The print-vs.-digital debate seems almost trite by today’s increasingly complex media landscape. Call it “digital first” if you want, but today’s publishing imperative is really about distributing content wherever your audience wants it – on the web, through mobile devices, at events, or in print.
At our first Digital Trailblazers Summit this week, much of the discussion involved how media companies are adapting to a multi-platform, multi-product world of publishing. Here are four themes that emerged as the keys to creating a sustainable business.
What types of talent should you be hiring? You don’t necessarily need to focus exclusively on digital natives – but it helps.
Gregg Hano, CEO of Mag+ and a former SVP of Bonnier, said he looks for people who are entrepreneurial and want to learn. Mitch Rouda, president of e-media at Farm Journal Media, prefers to hire people who know how to use new technology rather than those who can actually develop it. He believes the pace of technology moves too fast to keep up with internal resources.
“We don’t bring technological expertise to the table,” said Rouda. “Our job is to create requirements documents.”
Others see real benefits in beefing up their in-house development capabilities. Twenty-five of the 40 people on the team at Hearst Magazines’ App Lab are developers or producers. Their role goes beyond just developing products, said App Lab VP Chris Wilkes (right).
“We’re trying to build things that give us a deep understanding of the challenges, so if we license technologies from others or work with third parties, then we go to the table with a knowledgeable position,” said Wilkes. “Half the time we decide we do want to build it ourselves.”
TVGuide.com has been adding internal developers as it gears up to release its first home-grown mobile apps. Where is it finding the right talent? VP of Product Development David Singer said his team scouted the app landscape for apps that were related to the TV industry and also offered appealing functionality and usability. It found one in Fav.tv and, in true Silicon Valley fashion, “acqui-hired” the company and two of its developers.
“We already saw what they could produce, and they knew what we were about,” said Singer. “We knew they’d have a much easier time walking through the door and working with everybody on our team.”
Adding outside talent can help to change your culture by infusing new ideas. The goal is to inject a mindset of entrepreneurialism and experimentation across the organization.
“We’ve tried to take the view of a startup,” said Matthew Yorke, president of IDG Global Solutions, the centralized services division of technology publisher IDG. “Let’s try things, let’s make mistakes, and let’s learn from them.”
Wallace Ryland, a partner with Arden Operating Co. and associate publisher of RCR Wireless, agreed with the need for more risk-taking. “I love it when people who work for me make mistakes, because we’re going to learn from it and not do it again,” he said. The key is supporting experimentation instead of condemning it when things don’t work out. “If you have a blame culture, it’s going to be hard to move the needle,” said Ryland (pictured).
Publishers need to understand that digital platforms make it easier to try new things. “There’s a limited form factor in print, so there are more checks and balances,” said Jim Spanfeller, CEO of Spanfeller Media Group, publisher of TheDailyMeal.com. “On the web, it’s limitless. There’s no downside to experimenting: Put something up, and if it doesn’t work, you take it down.”
Part of the culture shift involves becoming less inward-focused. The “not invented here” culture within traditional media companies is often at odds with the startup mindset. Sales teams in particular need to focus on identifying and addressing customer needs instead of pitching products – and they need to be supported by compensation programs that are aligned with this approach.
“We have to encourage and incent our salespeople to become focused on the customer,” said Don Scott, director of national sales for digital media at Media General. “Your job as a seller is to solve a problem and bring value. You shouldn’t have a pitch book.”
Ryland agreed: "We can’t be self-centered anymore. We’ve changed our sales cycle based on a more reactive listening process, vs. a 'show up and throw up' process. Getting closer to the customer is where the innovation happens."
Culture cannot be mandated, however. The best way to infuse a new mindset throughout an organization is to find a few “true believers” across editorial, sales and other groups. Solicit their ideas, encourage them to try new things, and reward their efforts through recognition and compensation. Others (not everyone) will follow. For those that don’t, well, they’ll eventually get weeded out.
“If a seller is into a new product, they’ll sell it,” said Hano. “Find that one individual whose eyes light up when you show them the product. Identify a few targets and run with it.”
One of the greatest challenges is deciding on the best structure for your multi-platform organization. Should staffs be integrated across print and digital? There’s no consensus on the best approach.
Some publishers opt for fully integrated teams. Others – particularly publishers with multiple brands – prefer a hybrid model, with teams dedicated to specific products or channels but supported by centralized “centers of excellence” around emerging platforms such as mobile or social.
IDG Global Solutions provides this type of support across IDG’s brands. Sales teams that service large accounts have integrated salespeople that work with clients across print, digital, events and custom media. They also have dedicated digital salespeople who work with agencies. But they don’t necessarily have deep expertise around newer services such as Amplify or Community Works, two of IDG’s social media marketing programs.
“We have 25 different social media services built into Amplify,” said Yorke. “Community Works is an end-to-end, very sophisticated social solution for clients. You can’t line up 80 people to talk about that. It’s a different conversation.”
Yorke’s team provides the expertise needed to support those calls and close deals. “The goal is to give them some comfort selling complicated products,” he said.
Time Inc.'s Lifestyle Group maintains separate print and digital editorial teams, with a focus on finding the right ways to integrate and collaborate across the groups. “It’s about using your existing digital resources, and then optimizing print resources, and figuring out where the crossover points can happen,” said Tina Imm, GM of digital for the Time Inc. Lifestyle Group (pictured). “It’s not about cannibalization – it’s about going where the audience is.”
Some publishers are rechristening editors and publishers as “brand managers” or “product managers” to give them a broader, cross-platform mandate. Giving top managers responsibility across channels makes it easier for them to identify new opportunities, said Mag+’s Hano.
Another emerging role is the project manager. In the rapidly changing worlds of social and mobile, having someone charged with shepherding a new product up through and beyond its launch is increasingly important.
“What you launch may not be the same product three months from now,” said Imm. “Project managers are responsible for the entire lifecycle – that’s extremely important.”
All of the touchy-feely talk about thinking like a startup won’t amount to much without a real process behind it. It may sound counterintuitive, but innovation must be supported by a structured format for vetting ideas, assigning resources, and managing projects as they evolve.
Imm’s digital group holds weekly “greenlight” meetings to discuss new ideas. It’s not an open brainstorming session – contributors are asked to put some thought into defining the idea and its potential target audience.
At first, people were getting discouraged because many of the ideas were shot down. “People were calling it a ‘no’ meeting, but we were just trying to turn it into a more thoughtful process,” said Imm. Things picked up quickly when a couple of ideas were approved – greenlit – and the owners were given real resources to pursue the ideas.
“We constantly focus on innovation,” said Imm. “It’s important to make sure the team understands that the best ideas don’t come from management. When we don’t have a greenlight meeting, I feel like we’re missing something.”
Hearst’s App Lab has adopted agile software development methods to stay nimble. “There are a tremendous amount of ideas coming in every day,” said Wilkes. “It takes a lot of discipline to stay focused on the priorities. There’s a learning curve and integration process that needs to take place, not just technically, but culturally, in the way you adapt these tools into the workflow.”