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Do you know where the value lies in your publication?

Tunnel vision is an occupational hazard for publishers. The relentless and unforgiving publishing schedule means that publishers rarely take time out to ask how their content is actually being used by their readers. Yet, says Anthony Ray, the readers’ perspective is all-important, especially when assessing the under-performance of a title.

By Anthony Ray

Over the past twelve months, I have worked with a number of publishers, trying to help them turn around struggling publications.

In a number of cases, we found that the value lay in an area unknown to management and led to a rethinking of the brand proposition.

Value can be an elusive thing to pin down, and a formulaic approach to nailing it down won’t get you very far. It’s not about producing a pecking order for editorial so they can see what sections of the publication (or channels of a website) are most frequently referred to. It’s not even about asking them what information they’d like more of: all these might provide clues, but you may be none the wiser as to why they want that. It’s not even, dare I say it, about how many scoops you’ve managed to claim over the competition (though that can help).

The problem with defining value is that all too often the ‘framework’ for success has been predetermined by internal thinking. And, unless you’re careful, much of this type of thinking can spill over into any market research you do. This mindset can often colour the research, limiting it to the product itself: “If we can improve our product then they’ll use it more – right?” The last thing it’s about is understanding the user or reader. There’s a world of difference. It might help if we look at two examples of what I mean.

Case One: Understanding the supply chain

A marketing manager for a B2B subscription magazine had a heap of trouble on her hands. Quite simply, the magazine renewal rates were far from improving, and they were sliding further downwards. She called us in to undertake some Root Cause Analysis. The brief was simple enough. What’s going wrong and what’s it going to take to turn things around?

As we started talking to a mix of current and lapsed subscribers, there was an outpouring of anguish: years of increasing difficulty for a myriad of companies struggling with dwindling margins and being hit by the credit crunch had meant they couldn’t justify holding onto the subscription any longer. The surface noise hinted strongly that the magazine was just another casualty of the economic crisis.

But it wasn’t as simple as that. Like many trade publications, this magazine serves a diverse range of readers – from sole traders through to directors in major multinational companies. One of the first things we do in our Root Cause Analysis is to describe and quantify the readers throughout the sector’s supply chain, highlighting which segments are most prone to lapse.

The chart below describes the customer base for this publication and highlights the reliance of the magazine on subscriptions that lay outside the ‘core producer’ audience the magazine was targeted at. In fact, the core producing industry itself accounted for just a fifth of all subscriptions. The supply chain comprised those who supplied components, services, logistics and finished products and services for the main producers. Above and below this supply chain are the more generic ‘market watchers’ who look across a number of different industries and need to keep abreast of what’s happening in each. These can often be large spenders on information and include recruitment and advertising agencies, law and consultancy firms though to private equity firms and investment banks.

Understanding the reliance of this publication on the supply chain rather than the core producers made us reconsider all the various comments we’d been hearing in our ongoing conversations.

We started looking for patterns of comment across the supply chain and market watchers and that’s when the focus on talking to people about their working lives rather than just talking about the publication paid dividends.

Real value often lies where information is acted upon

What was clear was that a large element of the supply chain read the magazine with a very specific purpose in mind. Not all news is equal; they scanned the news stories for anything relating to their business. They looked for clues as to who might be developing new products and commissioning work. They then contacted others further up the supply chain to state their credentials. In some industries like construction, this need has been traditionally met with a series of ‘projects for tender’ pages. But in many other sectors, this kind of information simply doesn’t exist. Yet the demand is there all the same. Suppliers scratching around for clues – on the web, in trade publications. Quite often they’ll build Excel spreadsheets that help the business pull everything together in one place.

Going back to our example, this quickly revealed itself as where most residual value lay. They’d scour the ‘News in Brief’ items, the ‘People Moves’ section. They’d read news stories to find out who lay behind a particular innovation at a company that was making waves. It wasn’t easy for the reader – significant details were often missing: names of key people who’d recently moved; the companies they’d previously worked at and major suppliers they’d used in the past. And in many cases, by the time the story was reported, the supply chain had been sewn up by the core producer. But despite this, they went with what they had and did what they could.

Once this crucial fact was understood, then the rest of the jigsaw fell into place.

Different solutions emerge

The research debrief was certainly interesting – culminating in the question, “now that we know what information people are acting upon, how can this publication deliver?” Even more fundamentally, would a weekly magazine be our answer to this question if we were starting from scratch?

It was clear that a key priority was to develop an online database with the aim of helping subscribers to identify business leads and deliver more successful pitches. To work, it needed to bring together detailed profiles of key procurement staff as well as data on their products. Further research helped the team understand how online and print would work most effectively and what pricing model would meet with greatest success.

So in the space of a few months, the publishing team for this particular trade magazine had the confidence to make radical changes to an established brand. For the first time, there was a distinct role for the website – which till then had been mirroring the magazine’s content. Since then, new sales and improving renewal rates have shown that this re-engineering has made a significant change to this product’s prospects.

Case Two: Identify how usage varies by job function

Some products can show a distinctive profile of user – maybe it’s the level of seniority (typically many newsletters enjoy a high level of board director as their subscribers) or perhaps a specific job function. In one recent project we worked on, Sales and Business Development were identified as being a crucial cornerstone of a series of newsletters and magazines.

When we conducted our interviews, we saw that those in business development and sales had very different information usage habits to other subscribers. And these habits were driven – just as they were in the previous case, by people acting on information. And it was the information they acted upon that they valued and used most of all. It led to some interesting discoveries:

Google Alerts

Have you considered Google as one of your product’s competitors? We found that one of the information tools used by those in sales was the Google Alerts function. Typically, a list of competitors would be input into Google Alerts and each day these people would scan them for news of any product releases etc. The really powerful thing they liked about Google Alerts was the way it got beyond the normal diet of news stories carried by the trade magazines. Suppliers writing blogs about what they were doing and inadvertently alerting them to what was going on behind the scenes; releases by competitors in other regions that may well be soft-launches and an indicator of what was to come. But value didn’t just lie in the information; it lay in the simple fact that competitor tracking had suddenly taken up a lot less time. What used to be a chore had suddenly become simple. A valuable tool is being given away free. Not the kind of competitor you should dismiss as irrelevant.

Press-release newsletters

Many editors will know the type of information sources I’m talking about here. Free daily email alerts that provide the bread and butter base for further investigation and reporting. That’s where the editor adds the value – right? You verify this information from third party sources, add critical comment and place it within a wider context. Then you charge a subscription fee for this. The problem with this logic is that it assumes the value goes up in a corresponding manner. But for these sales managers it often didn’t, because it’s not the way they work. Value for them lies in getting the first hint of news. They know it’s laced with a heavy dose of in-house propaganda. But they get on the phone to colleagues in other companies and the unvarnished truth starts to emerge. The problem is that they reckon they’ll get closer to the truth than reading about it in a trade magazine or newsletter, because people will be far more candid on the phone than they ever will be in writing.

Those are just two examples of understanding how a particular job function will use information in their job, but I hope they give you an idea of where value comes from.

Challenge your internally-accepted wisdom by asking yourself where value lies

These two cases demonstrate the reality of 21st century publishing and why you need to take a good long hard look at your list of competitors and start thinking hard about all those unchallenged bits of dogma that are floating around in your organisation. There’s only one way you’ll ever be able to mount an effective challenge, and that’s by understanding your readers and how they work.

And the last thing you should have on your agenda is your product.