they have to figure this out or else they are going to be in deep, deep trouble.

Finally, the nature of content has changed entirely. In the traditional publishing model, media companies hired content producers who wrote fabulous content that was pushed out to subscribers via their print publications on a periodic basis. With the launch of the Internet, the publishers were able to publish to a site that the audience could come back to on their schedule – that was revolutionary at the time. But now, things have changed to an even larger degree. No longer are the media companies and publishers the sole creators of content – not by a long shot. Now there are new media companies with content producers, bloggers who are self-publishing content, and a whole host of user-generated content channels, such as social networks, reviews sites and the like. On top of that, all of the companies that relied for years on the publishers to get the message out about their products have become publishers. They have websites, but they also create and distribute content in an incredibly wide variety of formats.

Publishers who are coming from the traditional model are fighting this change. They make the argument that traditional journalism, although it’s going through a huge decline, is one of the foundations of our society and without it, we are going to suffer. It might be. And we might suffer. But the truth is that consumers of content – the subscribers of the past – want lots of different types of content (PDF), and they want to get their content from a variety of sources.

Here’s a fictional, but realistic example. A new virtualization server is being released by Dell. A consumer hears about it because there is a news story on his favorite technology Web site. He wants to know more, so he goes hunting for content. That publication only has that one article, but he doesn’t know that; he follows the links in the article to find additional information. On that publication’s site, he reads an old story about another company that has a virtualization server, then a round-up of virtualization servers, both of which were linked to in the article. He clicks on a link to a white paper (written by Dell, hosted on the publication’s web site), and reads that. But that’s not really all the information he wants – he wants more information on this new virtualization server. So he clicks the link to the press release from Dell. At the bottom of the press release is a link to the page on the Dell website that has more information – so he goes there. The Dell Website has a whole bunch of information on the server, including pictures, a video and a white paper about the benefits of virtualization in an insurance company, which happens to be the industry that the consumer is in, so he reads and watches all that content. After reading all the information available on Dell’s site, the consumer goes to Slashdot to see if anything has been written about the new server, and then goes to Google where he types “Dell virtualization reviews” and goes to five sites that feature reviews from IT pros that have used other Dell virtualization servers in the past. He then gets back to work, fairly satisfied with the information that he’s read.

In the old model, publishers don’t really believe that this is the way things work. They don’t believe that a consumer of content reads any information from a vendor and believes it. But the truth is, content consumers are looking for multiple angles on the same topic. They want to know what the journalist thinks and will give that information great weight, but they also want to know what the vendor says about their own product, and what their peers have to say. Just check out the graphic below, from the Enquiro Business to Business survey 2007 (registration required) – about the types of content that are involved in and influence the B2B buying process. Content from all sources isn’t only viable, it’s necessary and highly influential. Publishers, many of which have a large number of livelihoods tied up in the traditional publishing model, aren’t totally willing to let go of their long-held beliefs to embrace an online strategy that includes content from a wide array of sources. But they must if they want to retain their audience and subscribers.

These are the problems with publishing that I see – 1) the need for effective audience development methodologies; 2) the ability to support ROI-based advertising programs and; 3) the diversification of content types to solve all the needs and wants of the core audience.

Without embracing these three elements, traditional publishers are doomed. But if publishers can figure these things out, it might just save publishing.

Photo of rusty printing press by anyjazz65

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