How to become an agile publisher

This article was previously published in In Publishing Magazine

Digital device proliferation, demanding customers, technical challenges, disruptive competition, lack of visibility…. No wonder traditional publishers are feeling 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?  And with digital advertising now making up over half of total UK adspend, while print ads continue their gentle decline, the impetus for change becomes ever stronger.

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 philosophy of agile 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 instead allows its teams to gradually push the boundaries of their market, their content and their technical capability, informed by close contact with customers, readers or users and a relentless focus on data and analytics.  This shift is as much about culture and organisation as it is about technology.

Here are my ten principles for a successful future as an agile publisher, plus some examples of smart media organisations that are already putting them into practice.

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, or even hire a customer to join your team.  Talk to customers individually, informally, over the phone or face to face, to really dig into how they use information sources to solve problems.  Identify different segments and explore how the product can be tailored for different situations. Explore user behaviour in nerdy detail, but watch out for problems that already have adequate solutions – they won’t make strong opportunities.

And embrace user complaints, for that was the source for one of niche b2b publisher Aroq’s new digital products according to Director of Product Development Andrew Leighton.  Aroq test all new ideas through exploratory, informal customer conversations.  Winning ideas are developed into a value proposition canvas. They build a simple prototype for new ideas, and then refine it two or three times based on user feedback before deciding whether to go ahead.

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.  Analytical data can then be evaluated alongside qualitative feedback from user groups and customer conversations.  And gradually user data will help refine and optimise content.

TeamRock, a niche music publisher, developed in-house a single login system, TRid, which enables subscribers to access content across multiple devices and brands, and provides the publisher with invaluable insight on what is being consumed by whom.

VK, a Swedish local newspaper who have developed a paid digital subscription that is now successfully attracting younger readers, invested time in detailed analysis of the behaviour of the 20% of their readers who visited the web site 20 or more times a week.

3. Watch the competition beyond usual horizons

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.

Niche consumer media in particular can learn from the experiences of B2B publishers whose highly segmented professional audiences made the digital transition earlier.  And specialist publishers can pick up ideas from local newspapers in Europe and the US, who have already experimented with digital paid content as their ad revenue fell.

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 surround them with good content, marketing, commercial, technical and project people.

Product managers with the full skill set are rare, so decide your priorities and support your product champion where they are weaker.

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.

Keep an open mind about business models – from completely free and ad-funded to premium paid subscriptions – and all the freemium shades of grey in between.

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, taking into account user feedback, analytics, commercial potential and internal competences.  Effective prioritisation based on user feedback can mean that up to 30-40% of the original requirements don’t in the end need to be built.

6.    Give them access to technical experts

Provide enough expert development resource to build robust, scalable solutions.  Digital native publishers, like Sift, Aroq and TeamRock, have their own in-house developers, which speeds up communication, but to employ all the expert skills takes some scale.  An alternative is to outsource, maybe to a mid-sized agency, but they have to feel part of the publishing team, and ultimately you may need to build development skills in-house.

If using an external developer, check that they are practised in agile methodology and can work closely with your publishing team.  Offshoring development can work, but it’s much harder to cross time, geographical and cultural divides, and the savings may be illusory.

7.    Place small bets, experiment and accept failure

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.

There’s a subtle shift in mindset required around dealing with “failure”: Ben Heald, CEO of Sift, believes that a product champion should be praised for running a controlled experiment with a clear result, even if the decision is not to proceed with the idea.

Keep it simple at first – create the “minimum viable product” that meets the user need.  TeamRock take this a step further: they release “just barely good enough” products, which is challenging for journalists but speeds up learning.

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.

Negative feedback can create opportunities – remember that new product at Aroq that was inspired by a customer complaint?  TeamRock run open design and innovation workshops for their teams – and analyse user data to optimise content.

9.    Push the boundaries further

As the product evolves, try to entrench it 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 features are hitting the spot.

Consider how to build distribution for your digital content: through branded websites, social media, and related channels to cross promote to your audience.  Small publisher TeamRock own a national radio station, and according to Co Founder Ciaran O’Toole, that has been more effective at promoting their products to rock fans than external paid marketing.

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 methodology to bigger markets and new products and create new autonomous teams, mixing up the agile advocates with the local market experts.

Swedish newspaper VK had to convince a sceptical newsroom of the value of rethinking their workflow for digital.  Key to their successful digital transformation was a mix of training, coaching, workshops, quality circles and small group meetings hosted by the CEO and editors to explain the reasons for the change.

So you can think of agile publishing 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, and where developers are an integral part of the team.  This I believe is what the (digital) future of publishing looks like.

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.

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 sector publishers and events.


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