How to become an agile publisher

Digital device proliferation, demanding customers, technical challenges, disruptive competition, lack of visibility…. are all causing people leading traditional publishers to feel slightly dizzy.  Now that consumer and business people alike expect content not only to be instantly available on whatever is their latest mobile device, but also easy to explore, slice, dice, customise and comment upon, creators of print magazines and simple websites are somewhat bewildered by what to do next.  How can they decide what digital services to develop, how to acquire new skills, and how to energise their teams to think differently?

I believe the future for publishers involves a different approach to product and market development, drawing on proven successes in traditional publishing and also in software development.

Fast growing media businesses like Emap back in the 1990s and Informa in the 2000s, built their success on hundreds of tiny innovations launched by autonomous small teams who knew their markets well.  Peter Rigby, the architect of Informa’s impressive growth, described the organisation as an archipelago of focussed teams continually making small bets along the frontiers of their markets, gradually learning and expanding their influence and understanding.

The agile philosophy of software development places an emphasis on iterative changes, built on a close feedback loop with users, gradually evolving a product into a tailored and satisfying experience.  And once again, there’s a dedicated, autonomous, self-tasking team that rolls through short sprints, pragmatically prioritising features, testing them, releasing them, learning and then starting all over again.

So I define the agile publisher as a media organisation that sets aside the five year strategic plan, and blockbuster launches, and allows its teams to gradually push the boundaries of their market, their content and their technical capability, informed by close contact with customers/readers/users and a relentless focus on data and analytics.  The shift is as much about culture and organisation as it is about technology.

Here are my principles for a successful future as an agile publisher.

1.    Make customer relationships personal

Forget reader surveys; to truly understand how customers use your products when the interaction is as important as the content you need to enter into a conversation with them at a personal level.  Make the most of live events, set up a user group, even hire a customer to join your team.  Work out the different segments and explore how the product can be tailored for different situations.

2.    Build good data and analyse it

Take every opportunity to measure and monitor how different groups are using your digital products now.  Understand how often they access, what they read, what they do and on what devices.

3.    Watch the competition

Cast your net wider than the usual suspects – look at related markets, outside your geographic boundaries, and become a magpie – collecting smart new bits of functionality and great ideas.

4.    Build an autonomous team

Find a product champion with a mix of market knowledge, technical understanding, commercial nous and ability to prioritise and plan, and support them with good content, marketing, commercial, technical and project people.  Give the team space and time to research users before insisting on deadlines.  Remove bureaucracy and obstacles.  Let them focus on one task if you can.

5.    Make them prioritise rigorously

Add some discipline on how to decide what to develop first, what’s essential and what is just nice to have.  The team has authority to decide their priorities; they just need to show their thought process.

6.    Give them access to technical experts

Provide enough development resource to build robust, scalable solutions.  This can be outsourced, but the developers need to feel part of the team, and ultimately you need to build development skills in-house.

7.    Place small bets

Don’t start with your highest profile product or most vocal and hardest to please market segment.  Let the team learn its craft out of the spotlight.  But if a new opportunity in an adjacent market or content area appears, let the team experiment.  Keep it simple at first – create the minimum viable product.

8.    Keep learning from customers – and each other

Collect real-time feedback from your first iteration – talk to users and listen to their concerns.  And ask the team to reflect on what worked well and what could be improved for the next iteration.

9.    Push the boundaries further

For the next iteration, try to entrench your product further into the customer’s workflow, or explore a new group of customers or an expanded content offering.  Keep watching the analytics for clues on what’s hitting the spot.

10.  Roll it out and spread the experience

Once this method of product development has been tested out in a small market segment, and you have some willing advocates, you can roll out the agile publishing approach to new products and create new autonomous teams, mixing up the agile advocates with the local market experts.

Think of this approach as building a quiet revolution, starting a culture of exploration and small bets, built on a far stronger knowledge of customers and a rigorous analytical base.  I believe this is the (digital) future of publishing.

About the author

Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events.  Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on the topic of digital publishing strategy for media industry publishers and events. Follow Carolyn on twitter @carolynrmorgan

About the agile publisher project

The agile publisher is a research project dedicated to identifying examples of agile publishing and sharing best practice among specialist media businesses.  If you have an interesting story to share please get in touch – or follow @agilepublisher on twitter.