I’ve seen lots of publishers try new products, such as digital editions. I’ve seen lots of publishers adopt proven business models, such as retail. The trick is doing both at the same time – and making it work.

Take the investment in digital editions, creating everything from plain PDF facsimile editions, to all-singing-all-dancing interactive monthly magazines.

Some of the product work here has been pretty bad, some of it has been pretty good: but so far no publisher I’ve spoken to has made much money doing it. Some good products. No good business model.

There’s also been lots of experimentation and investment in e-commerce, but I’ve yet to see much of it catch fire. I’ve seen lots of publishers build weak retail offers that they’ve then had to quietly shutter. Perfectly good business model. Not good products.

Scratch the surface in many publishing companies and what you find is management teams who can see their current business model is under pressure, with very little idea how to create new ones.

Not just new products.

New business models.

Publishers are brilliantly inventive in coming up with new products: newsletters, special editions, one shot events, apps. That creativity is the essence of good publishing, but it’s not necessarily a new commercial model. And let’s face it, high risk commercial innovation isn’t why most people became publishing executives.

Yet now it’s clear to everyone that new business models are needed, and that means new products that are built on different commercial assumptions from the magazines that are seeing their long term circulations and ad revenues in decline.


The bad

By and large, publishers have horrible, inefficient publishing systems. They have teams that have been painfully slow to develop mobile products. They have too many products. They’ve done a lot of apps that aren’t making any money. They have to make loads of investment in programmatic advertising, and that will probably involve painful management changes in their commercial teams. They don’t know enough about their customers, and they don’t provide enough incentives to get their users to share data with them, which means they’re getting killed by the digital players who do provide great incentives to give up personal data, such as our dear friends at Facebook and Twitter.

Tackling these problems will require new product solutions, and a strong product culture in which they can be conceived, planned, tested, launched and improved, just as software companies have to do.

So let’s hire a new generation of product people to provide fresh ideas, fresh commercial thinking, and find new opportunities within publishing. The publishing people can bring real smarts around building brands, audiences, and content. The product people can understand user requirements, agile development, and building great experiences that users want to use.

What could possibly go wrong?

The worse

The minute these two tribes get together, it all kicks off. Here’s why.

Publishing leads have made their careers by making brilliant decisions around what the audience wants, and they’ve often done it by gut.

Brand creatives with vision are the wild-eyed entrepreneurs of the publishing scene. When they’re great, they’re great because they go with their instincts. Quite often initial audience research tells them their idea will be a disaster, but they do it anyway. Great editors don’t need no stinkin’ research. Nobody knows more about the audience than they do: that’s their job.

Product creatives have also made their careers by making brilliant, decisions about what the user wants, but they’ve done it with data, logical analysis, meticulous research, and user testing. They’ve tested, measured, and learned. They’ve failed fast, iterated, and got it right. Nobody knows more about the users than they do: that’s their job.

It’s not hard to imagine what happens when you lock these people in a room together. The product people can make a theoretical splash, they have data and charts, and they’re driving the change. Based on their initial analysis they suggest something new.

The minute they present their vision the brand team sees that the core of what they do – their intuitive understanding of what is right for their market, and what their audiences want – is being questioned.

Guess what? They push back: ‘You don’t get the user. That’s totally wrong for this market. I’ve been in this space for ten years – that won’t work. It’s not right for our audience.’

Then the product type says something snarky about it not being FOR the current audience, but the FUTURE audience they’re trying to acquire – and things go rapidly downhill.

The problem is, and it’s very irritating for the product people, the brand people are often right – especially at the beginning of the relationship when the product people are at their most vulnerable. The product people are new to the sector, and they can easily miss obvious things that will get an experienced editor or publisher’s eyes rolling.

For ‘fail/fast’ product people, that just means: cool, got it, good learning, let’s improve it and move in.

For ‘we know best’ publishing people it means: these people are idiots, they don’t even get the basics. They can then disengage, which destroys any future synergy. What should have been a new beginning fizzles out.

Let’s say senior management puts a gun to their head and forces them to carry on without dealing with the fundamental issue. The user testing being done by the product people starts to bite, so the publishing people push back, and argue for more testing that confirms their opinions, or a testing methodology that confirms their assumptions.

Each part of the product development life cycle – design/UX, development, and then research after launch, can become a proxy war between these two cultures.

As a leader, if you don’t fix the culture wars, they can go on for years, and you’ll never ship anything that makes a difference to the market. You’ll have loads of user stories, but none with happy endings.

Eventually, everyone gets sick of the disconnect, the product people go off somewhere they feel more appreciated, the publisher brings in new product people, and the whole cycle can begin again.

The good

Let me paint you a different picture, one in which from the beginning, the balance of forces between product and publishing is set up correctly.

In this world, instead of fighting to see who speaks for the user, product and publishing collaborate to come up with the best shared narrative about the user.

This means the product people will have to acknowledge the experience and intuition of people who may have been working in a market for two decades and know it cold. 

This means the publishing people will have to realise that intuition alone won’t cut it: that there are new ways of gathering data and testing user insight that can dramatically improve their understanding of what’s going on out there.

Needless to say, this is something that senior publishing and product people may find challenging, but it’s got to be done.

The goal is a balance of forces, and it takes a few people at the top who speak both languages – the language of product and the language of publishing – to get the two tribes working together. 

Then use common sense. Avoid grand plans. Start small. Go for quick wins. The pressure is on for the product people to announce the new Jerusalem in the first twelve weeks. Avoid this at all costs. Get people tinkering, adapting, learning, and avoid any big reveals.

Expect it to take at least two years before everyone’s got used to each other. Publishing businesses change a lot more slowly than they should at the best of times, and these are not the best of times.

That brings us to the biggest challenge you’ve got to overcome. Building a great product culture takes a lot of collaboration, and the work involved comes at a time when publishing teams are already under huge pressure to deliver editorially and commercially.

New product work means a lot of tough meetings, and who wants to go to a lot of tough meetings?

Most of all, it takes time. And that’s the one thing most magazine businesses don’t have very much of.

Michael Parsons is a Digital Product Consultant and has worked on product launches in the UK and US for companies that include CBS Networks, Conde Nast, and Immediate Media and with brands that include CNET, Wired, Vogue, and Gardener’s World.