Through the tumult of changing markets, publishers have needed to reexamine their business strategies. One thing that publishers, especially of print, can be tempted to overlook is the importance of relationships. There are three areas in particular that I believe are critical for the success of publishing.
Audience Feedback Loop
The popularity of YouTube stars surpassing typical Hollywood celebrities has revealed that what people, at least millennials, want is an interactive experience. The desire for content creation as a collaborative and community product speaks to something universal in the human experience. A parent loves a piece of artwork made together with their child more than any work of art one could purchase. Social media, in tandem with the increasing availability of digital content creation tools, has made this possible on, literally, a global scale. A publisher should be looking to create an explicit feedback loop for the content they create with their audience. Even for small regional print publications, creative channels for communication and collaboration with one’s audience could be the difference between success and failure. People are a lot less likely to cancel a subscription for something they feel they have contributed to.
More often than not, ad space is seen as a blank commodity to be bought and sold without much individuation. This has been taken to such an extreme with programmatic advertising that publishers may not even know what is being advertised on their site. This has lead to countless problems for which ad blockers are the natural market corrective. In many ways this has been due to the failure of publishers to listen to their audience. The value a publisher should be providing advertisers is an audience willing to buy their products. Perhaps it is time for publishers to treat advertisers as partners and not simply slap on an ad at the best price they can. Instead, if a publisher is listening to their audience, maybe they can provide real value to an advertiser by creating ads that contribute to the experience of content rather than being a necessary evil. Fashion magazines, for example, have historically exercised great creativity in having their ads flow with – rather than disrupt – content. That is in large part due to collaboration with advertisers and a thorough knowledge of their audience.
At FIPP, one of the key points made by Joe Ripp, CEO of Time, is that company culture is of greater importance than strategy. In the tech world it is a well known truism among investors that an A team with a B idea is better than a B team with an A idea. In American Icon, Bryce G. Hoffman details how Alan Mulally, the former CEO of Ford, turned the company around by changing the company culture. The company culture includes the entire ecosystem of vendors, distributors, and freelancers that work with any publisher. Breakdowns in communication internally cannot coexist with a strategy that involves collaboration with the audience and advertising clients. This requires a psychological buy-in from every level of a media company — a buy-in that cannot be conjured by HR or imported from consultants. It is grounded in honest and open communication from leadership who recognize what really motivates people to engender an environment of trust. There is no mass-produced solution to cultural issues; it is something that can only arise organically.
In the end, tech can’t fix problems from misusing tech. In a world of mass-production and automation there’s a temptation to begin seeing the world through a lens which reduces human interaction into quantifiable commodities. Life imitating art has never been so apparent than with the “Minority Report” style virtual stalking we have today. The race to track and individualize advertising has lead to greater alienation and the threat of collapse in digital advertising. The root of this issue goes back to a temptation to think that what we want are the sorts of things that artificial intelligence can supply. Primal urges to belong, to have significance, to be recognized, and to contribute may never be the sort of thing that technology can supply. However, technology can facilitate it. Nevertheless, no technology can solve our poor use of technology. We need to prioritize relationships in all sectors of life, business included, to cultivate creativity and reap the fruits. The future of publishing in any incarnation depends on it.